In a manner which is typical of the way these things are done in Britain, the House of Lords has emasculated the right to strike. This outrageous statement may seem to be a wild echo of something in the Peking Review or a gem from yet another new anti-utopian novel. But in fact it is a pretty sober record of what actually happened on Tuesday, January 21st this year, when the law lords gave judgement in the case of Rookes versus Barnard and Others. Their lordships found that Rookes had been wronged as a result of intimidation by data, the Draughtsmen’s Union, and they ordered a new trial to assess the extent of his damages. In so doing they placed the right to strike in greater jeopardy than it has ever been since the Taff Vale Judgement at the beginning of the century.
The background to this case has been widely reported in the popular press. Attempts have been made to present Rookes as a popular hero, standing up for the freedom of the individual against totalitarian bureaucrats in the unions. His memoirs have been presented at considerable length in the Sunday Telegraph. In a nutshell, this is the story. Rookes left the aesd (data’s predecessor) at the end of 1955. He had been a member of the active inner corps of the union at the British Overseas Airways Coporation, and had helped to bring about 100 per cent membership there. After his quarrel with his colleagues, data members did their utmost to persuade him to rejoin. Persuasion failing, they tried to pressure him. When this failed, they told boac that they would strike if he were not dismissed. The employers did not seem keen to argue about the matter, and in March 1956 he was discharged. Thereupon he sued the Union’s officials, Barnard and others, charging that they had intimidated the boac into dismissing him. Mr Justice Sachs heard the case, found for Rookes, and he was awarded damages of £7,500. The Court of Appeal set this aside. Rookes appealed against this decision, and so the matter arrived at the House of Lords.
The implication of the Lords’ verdict, shortly stated, is that strikes which are in breach of contract, and strikes which take place without ‘appropriate notice in accordance with. . . contracts of employment’, together with strikes in pursuit of an illegal end, are all illegal. ‘Justinian’, the legal commentator of the Financial Times, expressed the new situation in this manner:
‘. . . A coach-and-four has been driven through the section of the Trade Disputes Act, which for 60 years, it was thought, gave complete immunity to union officials who in pursuance of their members’ cause deliberately interfered with an employer’s business. The section in the 1906 Act has been rendered nugatory, simply because it now covers only lawful interferences, which probably did not need statutory protection in the first place; and moreover the demand will undoubtedly come for remedial Parliamentary action.’
To this picture the majority of the business press gave its assent, by publishing similar evaluations during the week or so immediately after the judgement. The Economist, in adding its own ‘Amen’ to this view of the situation, pointed out a further complicating factor. Under the Contracts Employment Bill, all employees are to be offered contracts. ‘Doubtless many of them will specify that employees cannot be sacked save for industrial misconduct or under specified rules for dealing with redundancy. . . The sacking of any worker. . . in a closed shop dispute, would presumably make the union officials who organized the dispute liable for damages.’
If we ask the question ‘Who benefits?’ from this judgement, we find the answer revealing, if extremely complicated. There is, of course, no doubt whatever as to who has lost. The trade union movement today is exposed to dangers which would have been unthinkable before the bringing of this case. There can be no avoidance of the need for the tuc to press at once for remedial legislation. But the interesting thing is that the tuc has already, before it has pronounced one word on the affair, gathered to its skirts a whole multitude of advisors and even protectors—some of whom inhabit the strangest possible places.
Among the first to bring consoling news to the trade union leadership was the spokesman of the British Employers’ Confederation, Sir George Pollock, qc. In a statement which was reported in the Financial Times on February 3rd, he hastened to soothe the fears of the unions with these words: