Policing of Union Protests: Independent Enforcers of the Peace or Employer Stooge?

Some of the abiding images of past industrial disputes are of large confrontations of police and striking miners, and some three decades on questions are still being asked about the the violent conduct of Police at Orgreave. To a large, but by no means complete extent, the Police’s approach to striking workers in the UK in recent years has been more focused on a permissive approach that recognises the workers right to protest and assemble outside a place of work with limited instances of confrontation on picket lines.

It is too early to say that has changed but already in January there are three suggesting a departure from this approach could be underway.

First, the government have ramped up, to the point of perversity, its domestic extremist guidance in which groups are equated with terrorism, has been updated to include the likes of Extinction Rebellion, PETA, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Despite widespread criticism such a move points towards a radical restriction of what is considered legitimate public protest.

Second, and more specifically, is the fact that in a lawful strike by the United Voices of the World Union Metropolitan Police offers arrested a union official who was acting entirely peaceably. Aside from the arrest there are a number of aspects that are particularly ominous about this incident is that there had been police threats on the day that they would arrest every person present, purportedly for breaching s 119 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.  The Police arrived and handed out formal letters from the employer to striking workers, which points to the pre-planned action jointly made between police and the employer. Finally, the very next day despite witnesses saying the the senior officer acknowledging he did not understand the offence he was relying on there was again a repeated warning to striking workers that if they persisted in picketing their workplace they would be arrested. The Metropolitan Police are reportedly now subject to litigation for unlawful arrest.

Third, Police have attempted (and failed) to prosecute a trade union leader (IWGB), James Farrar, for assault. The ‘assault’ in question being that he addressed a union meeting with a megaphone and two police officers claimed their hearing was damaged buy this use of the megaphone. Thankfully, on hearing the case the judge directed the jury to acquit as there was no possibility that the alleged conduct could amount to an assault. The Police’s decision to prosecute only took place, according to Farrar, after he had complained and followed up on an unrelated complaint of police misconduct. Again, there is a suggestion that James Farrar will sue the Metropolitan Police and CPS for malicious prosecution.

What is clear is that three weeks into a new year these three incidents should give all trade unionists pause for thought. This is a long way from demonstrating an anti-trade union agenda on the part of the Police themselves but these are worrying signs that should a copper turn up on a picket line their agenda should not be automatically assumed to be as an independent and fair-minded enforcer of the peace.