Unison members employed by Glasgow Life, an “arms-length company” set up by Glasgow City Council, staged a series of protests last week to highlight their employer’s treatment of them as a second-class workforce.
They should have been on strike. But Glasgow Life, aided and abetted by the Legal Department of the Labour-controlled City Council, had latched onto a technicality in the Unison strike ballot, and had threatened the union with legal action if notice of the strike was not withdrawn.
At the core of the dispute is the demand for enhanced payments for the extra work generated by the Commonwealth Games currently underway in Glasgow.
Glasgow City Council and other arms-length companies it has set up in recent years have agreed to pay affected staff enhanced terms for the duration of the Games, such as higher overtime pay, paid lunch breaks, and one-off lump-sum payments.
But employees of Glasgow Life, which runs the city’s sports centres and museums, are to be paid only their normal rate of pay for any overtime work. Many workers have also had new shift patterns imposed upon them without their agreement.
The average wage of a full-time City Life employee is £18,000 a year. But most work only 30 hours a week and end up with an annual salary of just £16,500. The workforce relies on overtime to make ends meet.
In late June, Unison began a strike ballot of its members in Glasgow Life. It resulted in a 76% majority in favour of strike action. Unison gave Glasgow Life the required seven days' notice of strike action.
But then Glasgow Life and the Council’s Legal Department found a technical mistake, of no real-world significance whatsoever, in the wording of the letter sent by Unison to its members informing them of the strike.
Glasgow Life initiated legal proceedings to take the union to court. Unison then dropped the strike action and instead organized a series of public protests, including one at the ‘traditional’ venue in front of the City Chambers.
But then it was Glasgow City Council’s “turn” to take Unison to court. It applied to the Court of Session for an interim interdict banning the protest in front of the City Chambers, and also a protest at Kelvingrove Museum.
The Council argued that the protests were supposedly a covert attempt to persuade staff in the City Chambers and Kelvingrove Museum to go out on strike.
But this was too much even for a judge of the Court of Session. He threw the application out: there was no evidence that “the intended protest carries with it any form of illegality”, and the right to protest was part of the human right of freedom of speech and assembly.
The climbdown forced upon Unison by the threatened use of the Tories’ anti-union laws, despite the clear mandate in the ballot for strike action, underlines once again the undemocratic nature of those laws and the need for trade-union campaigning for their repeal.