The High Court has banned industrial action by guards on Midland Mainline, in a case which shows the blatant class bias of Britain's anti-union laws.
Midland Mainline operates multiple-unit trains, which have no connecting door. This effectively divides the train into two halves. Guards and their union, RMT, believe that there should therefore be a guard in each part of the train.
The company, though, insisted on only one guard per train. In an emergency - such as a derailment - the guard would be cut off from one half of the train, unable to help passengers or carry out essential safety procedures.
Fearful for their - and the passengers' - safety, the guards refused to operate the trains unless the inaccessible portion was locked out of use. RMT balloted the 100 guards involved for industrial action, and 90% voted Yes.
But on Friday 14th January, the High Court ruled the ballot illegal on the grounds that it was 'tainted' by the action that the guards were already taking. The judge used a law explicitly designed to stop unions making unofficial action official. The effect of the law is to reduce the ability of rank-and-file members to pressure their leaders into organising action - even when their leaders are willing to do so!
RMT ‘repudiated’ the action, but the judge was unimpressed. So even if the unionhumbles itself before the bosses and their courts, it does not necessarily get out of trouble - it might just get another kick. There’s a lesson there.
The guards were not even taking 'unofficial industrial action' - they were asserting their legal right to refuse to work on safety grounds.
Because of this, it may be that RMT did not need to ballot the guards, but could instead have concentrated on giving full support to their refusal to work. But that is a matter for RMT and its members, not for unelected, unaccountable, octagenarian, public-school-educated, high court judges!
As we said in the last issue of Off The Rails (about EWS’s injunction against its own workers), “the courts are not there to uphold justice, fairness or morality (any more than the police are there to help old ladies across the road). They are there to do the employer's bidding, and to stop us fighting back.
“Over the last two decades, our unions have been shackled by a series of laws designed to stop us fighting for workers' rights - exhaustive ballot procedures, bans on 'political' strikes and solidarity action, limits on numbers of pickets. Introduced by the Tories, these laws are now being kept on the statute books by New Labour.”
RMT's Executive is still considering its options about appealing the injunction and how to take the dispute forward.
The trade union movement should rally round RMT - as it should any union in this position. As Bob Crow rightly said, this ruling "will give employers far more scope to claim that ballots are 'tainted' - and that has serious implications for the whole trade union movement".
The union and the guards should continue with their action. Injunction or no injunction, workers have the legal right to refuse to work on safety grounds, and if we do not use this right, we will lose it.
Finally, the issue that has provoked this dispute affects drivers too, so ASLEF should bring Midland Mainline's drivers into the action - if drivers and guards unite, and the unions stand together against the repressive anti-union laws, then we can win.