ASLEF v. United Kingdom

There is a law report in today’s Times on an important case involving Trade Union membership.

The case involved Jay Lee: a driver for Virgin Trains who was a BNP candidate. He was expelled by ASLEF. He brought a case to the Employment Tribunal, which ruled that Lee was expelled in breach of breached section 174 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The case was overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and sent back to a second Employment Tribunal: which also ruled in favour of Mr Lee, awarding him £5,000 compensation, and requiring his re-admission to ASLEF.

ASLEF took its case to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR has now ruled in ASLEF’s favour. The full judgement is here. The Wikipedia summary is as follows:

Most train drivers are ASLEF members, though there is no ‘closed shop’ so no compunction to be a member. One of ASLEF’s aims is “to assist in the furtherance of the labour movement generally towards a Socialist society” and to “promote and develop and enact positive policies in regard to equality of treatment in our industries and ASLEF regardless of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, creed, colour, race or ethnic origin”.

Finding in ASLEF’s favour, the Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 11 and awarded the union 53,900 Euros for costs and expenses.

The Court held that just as a worker should be free to join or not join a union, so is a trade union equally free to choose its members. Article 11 could not be interpreted as imposing obligations on associations to admit anyone who applied to join. Further, where associations are set up by people who share common values, ideals and goals, it would run counter to the very effectivenesss of the freedom at stake if they had no control over their membership.

The Court’s view was that the UK state had not struck the right balance between Lee’s right and the rights of ASLEF. The Court was persuaded that expulsion did not impinge in any significant way on Lee’s freedom of expression or political activity, not would he suffer any detriment: there being no ‘closed shop’ there was no apparent prejudice to him in terms of employment or liveliehood.

Of greater weight was the union’s right to choose its members. Trade unions in the UK and Europe were commonly affiliated to political parties or movements, particularly those on the left. They were not bodies solely devoted to the politically-neutral aspects of the well-being of their members, but were often ideological with strongly held views. There had been no suggestion in the Employment Tribunal hearings that ASLEF had erred in concluding that Lee’s political values and ideals fundamentally clashed with its own.

The United Kingdom government asserted that UK law would have allowed Lee’s expulsion if ASLEF had restricted itself to a complaint solely about Lee’s conduct. However, the Court noted that the Employment Tribunal found that ASLEF’s objections were primarliy based on his BNP membership, and the Court thought it unreasonable to expect ASLEF to use the pretext of a complaint about conduct, since this was carried out by him in the context of his membership of the BNP.

In the absence of any hardship suffered by Lee or any abusive and unreasonable conduct by ASLEF, the Court held that there had been a violation of Article 11 and found in favour of ASLEF.

That seems right to me. ASLEF does not benefit from a “closed shop” agreement.

Jay Lee can join his own party’s union, “Solidarity: The Union for British Workers“, if he wishes to do so.