The Plastic Hippo

May 19, 2010

Black flags over Walsall

Filed under: History,Law,Rights,Transport — theplastichippo @ 1:09 pm

The new face of loony left anarchy

The 1892 Walsall anarchist bomb plot was foiled by spurious evidence and dubious confessions and it turned out that the entire plot was an elaborate sting organised by Special Branch. But the anarchists are back; only this time they are in the skies above us serving tea and coffee on inbound 747s overflying Walsall.

The prerogative to withdraw labour is one of the basic differences between a free society and slavery. All eight sets of legislation introduced during the Thatcher and Major years designed to curb the rights of employees and trade unions still enshrined the right to strike. That was a civil liberty too far even for the Iron Lady.

When loss-making British Airways decided to cut the levels of cabin crew and introduce a pay freeze, the union Unite balloted for strike action. It was clear from the outset that the violent, life-or-death industrial pitched battles of the 80`s are unlikely to be repeated. This did not stop the barristers and sections of the press branding cabin crew as anarchists plotting the downfall of all we hold precious. The riot squads and mounted police, however, are unlikely to be needed unless there are legions of muscle-bound, brick-throwing Trotskyist air hostesses and stewards waiting to bring down international capitalism from their secret bunkers in Surrey tanning salons.

This dispute might result in the denial of the right of legitimate trade unions to organise lawful industrial action in the future and, if it is the end of Trade Unionism, there is a beautiful symmetry to the beginnings of the hard won struggle for a fair days pay for a fair days work.

In 1832, at about the time of the introduction of the Reform Act, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in Tolpuddle, Dorset to protest against wage cuts for farm workers. A local landowner outraged at such impertinence, wrote to the Prime Minister citing an obscure law that states the action of swearing an oath with fellow members of a union was illegal. The six men, including George Loveless, a local Methodist preacher, were tried, convicted and transported to Australia. Their martyrdom led to the founding of the Trade Union movement.

Fast forward 178 years and the Chief Executive of a failing company, outraged at the impertinence of his employees, instructs his learned friends to cite an obscure sub-section of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It seems that Unite did not adequately inform its membership of 11 spoilt ballot papers and so a judge in High Court ruled the vote invalid and granted an injunction outlawing the strike. 80% of the 12,000 Unite members working for British Airways voted in the strike ballot; 81% were in favour of industrial action.

The 1992 Act, a descendant of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, has more to do with the Industrial Revolution than the 21st century Communications Revolution. The legislation assumes that groups of disgruntled artisans are gathered in workhouse factories and dark, satanic mills and not scattered around the planet rotating aircraft in Los Angles, Rio, Singapore or, with delicious irony, transporting people to Australia. A union convenor would need a pretty loud voice to inform his branch members of 11 spoilt ballot papers.

This is not the first time the technical minutia of the Act has been used to take out an injunction to block industrial action. A lawful walk-out by the RMT rail union was blocked by a judge who, as with the Unite case, considered the use of the internet, texts, e-mails, leaflets and notices as being insufficient under the terms of the Act. Instead, each union member should have been sent a letter detailing the full results of the ballot. If, in this digital age, the Act is to be used to obstruct the right to strike, expect an amendment that requires the letters to be hand-written on parchment using a feather quill and conveyed by carrier pigeon.

The imposition of the injunction produced an immediate appeal, the result of which will produce another appeal and a third ballot. The attempt to halt the strike using legal technicalities is a little like making it illegal for a volcano to erupt. Interestingly, the loss of passenger revenue has brought about a change in the rules and regulations surrounding the ash being produced by the Icelandic volcano whose name newsreaders dare not speak. Apparently it is now safe to fly through twice the level of ash than previously thought. As profits plummet, safety parameters will become increasing lax.

The rigid application of a law introduced at the dawn of the Communications Revolution might give short-term comfort to British Airways and its lawyers but it is likely to provoke an epic battle over what unions consider to be the inalienable right to withdraw labour.

If the law regarding the issue of spoilt ballot papers were applied to the inconclusive result of the general election, what would the judges make of the people disenfranchised by being turned away from polling stations? The numbers of people not allowed to vote might not have altered the final results in the constituencies involved, but if 11 spoilt strike ballots is cause for a valid injunction, a locked polling station means that this coalition government is void.

So keep an eye on those vapour trails coming in from the direction of Essington at 30,000 feet. The chances are an anarchist is setting the doors to manual.

*** UPDATE ***

Two out three judges at the Court of Appeal upheld the case for the Unite union proving that two out of three judges are not fools. A series of strikes are likely to start as early as next Monday and will continue until just before the start of the football world cup in South Africa unless an agreement is made. The decision sets a precedent that will make it impossible for managements to deny the right to strike on irrelevant legal technicalities.

It is still not clear if British Airways will re-instate the union officials who were suspended for organising the now legal ballot or allow travel concessions taken away from staff who had the impertinence to vote in favour of industrial action.

Having successfully swelled the bank balances of umpteen lawyers, British Airways will be considering their next move. The more vocal anarchists walking backwards down the aircraft aisle pulling a trolley might find themselves rostered to Bangkok with a three week stop-over. They know how to deal with protesters in Thailand.

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