The right to picket is such a fundamental one that it is even protected in the Human Rights Act – it sits right alongside others such as the right to life and a fair trial. It is the most powerful tool in any worker’s arsenal and goes hand-in-hand with taking legal strike action.
But like all rights, they must be fiercely defended from those in power who will always seek a chance to violate them when we are at our most vulnerable.
Workers for the bus manufacturing firm Optare, resolute in their fight for fair pay, began a series of strike actions in October after bosses repeatedly broke promises to award them a pay rise. The company first pledged a pay rise in August 2019 to be awarded in November the same year, but a year later, the workers – who are paid significantly less than staff at comparable firms – were still waiting.
The company continued to equivocate and eventually refused ‘point blank’ to award their hard-working staff the long-promised pay rise – despite the firm being owned by the UK’s second richest men, billionaires Srichand Gopichand and Prakash Hinduja.
It was the last straw for the Optare workers who overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action in October. In November, as was their right, they formed a picket line as their latest work stoppage began.
Knowing full well the gravity of the pandemic, they adhered to the strictest Covid safety standards in line with all lockdown restrictions – they were socially distanced, all wore masks and brought hand sanisiters, and numbers on the picket line were purposely limited. What’s more, the striking workers had also put in place a track-and-trace system.
“We had taken every possible safety measure to ensure the safety of those engaged in this lawful action and to be frank they are probably safer outside on the picket line than they would be inside the workplace,” explained Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett.
Despite every possible safety measure being in place, their picket attracted the attention of the North Yorkshire Police, who insisted that they desist from picketing and warned the workers if they returned they would be issued with penalty notices for breaking lockdown rules.
Unite’s legal team, led by Howard Beckett, knew this was a step too far and swiftly brought forward a legal challenge against the government, specifically against the secretary of state for health and social care, as well as the chief constable of North Yorkshire Police.
Unite’s legal case was based on the right to picket being a fundamental right protected by the Human Rights Act.
Only a week after police forbade workers from picketing, a judicial review was to be heard on the matter in the High Court thanks to Unite’s legal challenge.
But in the eleventh hour, the government withdrew and conceded that the right to picket should be upheld. Now, not only could the striking Optare workers continue their pickets, but every single striking worker in the UK has had their right to picket protected.
“This is a vital victory for the entire labour movement,” Beckett said. “The right to picket is fundamental and is one of the few actions that workers are legally entitled to use following a lawful ballot for strike action. Without the right to picket the very essence of the right to withdraw their labour is undermined.”
“Unite’s members at Optare were holding a legal picket and abiding by strict social distancing rules,” Beckett emphasised. “They had been told their workplace was safe for them to continue working, yet the police claimed that a picket outside the workplace contravened the lockdown rules. The decision by the police to break up that picket was wrong – and the government has now conceded it was wrong.”
Beckett went on to say that Unite would not allow either company bosses or the government to use the Covid pandemic as a smokescreen to undermine workers’ rights.
“Far too often during this crisis we’ve seen opportunistic employers take advantage, such as with fire and rehire contracts. But we’ve also seen an opportunistic government,” he noted. “We’ve seen a government that’s forced through the Covert Human Surveillance bill in less than three hours’ debate in the House of Commons. We’ve seen a government try to restrict our civil liberties.
“Well it’s a step too far whenever they try to restrict our right to picket,” Beckett vowed. “The right to withdraw labour is fundamental for all trade unionists and all workers in our nations. And Unite has protected that right by making the government stand down and making them uphold our right to picket during this crisis.
“For however long this crisis lasts, this victory on picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account.”
By Hajera Blagg
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list