In the end, it was one judge who decided that one statement from a single manager would cancel the wishes of 110,000 workers.
At the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday afternoon, Mr Justice Swift ruled that Communication Workers Union (CWU) members energetically campaigning for a national strike action vote were involved in a “form of subversion”, and the 97% yes vote – that was received on a 75% turnout – represented “improper interference” into the balloting process. The judge ruled, therefore, in favour of Royal Mail, pushing back any chances that there would be a strike during the general election campaign.
It didn’t matter that not a single complaint was made to the Royal Mail, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), or the government’s certification officer from any of the 110,000 people being balloted that their right to vote was in any way interfered with.
The CWU did not allow the ballot result to be subject to the conservatising process demanded by Britain’s draconian anti-union laws, where workers make decisions in their own homes, isolated from the arguments of their workmates or union reps, but less immune to what Rupert Murdoch or television right-wingers might think.
Instead, they engaged in a vibrant campaign that saw workers make videos of themselves dancing to Michael Jackson while posting their ballot, or dressing up like Spiderman to encourage their colleagues to vote “yes”. Thousands of gate meetings were held across the country to alert workers to the dangers posed by Royal Mail’s wishes to fragment the postal service, and go cold on agreements about workplace conditions, working hours and pensions.
The campaign also allowed thousands of workers to stand tall against a growing culture of bullying and increasing surveillance in the workplace, and to feel part of a positive movement against Royal Mail’s attacks on their quality of life.
This activity was interpreted by the courts as a “de facto workplace ballot”. The CWU was guilty of communicating workplace issues with workers too effectively, the unprecedented numbers of workers agreeing with the union a mere sign of deeper implication.
This is the fix of Britain’s anti-union laws. On the one hand, they treat ballots as if they are national elections – implying that the union overseeing them can’t organise effectively to encourage workers to vote for strike action and imposing an even higher standard on the secrecy of the ballot than even our electoral process by saying it must be conducted on your own in your home.
On the other hand, trade unions are expected to meet turnout thresholds that don’t apply to national elections. If this year’s European elections were subject to the conditions of the 2016 Trade Union Act, they would have been voided – only 37% of people voted, whereas unions are expected to achieve 50%. So, too, would council elections. And the previous European elections, and the previous council elections.
Unions in Britain face what amounts to a rigged system: enormous requirements for participation combined with stringent conditions that amount to voter suppression. If the same terms were applied to elections, it would be a national scandal. But our mainstream media have ignored the fact that, since the trade union laws were introduced in 2016, there has yet to be a single national strike of any significant scale.
The victory may be a pyrrhic one for Royal Mail and its Switzerland-based CEO, Rico Back. This court decision will make him only new enemies, and the CWU may well decide to begin balloting members again – this time could involve no consultation time, and may result in a bitter Christmas strike which would do untold damage to Royal Mail’s profits. It will likely isolate him further among Royal Mail shareholders, who have already revolted over the company falling out of the FTSE 100 on his watch, as well as his £5,800,000 “golden hello” which he received last year as a financial incentive to take the job.
But Back’s problems are also political. In a statement outside the court, the CWU’s general secretary Dave Ward defiantly said that all workers need to “wake up and recognise” that the government has “deliberately stacked the rules against workers in favour of the constituency they were born to serve – which is big business and the establishment.”
Since the Taff Vale dispute in the early twentieth century, opposing the outrages of the rich man’s court against the worker has been a cause of labour. But this election, the Labour Party is particularly on the side of workers, and is acutely aware of the growing public sentiment that a small gang of asset-strippers and privateers are wrecking Britain’s national institutions and public services – while workers are being told they can’t fight back.
Rico Back and his management friends may have stopped their workers from exercising their right to withdraw their labour for now. But there is a tide building. 110,000 postal workers don’t vote for a strike on a whim – and they won’t go quietly into that good night just because of an establishment stitch-up.