On 13 November, the company secured a court injunction again the union to prevent strike action on, it seems, two grounds – ballot irregularities, and the scale of potential disruption. But this could well make things worse – and strikes more likely.
The scale of the vote – both in terms of turnout and those saying Yes to industrial action – shows the depth of dissatisfaction amongst the workforce. The irregularities brought before the court essentially consist of several instances of union members filling in their ballot papers in public, rather than in private
This is indeed an irregularity given the way in which the relevant legislation is written. But although the company presented around 70 illustrations of the same “irregularity”, this shouldn’t invalidate a 97% majority. Indeed, there seem to have been zero complaints to either the union or the Independent Scrutineer to support the view that the irregularity was material.
In my view, a much more rigorous proportionality test should apply in situations like this. Crudely put this would require a stronger assessment as to the likelihood of any alleged breach having a material effect on the ballot result.
But what about the potential disruption of industrial action in a period which includes “Black Friday”, a General Election with significant numbers of postal voters and Christmas itself.
Undeniably, industrial action over this period could be highly disruptive – but you have to bear in mind two fundamental points. First, postal workers are also customers/voters/Christmas shoppers. And they will need public support in order to maximise their chances of a successful outcome. No one will be more aware of the need to progress very carefully than the union’s members themselves.
And second – of course the union is going to use every opportunity it can find to increase the leverage it can exert on the employer. And before readers cry “foul”, remember that union members have only their labour to sell, and are both obliged and entitled to take advantage of prevailing market conditions.
So, for right or wrong, Rico Back’s Royal Mail have their injunction. But the issues that produced such a thumping ballot result will not go away – and indeed may be aggravated by this attempt at suppression.
And that spells trouble. It is easy perhaps to forget post is a labour intensive sector, and Royal Mail is a labour intensive company. Letters do not collect/sort/deliver themselves. The legal framework for industrial action is significantly flawed, but it is a structure, a pathway. If employers try to suffocate legitimate concerns, to squeeze them out of this structure, they will most surely surface in other ways.
The risk of industrial relations breakdowns – unpredictable and hard to control – has just been ratcheted up to critical level. If the energy and resource that took Rico and his board to court had been put into understanding and addressing the concerns of his workforce, everyone could be looking forward to a merrier Christmas than they currently are.