Win! Right to picket during lockdown secured following Unite legal challenge

The government has been forced to confirm that workers taking lawful industrial action have a right to picket their workplace during the COVID-19 lockdown.

It is the second legal defeat inflicted on the government in two days, following the High Court decision to rule in favour of the IWGB.

A judicial review was due to be heard at the high court yesterday against the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the secretary of state for health and social care, but at the last minute the government conceded that the right to picket should be upheld.

The case emerged as a result of Unite members who were on strike at Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet last Friday and who were undertaking socially distanced picketing, being moved on by the police and warned that if they returned they would be issued with penalty notices for breaking lockdown rules. Unite’s legal case was based on the right to picket being a fundamental right protected by the Human Rights Act.

The government finally accepted this argument and has issued guidance to all police forces which makes it clear that workers can undertake socially distanced picketing, as it is covered by the exception on the right to go to work during the lockdown.

Unite is now awaiting the court formally confirming the right to picket by way of a court order.

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “This is a vital victory for the entire labour movement. The right to picket is fundamental and is one of the few actions that workers are legally entitled to use following a lawful ballot for strike action. Without the right to picket the very essence of the right to withdraw their labour is undermined.

“Unite’s members at Optare were holding a legal picket and abiding by strict social distancing rules. They had been told their workplace was safe for them to continue working, yet the police claimed that a picket outside the workplace contravened the lockdown rules. The decision by the police to break up that picket was wrong and the government has now conceded it was wrong.

“We have seen opportunistic employers take advantage of this crisis with “fire and rehire”, seeking to have workers pay for this crisis with their terms and conditions. For however long this crisis lasts this victory on picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account.”

Thompsons Solicitors’ head of trade union law Richard Arthur said: “After the government and North Yorkshire police were forced by Unite to accept that workers taking industrial action have the right to picket lawfully during the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s hearing for interim relief did not proceed.

“At a time when many workers are losing their jobs, or being forced into working longer hours and taking pay cuts, it is vital that unions are able to represent their members effectively.

“Success in this case ensures that union voices can continue to be heard loud and clear speaking out for all workers, and COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to restrict legitimate picketing.”

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