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How Workers Won Big at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court's Kostal decision is a victory for workers, protecting collective bargaining from bullying bosses – now it's time for a revival of the workers' movement to make these rights real in the workplace.

Urgent legislation to ban firms from bribing and cajoling workers to undermine collective bargaining agreements must be passed in the light of the landmark Supreme Court ruling against practices such as those in the Kostal case. As my old firm Thompsons Solicitors has quite rightly pointed out, this case was a landmark: the first union collective bargaining rights to be decided upon by the UK’s highest court.

The Supreme Court ruling is clear. It says that the right of unions to collective bargaining must be meaningful and bargaining procedures cannot be by-passed even on a single occasion. This amounts to a shining ray of hope for the trade union movement during these dark times, against a backdrop of a decade of Tory misrule and the horror of Covid-19.

The ruling came after a challenge by Unite the union, which deserves great credit. Their decision to press ahead with legal action came in response to Kostal threatening to withhold a Christmas bonus to workers unless they waived the right to representation by the union in pay negotiations. This was despite the fact that union members had overwhelmingly voted for such a collective agreement.

The decision handed down by the UK’s highest court against such abuses is a huge victory for Unite members, who have doggedly and courageously fought against what is a Tammany Hall approach to industrial relations. But it is also a victory for the trade union movement and workers’ rights more generally.

Threatening workers with the loss of bonuses, holiday entitlement, and other hard-earned benefits is a practice that Al Capone and other gangland bosses in 1930s Chicago would have been proud to employ. Unite’s newly-elected general secretary Sharon Graham is absolutely right to describe the Supreme Court ruling as momentous. It is one that will deliver tangible benefits to every worker in the workplace.

However, given the widespread use of zero-hour contracts, and the growth in the so called ‘gig economy’ alongside the ongoing erosion of workers’ rights that so many UK citizens have to live with on a day-to-day basis, the judgement itself is obviously not enough. We cannot discount the possibility that unscrupulous bosses will seek to get around this ruling by various means, or use other bullying tactics to undermine the rights of workers.

That’s why the government must—as a matter of urgency—bring forward legislation that explicitly forbids any business from penalising workers involved in collective bargaining agreements, either through the loss of benefits or by offering inducements in order to entice staff to opt out of such arrangements.

Ministers must publish watertight proposals that make such approaches a criminal offence with heavy fines and other tough legal penalties for breaking the law. As welcome as the Supreme Court judgement was, we cannot allow workers’ rights to be based purely on the principle of legal precedent.

Solid legislation guaranteeing those rights is needed now on the statue book. This must be part of a wider framework of employment rights that protects workers across Britain. After the tragedy of Covid, when countless lives were lost, alongside the massive battering that people’s living standards have taken, we need a new settlement for workers.

A living wage of £15 per hour, which I and many other comrades in the labour and trade union movement have campaigned for, must be its cornerstone in order to drive up living standards, and give workers the additional spending power necessary to revive the economy.

It must also include an outright ban on zero-hour contracts, and a right to protection from unfair dismissal from day one of a workers’ employment, as well as full sick pay and holiday pay for all.
But underpinning all of this must be a new legislative framework that empowers workers in the workplace—and allows them to exercise and to defend rights which often feel like they only exist on paper.

Collective action and acts of solidarity have been attacked and undermined by restrictive anti-union laws since at least the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s government. In post-pandemic Britain, we have a once-in-a generation opportunity to open the next chapter of our democracy by bringing real democracy to the workplace.

We need a programme of workplace reform to restore the balance between employer and worker by installing basic trade union rights in law once again. And the Labour Party must demand that we begin to transform the world of work in this way.

This government has made many claims about its desire to help workers. One measure it could take is a new Ministry of Labour, which would give workers a stronger voice in parliament, as well as champion sectoral collective bargaining to raise wages and conditions, and overseeing the repeal of dangerous anti-trade union legislation.

This means more than repealing the pernicious Trade Union Act passed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, which so unjustly subverts the rights of workers to take industrial action in support of their living standards. In this new era, we must go further.

We need a ‘New Deal’ for workers that will allow those impacted by unfair decisions in their workplace to take sympathy action on the basis of supporting fellow workers. It is only through collective action—the strength that is found in numbers—that the power of organised wealth can be challenged effectively. Recent decades of attacks on unions and commensurate stagnation in pay and conditions make that clear.

So yes, let us celebrate this historic ruling over collective bargaining in the aftermath of the Kostal case. After many years where workers found little comfort in the law, it has the potential to be a real step forward.

But let it be the first step in a new movement for workers’ rights and a post-Covid New Deal for workers; one which includes the repeal of outdated and undemocratic restrictions on the rights of workers to withdraw their labour.

We have a world to win. Today, it looks just a little bit closer.