LONDON (Bywire News) - Police have arrested four trade unionists in the UK in recent days – some of whom were taking action at legal pickets. The uptick in police control at sites of industrial action and protest represents a potentially worrying trend – with the UK government having just passed laws making it easier to detain people protesting for their basic rights.
Police: arresting trade unionists
First, on Friday, May 27 police arrested and charged three trade unionists at a strike in East Sussex. They were part of ongoing industrial action against a private company that runs public waste disposals services for a local council. The GMB Union is taking action against the company, Biffa, over pay and working conditions.
The three trade unionists were on an official picket line, trying to stop strike-breakers from entering the Biffa site. World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reported that a Biffa manager was trying to drive a truck into the site without the legal paperwork – so the trade union officials were trying to stop him. Police then descended on the site and arrested three trade unionists: organiser Gary Palmer, FTO Declan MacIntyre and a local rep. They later charged the three with obstructing the highway – an offence under the Highways Act 1980 – and they will appear in court on June 29.
Then, in the North of Ireland police arrested RMT Union Belfast branch secretary Danny McQuaid. He was protesting over the situation with P&O Ferries. Video shows police handcuffing McQuaid and taking him away. They released him later without charge.
“Blocking the highway”
Police in East Sussex said in a statement about the GMB Union arrests:
“Pickets or assemblies in trade disputes are not immune from criminal law and police have powers at their disposal to respond to any issues or breaches of the peace, including any offences of blocking the highway.
When police arrived at the scene, a number of persons were blocking the highway. The officers repeatedly asked those involved to clear the highway, but some failed to comply”.
It is this incident that perhaps has broader implications.
The Police Act: the shape of things to come?
Just recently, new laws passed in the UK over the policing of legal protest. The government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has caused uproar for its increasing of police powers. One such part of the new law is over the rules around obstructing the highway. On the same day police arrested the East Sussex GMB Union reps, the government issued its updated “factsheet” on the Police Act. It stated that one:
“measure increases the maximum penalties for willful obstruction of a highway from a £1000 fine to an unlimited fine and/or six months’ imprisonment. This measure also clarifies that this offence can be committed even when the highway in question has been closed by the police or relevant authority”.
In other words, police can arrest someone for being on the road during a protest – even when that road is closed to traffic. The law will seemingly apply to trade unions too – with the police action in East Sussex on May 27 being an example of how it could pan out.
This is a worrying application by the police of existing laws. The GMB Union was operating a legal picket which was carrying out its legally defined duties. Using the Highways Act to stop this appears to be an overreach by the police. But given the draconian Police Act was just given royal assent – it may well be that this is the future of not only protest but legitimate trade union activity, too.
(Writing by Steve Topple, editing by Klaudia Fior)