On November 13, Friday, the UK government clarified in the High Court that workers taking lawful industrial action have a right to picket their workplace during the COVID-19 lockdown. The government was forced to take a position in the court in a landmark lawsuit filed by the Unite Union against the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the secretary of state for health and social care for threatening a picket organized by workers. Trade unions have hailed the development as a significant victory for the country’s workers who are in distress due to the insensitivity of the government and the employers during the COVID-19 crisis.
Unite moved the court on November 6 following an incident at a workers’ picket at the Optare bus factory in Sherburn, Elmet. Workers of Leeds-based bus manufacturer Optare had started their strike action over what they called the company’s broken promise to provide a pay increase for 2019 and 2020. The protesting workers were moved by the police, despite them adhering to social distancing norms. They were also warned that if they returned, penalty notices would be issued against them for breaking lockdown rules.
Following the government’s submission on Friday, Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “this is a vital victory for the entire labor movement. The right to picket is fundamental and is one of the few actions that workers are legally entitled to use following a lawful ballot for strike action. Without the right to picket, the very essence of the right to withdraw their labor is undermined.”
He stated that Unite’s members at Optare were holding a legal picket and abiding by strict social distancing rules. They had been told that their workplace was safe for them to continue working, yet the police claimed that a picket outside the workplace contravened the lockdown rules. The decision by the police to break up the picket was wrong, and the government has now conceded that it was wrong, Beckett said.
“We have seen opportunistic employers take advantage of this crisis with ‘fire and rehire’, seeking to have workers pay for this crisis with their terms and conditions. For however long this crisis lasts, this victory on picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account,” he added.
Unite has reiterated that “the lockdown regulations must be interpreted consistently with the internationally recognized fundamental right to picket, protected by the Human Rights Act”. Unite is now awaiting a formal confirmation by the court on the right to picket by way of a court order.