Unions are denying claims by manufacturers that human rights laws could lead to the return of mass picketing and secondary action.
The Human Rights Act, which was passed last year but has not yet been implemented by the Government, enshrines the right of freedom to assembly.
Manufacturers fear this could be used by unions to counter existing legislation which limits the number of pickets to six and prevents secondary action by employees of another company. Both were outlawed by the Conservative government in the 1980s.
Sara Leslie, partner at leading employment lawyers Irwin Mitchell, said: `The right to freedom to assembly could be used to argue for the right to secondary picketing.’
She said the existing limit on the number of pickets able to attend a workplace could also be over-ruled. When implemented, the Human Rights Act will take precedence over other laws where conflict arises.
Manufacturers are also concerned about the possibility of a return to picketing.
`I would be appalled,’ said Mike Judge, personnel director at car maker Peugeot. `We decided as a nation to outlaw secondary and mass picketing. Why should anyone in Belgium or Luxembourg tell us any different? They weren’t there in the 1970s when there was rubbish on the streets 12-foot deep and we couldn’t bury our dead.’
Bruce Warman, personnel director of car-maker Vauxhall, said the move would be `disastrous’.
Manufacturing unions have welcomed the potential law change.
A T&G spokeswoman said it supported the right to take secondary action and thought the limit of six on a picket-line was too low.
`We do not consider six an appropriate level,’ she said. `It is right for colleagues to support a chance to have more than that, but we would use effective picketing rather than mass picketing.’
A spokesman for manufacturing union MSF said it supported the Act. But he added that there would be no return to the type of industrial strife seen in the 1970s.
TUC figures released last week showed that in 1998, the number of days lost through strike action was the lowest ever.
John Robinson writes for Personnel Today