Johnston Press, the local newspaper publisher, has secured a High Court injunction against today’s planned strike by journalists, the latest in a series of legal moves made by employers to prevent industrial action.
The court found staff balloted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – in a row over the closure of the group’s pension scheme, a pay freeze, under-resourcing of newsrooms and the introduction of a new content management system – were not employed by Johnston Press but by smaller subsidiary companies within the group that run the individual newspapers.
The ruling follows an injunction secured by British Airways earlier this week against a cabin crew strike after Unite union failed to provide members with an adequate breakdown of the ballot results. Last month, Network Rail secured an injunction against a planned strike by the RMT due to discrepancies in the ballot.
Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, said: “[The injunction] is clearly part of an emerging trend amongst employers to derail democratically agreed industrial action by skillfully exploiting the anti-trade union laws.”
The NUJ claimed Johnston Press stated in its annual report that it employed 1,900 journalists, while the firm’s stamp was on staff pay slips and its intranet published company-wide procedures covering grievance and disciplinary policies.
But Guy Lamb, an employment partner at DLA Piper, told Personnel Today that the law is “reasonably clear and well prescribed”.
“If you want to strike, you have to tell the relevant companies subject to the strike. If you notify and ballot in the name of a company that doesn’t employ the people, that’s not doing what the law requires you to do,” he said. “This injunction is indicative of the fact that courts are taking a pretty strict view of the application of the law here. You can’t just say the employer knew what was meant.”
Lamb suggested the union “should have known better” and the ruling could apply to many large businesses. “It’s a surprising mistake for a union of this size and experience to have made,” he said. “There are many large groups where employees are employed by different companies within the group; it’s a perfectly normal business structure, so it’s a claim that could be made by other employers.”
John Read, employment editor at XpertHR, said it was “absurd” to call the ruling anti-trade union.
He said: “It’s certainly part of a trend, but it’s absurd for the NUJ to call the law ‘anti-trade union’. The legislation actually sets out the powers unions have and the rules they need to follow when exercising those powers. With the economy in such a precipitous state, unions can’t honestly expect employers to just lie down when faced with a strike.”
The NUJ will now re-ballot its members.