Monday (2nd June) saw the acquittal of RMT Branch Secretary Mark Harding, charged under the anti-union laws, after been arrested on a picket line earlier this year during strike action by the RMT in defence of jobs and services on London Underground.
Mark had been charged under Section 241 of the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act act with “using intimidation or annoyance by violence or otherwise” to compel an incident cover Supervisor Gareth Scott not to go to work. This followed a complaint to police by Mr Scott who said Mark had shouted at him and called him a scab as he crossed the picket line during February’s strikes.
Charges politically motivated
Mark denied all charges: “I believe this case was politically motivated”, he said to cheers on the court steps following his acquittal: “I did nothing wrong on that day except to ask someone not to go to work and respect a picket line”. (see Mark’s speech outside court https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5DAHyEB22c )
The result is a vindication of Mark, and the many RMT and trade union activists who came in strong numbers for morning protests outside the court and to pack the public gallery during the trial. Mark’s RMT branch had also passed a motion pledging there should be no settlement to the current dispute whilst victimisations of activists were outstanding.
The outcome is especially important in the context of the sustained campaign against the RMT waged by Boris Johnson, Transport for London (TFL) management and much of the media. Verging on the pantomime at times, the rhetoric of “mad”, bad and dangerous strikes, has been accompanied with serious threats by Cameron to further restrict the right to strike.
As Mick Cash, Acting General Secretary for the RMT, said: “this prosecution was just another attempt to tighten the noose of the anti-trade union laws around the necks of those sections of the working class prepared to stand up and fight. It shouldn’t be forgotten that this prosecution arose from the dispute on London Underground over savage cuts to jobs, services and safety and that fight continues.”
Eddie Dempsy, who had come down to show support with the RMT Paddington No 1 Branch banner, added: “This case is worrying. Although today returned a not guilty verdict, the fact is all Mark did was ask someone to respect a picket line — what happens next time our rank and file members are coming out on strike – how will they feel? This sets a bad precedent and shows the extent of political policing today.”
A policing strategy – designed to disorganise and harass activists
Mark may have won his case, but his experience of “four stressful months” are part of a definite pattern of police targeting of activists and protesters which needs to be taken seriously and challenged. From anti-fracking camps, to student and anti-fascist protests; the use of arrests, punitive bail conditions and charging in the absence of any real evidence, is becoming increasingly common.
The police have also been testing the use of the anti-trade union laws in contexts other than strikes, with 30 anti-fracking protesters arrested under Section 241 in Balcombe last year. This is a charge, which unlike other more common offences (such as obstruction of the highway), carries a custodial sentence.
This is a strategy designed to disorganise, punish and harass activists whilst sending a clear message of deterrence to other potential protesters.
The political nature of the case was evident from the beginning when the police, having initially arrested Mark under the public order act, upped the charge to an offence under the anti-union laws which can carry a custodial sentence of up to six months. After holding Mark for 13 hours, they then imposed bail conditions which barred him from the Hammersmith and City Line and any involvement in the RMT and other TFL related unions. They also removed his right to strike. Had these conditions not successfully been challenged Mark would have been unable to carry out his duties as an elected union official or even visit his place of work!
The right to strike on trial
The wider significance of Mark’s case for all trade unionists was probably made most persuasively by the prosecuting lawyer. “Some picket lines become violent” he said “and scabs have been treated violently” – as if Mark’s participation in picketing, rather than the evidence at hand, were on trial.
There was something quite overblown and absurd about all this, given the original complaint related to an exchange which could not have lasted longer than a minute on a picket line at Hammersmith station staffed by just three workers at the time.
Fortunately RMT rep Shaun Mckenzie, who was giving evidence for Mark, had no qualms in pointing out “going back years most of the intimidation and violence has been by police”.
However there was always a danger that in a trial of a trade unionist, where the ethics of trade unionism and solidarity are being put before a Judge, rather than a jury of peers, that things would not end well. It should be noted, for example, that Ms Justice Baine, despite finding no evidence against Mark on the charge, refused to award costs to the defence explaining that the CPS had been justified in pursuing the case – a response which can only encourage more of the same in the future.
Final judgement shows need for vigilance against future attacks
All of this underlines the importance of building the kind of effective defence campaign waged by RMT members in defence of Mark, when victimisations of trade unionists occur, and the need to mobilise the same kind of support for other protesters who find themselves targeted. At the end of the day, this kind of punitive policing is aimed at undermining and deterring the development of the kind of mass, collective action taken by tube workers in defence of jobs and public services. And it is that kind of collective action and solidarity that remain our best means of defence against the cuts and attacks on our right to protest.
Keep up to date the the campaign, including ongoing challenges to Mark’s treatment https://www.facebook.com/DefendMarkHarding
Read more about the ongoing campaign by tube workers http://www.rmt.org.uk/campaigns/underground/rmt-to-fight-tube-cuts/
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Report by Hannah Dee, Chair of Defend the Right to Protest