Thursday, 1 April 2010

The anti-justice system and bullying managements

Network Rail has launched a legal challenge to try to get a national rail strike by the RMT and TSSA delayed. They are citing ‘irregularities’ in the strike ballot, which will be eerily familiar to BA cabin crew. According to the BBC, the legal challenge contains a written document which states:

“The strike will have the effect of preventing about 80% of all rail services in the UK, so causing immense damage to the economy, to businesses depending on rail for freight and/or transport of commuting workers, and to a great many individual rail users.”

I’m sorry, what? How does the potential effectiveness of any strike have any bearing on whether or not the ballot was legal? Would the supposed ballot ‘irregularities’ have ceased to exist if only 30% of rail services were being cancelled? What about 50%? Before Christmas, the BA strike was postponed by a court injunction. Similarly, Mrs Justice Cox said when making her ruling:

“A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year.”

So I suppose the ‘irregularities’ in the cabin crews’ strike ballot would have been less ‘illegal’ at a quieter time of year? All this begs the question, are strikes being ruled illegal because they might actually be effective? Do we now only have the right to withdraw our labour as long as no-one gets annoyed about it?

The complex anti-union laws that govern balloting, brought in by the Tories and maintained under 13 years of a Labour government, are designed to make it as difficult as possible for a group of workers to strike, and give managements enough time to prepare if a strike does go ahead.

Also this week, the cop who was up for assaulting a protester at last year’s G20 summit got off. He admitted to repeatedly striking her with a baton after mistaking her carton of orange juice for a weapon. It’s good to know police training doesn’t extend as far as being able to distinguish household objects from deadly weapons from a few feet away.

It has long been the case that in practice, the burden of proof falls a different way for police officers. If I beat someone repeatedly with a metal stick for threatening me with a dangerous Ribena, I would have to prove that I was acting in self-defence. The police officer got off because there was apparently no evidence that he wasn’t acting in self-defence.

Back to the strikes: Increasingly the justice system is being used as the first avenue of attack by bosses who are used to getting their own way. We shouldn’t be surprised. A common accusation in all the recent industrial disputes that have blown up into national stories has been that there exists a culture of bullying in the workplace. This was the case in the bus drivers’ dispute in South Yorkshire last year, where drivers actually voted ‘No’ to striking against a pay freeze, but overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ to striking against harsh disciplinary procedures. And just ask any BA picket what they think of their management. British Gas workers, too have voted overwhelmingly to strike, after the GMB union found that a staggering 85% of them regarded management bullying to be a problem.

Imagine, rolling out across every industry, every workplace, a generation of managers who walk straight into desk jobs, who have never done the same work as the people they are ‘in charge’ of, and who have no idea what to do when the tacky models they learned on their Management Studies courses encounter resistance when they try to force them on real people. Just like a schoolyard bully who can’t get what he wants, they throw a tantrum. Unlike the bully, though, they have powerful friends in positions of authority who will help them.

Imagine, in every industry and every workplace, a generation of workers entering jobs with no idea of what their rights are at work, with no union representation, who have had their expectations of what working life is going to be like lowered by their first experiences of service sector jobs where you have to smile while you’re treated like shit. Where the bosses expect you to stay late after your paid hours, just to help us finish something off, it’ll only take half an hour, maybe an hour, here’s a free phone in case we need to reach you at home…

People only have good working conditions because they stood up and fought for them. That’s why the whole of the working class can’t afford these strikes to fail.


  1. Just a point about the police officer self defence thing: For everyone, police and civilian alike, all that needs to be proved to successfully use self defence is that you actually believed that you were in danger. So, if *anyone* mistook a juice carton for a weapon they would be covered by the defence.

  2. Hey Edd, I agree it's a real shame that a strike has again been delayed because of a technicality, but do you not think that the union has really left themselves open to this? By the sounds of things the ballot was nothing short of shambolic, and though I'm only going off what I've heard in the news, if only half of the made allegations were true then RMT only have themselves to blame for court case and it's outcome today.

    This twinned with the fact that they seem completely unable to use the media to their advantage and it is no wonder that the general public have reacted so negatively to the strikes. The mainstream media were always going to be anti-union, but RMT have done themselves no favours, and it's a shame because they need public support. All of the above could be said about Unite and the respective BA strikes. Like you said, we can't afford for the strikes to fail, which is why it's so unbelievable that RMT and Unite have both let themselves fuck up so grandly. At the end of the day it is the union members who have lost out, and if they are to win their fight they need a strong, effective union behind them, and it unfortunately seems this is not the case.

    Moving to the subject of police brutality, I thought you should see this article, with footage, concerning the disgusting policing at last Sunday's game that I was telling you about. It seems more that a little ironic for this article to come out on the first anniversary of the death of Ian Tomlinson. Obviously nothing has changed.

  3. Hey Selena. Yep I realise that the burden of proof is on paper the same whoever you are. I guess the point is more that the word of a police officer is taken as gospel just because they are a police officer. I'm not sure people would believe me if I said I'd mistaken some juice for a deadly weapon.

    Hamza, there's a good post here about why the law makes it almost impossible to have a ballot without "defects":

    I agree that union leaderships could handle these disputes in the media better. For example, Unite should let BA cabin crew explain in their own words what's going on more, rather than having "national officers" going on TV all the time. But it's difficult when the media is so anti-union.

    I'm not sure that people are as hostile to these strikes as you think, but this impossible to tell for sure. Again the media is to blame. They prefer giving "tell us what you think" pages for anti-union people to spew bile from the comfort of their computer keyboard, rather than say, actually doing so representative surveys to gauge the level of public support.

  4. The problem of workplace bullying is widespread in the UK and elsewhere. The solution of this problem requires the involvement and commitment of politicians and lawmakers. They can be motivated by the people they represent through a petition. If you are a UK citizen or resident please sign the petition at
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