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Building worker power

Essays on collective rights 20 years after the Wilson and Palmer case established the right to be represented by a trade union
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Research and reports
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By Sue Ferns, TUC President & Senior Deputy General Secretary, Prospect

On July 2, 2002, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) made a ruling of huge significance to working people in the UK and further afield.

Its judgment in Wilson and Palmer v the United Kingdom held that employer attempts to offer sweeteners to workers to give up collective agreements violated international law, notably article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was also the first time the court had been seen to embrace trade union rights.

The TUC is publishing this essay collection to mark the 20th anniversary of this crucial case which provides an opportunity to both assess the impact of that judgment and assess the current state of trade union rights in the UK.

The case, Wilson and National Union of Journalists, Palmer and NURMTW  RMT, Doolan and others v United Kingdom to give it its full name, led to an overhaul of British union legislation a few years later.

And the principles the Wilson and Palmer case embedded are continuing to influence union legal cases today.

The case began life 13 years earlier.

Daily Mail journalist David Wilson received a letter from his employer telling him that it was not going to renew its recognition agreement with the National Union of Journalists.

On top of this, any journalist who signed a personal contract with the company before the expiry of the agreement  was given a 4.5 per cent pay rise.

Meanwhile, RMT member, Terence Palmer worked for the ports in Southampton.

His employer offered him an individual contract, coupled with a 10 per cent pay increase, but on the condition that he would cease to be represented by the union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

The men took their cases to industrial tribunals arguing that these actions by employers violated their rights not to have action taken against them to prevent or deter them from joining a trade union or penalise them for doing so.

So, a lengthy legal tussle ensued with a Conservative government intervening to help bolster the law in favour of employers who seek to derecognise a union before the ECtHR made its crucial ruling.

As Professor Keith Ewing sets out, the legislative reforms that the Labour government undertook in the wake of the ECtHR judgment both fell short and went further than anticipated.

Some of the effects of that were felt when workers recently won another significant case concerning employer inducements in Kostal UK v Dunkley, a judgment explored by Stuart Brittenden and Michael Ford QC in their essay.

Yet, as Rachel Halliday argues in her contribution, the legal landscape continues to be very hostile for trade unions.

This reached a particular low point, as Professor Alan Bogg delves into, with the no-notice sackings of 800 seafarers at P&O earlier this year.

Shantha David’s contribution warns that the human rights law that has underpinned the development of collective rights in recent years is now in the sights of ministers via the Bill of Rights.

Crucially the Wilson & Palmer case shows the multiple fronts on which unions can fight and win to secure important rights for their members.

Recruiting and organising will always be crucial. But well-executed strategic cases at the right moment can play an important role in safeguarding and extending the legal framework in which unions operate.

Supportive legislation is also crucial.

Today, trade unionists find themselves once more battling bad employers intent on exploiting the loopholes in the law and ministers willing to aid and abet them.

But David Wilson and Terence Palmer did not give up on their fight.

So today’s trade unionists must continue to fight for collective rights that allow us to secure the pay and protections that members deserve.

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