The High Court ruling against the planned British Airways cabin crew strike is not simply the outcome of a clearly partisan decision by Mr Justice McCombe. It is also the result of more than two decades of fearful inaction on the part of the trade union leaders.
Strike action did not become illegal only with yesterday’s ruling that a ballot of BA cabin crew was invalid because of failure to notify members about 13 spoiled ballot papers in an 81% vote in favour of action. For the abolition of the right to strike you have to go back to a series of anti-union laws passed by the 1979-1997 Tory government.
The law that was cited by the judge to block 20 days of planned strike action in defence of jobs and against victimisation was actually passed in 1992. And the union leaders have done nothing to challenge this or any other aspect of the anti-union legislation ever since. This is especially the case in relation to laws banning solidarity action as well as the requirement to hold a postal ballot.
As a result, strikes have often been ineffective and isolated with the union bureaucracy running scared of massive compensation claims by the employers. As it is, the Unite union could still face a £250,000 bill for strikes against BA in March as a result of yesterday’s judgement.
We mustn’t forget the legacy of the last 13 years of New Labour government either. Tony Blair once boasted that the laws restricting strike action were the toughest in Europe. So they were and that’s how they remained until Brown left Downing Street last week. And yet union leaders, especially Unite’s, continued to send the cheques through even though campaigns for the repeal of Tory anti-union laws fell on deaf ears.
There were, naturally, lots of fine words from the joint general secretaries of Unite, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson outside the High Court. They said: "This judgment is an absolute disgrace and will rank as a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action. Its implication is that it is now all but impossible to take legally protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds."
Leaving aside the concessions Unite has offered BA in terms of reducing its wages bill and accepting a two-tier workforce, this statement would mean something more if it were a call to action to ignore a law that clearly denies cabin crew their human rights. Instead, Unite is relying on the Court of Appeal to find in their favour.
Even if the appeal is won, the employers will be back time and time again to frustrate workers (this is the second time BA alone has won in the courts). The technicalities of the postal ballot were largely ignored for a long period. But the recession has brought the employers out of the woodwork. Just before Christmas, the RMT rail union was prevented from going ahead with strikes over jobs.
After the BA ruling, Bob Crow, the RMT general secretary, said: "We warned after the [Easter] judgment that it bent the anti-trade union laws even further in favour of the employers and so it has proved. There is no doubt that this new Con-Dem government wants to effectively outlaw strikes in publicly used services before they swing the axe at our hospitals, schools and fire stations, and the courts are the battering ram to make that happen."
The trade unions were built in the face of laws that banned combinations, sent workers to prison, deported them to Australia and victimised activists. Protecting the funds of the unions such as they were was of secondary concern. Crow is right about what’s to come as the massive cuts programme bites. Workers cannot resist with one hand tied behind their backs by laws that prevent effective action. It’s time for union leaders to put up or shut up, to defy the anti-union laws or go meekly to the slaughter.