This week’s case looks at whether employees who are taking lawful industrial action still have the right to picket their workplace (the practice of protesting at the entrance of a workplace and encouraging fellow employees to withhold their labour) during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Under the current lockdown regulations, you are not supposed to leave your home unless you have a valid excuse. One of these valid excuses is to go to work, where working from home is not possible. But does this valid excuse extend to the right to picket outside your workplace?
This question arose following the dispersal by police of several picketers outside their place of employment near Leeds. Unite (the union who brought the challenge on behalf of the workers) stated that “the case emerged as a result of Unite members who were on strike at Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet last Friday (6 November) 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”.
The answer was provided by the government’s concession last Saturday; before the High Court had the chance to hear the judicial review claim as submitted by Unite. The government admitted that the right to picket was a fundamental human right, and that its prohibition amounted to a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. The government have since issued guidance to all UK polices forces, stating that the right to picket is to be considered as included in the valid excuse of going to work, and that therefore workers are free to undertake socially distanced picketing.
Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett is quoted as saying “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…for however long this crisis lasts this victory in picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account.”