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Government to review legality of "intimidating" trade union leverage campaigns

Out-Law News | 07 Nov 2013 | 3:06 pm | 2 min. read

The Government is right to consider a review of the civil and criminal laws surrounding so-called 'leverage campaigns', with a view towards making it harder for trade unions to engage in "industrial intimidation" during labour disputes, an expert has announced.

Chris Mordue of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the allegations of harassment against employees and their families during the recent Grangemouth industrial dispute illustrated that the law "needed to keep pace" with the changing features of trade union action.

Mordue said that leverage campaigns, where high-profile actions are taken to target the reputation and commercial interests of a company at the centre of an industrial dispute, operated outside of the law governing 'normal' actions. Although existing civil and criminal laws could be used where these campaigns crossed the line into illegal activity, a review of whether these could be "tightened or made easier to enforce" had to be welcomed, he said.

"Leverage campaigns have a number of legal and tactical advantages for unions," he said. "They operate outside the law governing 'normal' industrial action such as strikes and overtime bans and so can be launched without a ballot, and without the need to give the employer notice of the action to be taken. The union avoids the risk of breaching these strike laws and also retains the element of surprise. Campaigns can also draw on the union's wider membership, rather than just those directly involved in the dispute."

"However, it is also clear that part of the attraction to unions of leverage campaigns is the ability to personally target individual executives and senior managers, taking the dispute onto their doorstep and into their home life. For all the unions' talk of legitimate and lawful protest, it is clear that this form of action is intended to cause disruption to and intrusion on the private lives of the managers, with their families being 'collateral damage'," he said.

Recent disputes had involved a number of different 'leverage' tactics used in addition to, or in place of, more formal industrial action, Mordue said. Examples included campaigns aimed at encouraging customer or supplier boycotts, including campaigns on social media; protests or demonstrations outside the homes of senior managers or premises of key customers or suppliers; protests outside AGMs, corporate or industry events that the directors were attending; and campaigns raising the dispute with shareholders or investors to put pressure on management.

"Whether by accident or design, this strand of the campaign can often cross over into illegal activity, such as unlawful harassment and intimidation," Mordue said.

"As these tactics become more common, the law needs to keep pace. The boundaries of what is acceptable need to be clearer but also better policed, with unions – and their leaders and officials – being held to account for actions carried out in their name which harass and intimidate," he said.

Speaking in the House of Commons, David Cameron said that members of the Unite trade union had behaved in a "shocking" manner during the Grangemouth dispute. He said that allegations of harassment against employees of plant operators Ineos, and their families, were "serious and need[ed] to be looking at properly".

"We have seen 'Wanted' posters put through children's letterboxes, we have seen families intimidated and we have seen people's neighbours being told that they are evil," the Prime Minister said. "This sort of industrial intimidation is bad for Britain, and it very nearly cut off petrol supplies to a large part of our United Kingdom."