A court says striking is not a core union activity, Labour’s silence could prove dangerous

Perhaps to distract from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lacklustre spring statement, Dominic Raab has been making the rounds of the right-wing press with his proposal for a new Bill of Rights. Intended as a replacement for the Human Rights Act 1998, the Bill of Rights aims to put an end to the “wokery and political correctness” that have “whittled away” free speech in the United Kingdom.

One might be inclined to ask, however, why the government is so insistent on pushing through this Bill of Rights, which is currently out for consultation and expected to appear in the next Queen’s Speech. The Court of Appeals ruled, 17 March, that workers under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 are not protected against punishment for participating in strikes. In its judgement, the court noted that this was despite the protections seemingly offered by the Human Rights Act, Article 11 of which states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [their] interests.”

According to the Lord Chief Justice, striking is not necessarily a necessary part of trade unionism. If this is the case, then the essence of what legitimises industrial action lies not with affected workers, who do not – and cannot – simply walk out on strike, but with the courts, likely when the strike is already a fait accompli. What the Court of Appeals and the Business Secretary – who took the case to the court – expect trade unions to do now is unknown. Although the court stated that it did not infringe upon workers’ rights to organise, what does a trade union mean if they do not have recourse to industrial action.

The government’s interest in this case is evident. It complements the notorious Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. The Labour Party successfully challenged government on the worst aspects of this Bill as it passed through Parliament. Labour should also protest the gross violation of the Human Rights Act.


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Whilst there will always be an internal debate within Labour on the power – or lack thereof – held by the eleven remaining affiliated unions. All Labour members and MPs may not be dyed in wool trade unionists. This is not a good thing for the party’s future. It is important to remember that the party was founded by the trade union movement. Even though the party has become diluted, it remains the primary political voice of the movement. A large portion of the funding for the party comes from affiliated unions. This cashflow benefits both sides of the internal debate. The party faces an existential danger – both financial and ideological – if this link between trade unions and the party is lost.

In May, when the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) meets for its annual conference, we will learn of the outcome of the internal struggle at the heart of the train drivers’ union. The struggle is the same one that led to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) dramatically disaffiliating from Labour at the 2021 party conference. If, as is expected, ASLEF’s disaffiliation faction wins the day, Labour faces the loss of two affiliates in as many years. It is possible that more unions will follow BFAWU’s lead if the party and its leadership fail in their resistance to the government’s affront to labour rights. It will, at the very minimum, prevent campaigning unions such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers from ever re-affiliating to Labour.

Even if Labour does eventually find its trade unionist voice, it is unlikely that many trade unionists will warm to Keir Starmer’s leadership. Notwithstanding, there is now an opportunity for Sir Keir to act – and to try and protect the fundamental rights of trade unionists in this country. Labour must speak up and speak out if it is to maintain its raison d’être and defend workers’ rights.