Trade Unions have always trodden the fine line between lawful and unlawful behaviour. Even the statute books anticipate that Unions cross the line often enough to legislate over it. Intimidation, conspiracy, and causing breaches of contracts are specific examples of prohibited behaviour – as if it isn’t already obvious that Trade Unions should not partake in such activities.

Trade Unions exist to represent and protect workers from being underpaid and/or treated badly by their employers. The recession has placed employers under greater financial pressures, which have resulted in pay cuts, redundancies and poor working conditions. Employers have been forced to act quickly, sometimes with little or no consultation with the workers, before slashing pay or forcing people out of work.

Consequently, we’ve seen the Trade Unions up their game and appearing to be more militant than they have been for a very long time. In exerting their pointy elbows to create an impact on behalf of members, Trade Unions have found themselves crossing the line and being accused of making the situation worse, and in some cases expediting the demise of a business. Take Len McCluskey of Unite, who was last year accused of bullying and intimidatory tactics, when it was alleged “mobs” of protestors turned up at the homes of company executives connected with the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland.

In November 2013, the government asked Bruce Carr QC plus other experts to scrutinise how Trade Unions conduct themselves.  They have six months to report back. Among the issues covered by the inquiry will be how industrial action impacts upon stakeholder confidence in different sectors, and whether we need even more legal restraints on Trade Unions  to prevent what the government has called “intimidation” and “harassment” by  Trade Union officials. The panel will also look at how the police deal with complaints.

This week, Trade Union officials involved in the dispute with the French company Goodyear have crossed a new line, when they took Goodyear’s human resources chief, Bernard Glesser, and the firm’s production manager, Michel Dheilly hostage at the Goodyear plant in Amiens, northern France. They were kept hostage for 30 hours. Franck Jurek, a CGT representative at the plant, is quoted as saying “When you lose your job you defend what you can defend, that’s to say, the money. We will go to the very end, even if we are breaking the law”. Such action would almost certainly be criminal in the UK.

Interestingly, Trade Union membership in France is the lowest in Western Europe with only 8% of workers being members. The UK has a density of 28% of workers who are members of Trade Unions, whereas the highest is in the Nordic countries, with Iceland having a huge proportion of membership at 88%. It is perhaps not surprising that these countries also have generous employment laws, with salaries and working conditions governed largely by collective agreements with the Trade Unions.

The Nordic labour market is perceived as having a high degree of equality – recent changes in UK laws on parental leave and family friendly policies are said to have been based on successes in countries like Denmark, when they were enforced many years ago. This would suggest something very interesting about the role and behaviour of the Trade Unions – in that resorting to intimidation and militant behaviour wouldn’t be necessary if the legal framework and the culture of businesses offered greater security and fairness to workers.

Article by Elin Pinnell, Partner and Director of Capital Law, Consult Capital Ltd