Trade unions have a statutory right to call their members out on strike so long as the correct procedures are followed. However, as one case concerning proposed industrial action by more than 100,000 Royal Mail workers showed, that right can be cut down by agreement.
The Communication Workers Union was in dispute with Royal Mail Group Ltd. in respect of a number of matters, including pensions, pay and working hours. A ballot of the union’s members yielded a 73.7 per cent turnout and 89.1 per cent of those who voted cast their ballots in favour of a three-day strike. There was no dispute that the union had complied with the procedural requirements of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
However, the union and the company had reached a collective agreement in 2014 which contained detailed provisions as to what was to happen in the event of a dispute. Amongst other things, the agreement – which was expressed to be a legally enforceable contract – provided that disputes were to be referred to external mediators, appointed by Acas, and that industrial action could not be taken before such resolution measures had been exhausted.
In ruling the proposed strike unlawful and granting an injunction to restrain it, the High Court rejected the union’s arguments that the company’s reliance on the agreement was opportunistic and not in good faith. It had been entitled to refer the dispute to external mediation at the time it did and the union was bound not to call a strike until that process had been completed.
The Court noted that, from the company’s point of view, damages would not be an adequate remedy were the strike permitted to go ahead. The proposed stoppage would have a very damaging impact on both the company and its customers, would result in the loss of millions of pounds in revenue and would harm the company’s reputation for reliability in a highly competitive market.