Strasbourg to rule on UK anti-strike laws



The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule soon on whether to accept a legal challenge lodged by Britain’s RMT transport workers’ union against UK laws restricting the right to strike.

The RMT – the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers - claims rights to association and peaceful assembly enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights are violated by British laws introduced in the early 1990s.

The laws impose complex conditions on strike ballots and prohibit ‘secondary’ actions where workers down tools in support for strikes elsewhere.

Recent reports in the British press that the court in Strasbourg, France, had agreed to take on the case provoked angry complaints from Conservative politicians.

London Mayor Boris Johnson was quoted telling the Daily Mail it would be "totally unacceptable" for the European court to relax Britain’s restrictions on strike action.

Instead, he insisted there was a "need right now for tighter laws on vexatious strikes."

Officials in Strasbourg told Equal Times the ECHR is still considering the admissibility of the case.

They said the court has written to the RMT and the British government seeking more details on the specific cases which triggered the legal action. Under the British laws, unions must notify companies in advance if they are planning to ballot members on a strike and provide details of the categories of workers to be balloted.

In 2009, following a pay dispute at the power company EDF Energy Powerlink, RMT informed the company it would ballot engineers and technicians on a possible strike.

However the company claimed it did not recognise the term ‘technician’ and successfully applied for a court injunction to forbid the strike.

The second case before the European Court involved a strike at a company called Hydrex Equipment (UK) Ltd, in 2009, when union members at two firms working closely with Hydrex were prevented from holding a sympathy stoppage.

RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said back in 2010 that the union had been forced to turn to the European court because the "fundamental human right to withdraw labour has been systematically undermined."

Lawyers representing the union are confident the Strasbourg court will rule in the union’s favour.

They point to 2009 findings by a Committee of Experts at the International Labour Organisation which cited the need to simplify strike ballot regulations in the UK and ensure the laws on secondary strikes comply with ILO conventions.

"Workers should be able to participate in sympathy strikes, provided the initial strike they are supporting is lawful, and to take industrial action in relation to social and economic matters which affect them, even though the direct employer may not be a party to the dispute," the ILO Committee said.

The lawyers also noted that the European Committee of Social Rights had found in 2010 that "excessive" British laws on strike ballots infringed the European Social Charter.

Meanwhile, a scheme proposed by the British finance minister George Osborne to induce workers to give up labour rights – such as parental leave or protection against unfair dismissal – in exchange for shares in their company provoked an angry reaction last week in the European Parliament.

"This proposal is atrocious, abusing the financial pressures and worries affecting employees and substituting labour rights for a pay off," said Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. "This proposal goes against all the European values we stand for."