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Workers’ right to picket continues under lockdown

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Workers taking lawful industrial action continue to have the right to picket their workplace during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, following a legal challenge by trade union Unite.

A judicial review was due to be heard at the High Court on Friday (13 November) against the Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but Unite has said the government “conceded that the right to picket should be upheld”.

The case emerged after Unite members on strike, picketing in a socially distanced manner at the Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet, near Leeds, were moved on by police last week.

Picketers said they were warned that if they returned they would be issued with penalty notices for breaking lockdown rules.

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “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.”

Unite’s legal case was based on the right to picket being a fundamental right protected by the Human Rights Act.

Unite said it is waiting for the High Court to formally confirm the right to picket by way of a court order. It claimed that the government had 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.

A spokesperson for North Yorkshire Police said that “as legal proceedings are active we are not in a position to comment”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said they could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

Optare, a subsidiary of Ashok Leyland and a leading manufacturer of buses, had asked Unite to reconsider demands for a pay rise at a time when other automotive manufacturers were cutting thousands of jobs.

Graham Belgum, chief executive, said last month: “As a company we respect the decision that was made yesterday by union members to take industrial action – although we can’t deny that we are disappointed by the outcome.”

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