The current uncertainty around jobs can cause friction between employers and their employees. In such times, many employees call on their trade unions for support. Unions are keen to stamp their mark, not only to protect existing members but to capitalise on an industrial crisis and turn it into a recruitment drive. Section 161 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992 allows an employee to claim interim relief if they believe they have been automatically unfairly dismissed due to trade union membership or activities. If an employee can show they are likely to succeed in a claim for unfair dismissal due to trade union activities, then a tribunal will reinstate them pending a full hearing of the case.
In Morales v Premier Fruits, the employer was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler whose business had been ravaged by Covid. In May 2020, they asked employees to take a 25 per cent pay cut. The employee refused and got his trade union to lodge a grievance on his behalf. A staff meeting took place from which the employee was excluded. It was recorded by a colleague. The manager could be heard making derogatory remarks aimed at the employee and his union activities, expressing views that were ‘strongly critical of trade unions’. The man who recorded the meeting was dismissed three days later. The employee continued to refuse the pay cut and was eventually dismissed in July, shortly after the grievance process had concluded.
Although the tribunal said that a full tribunal hearing will ultimately decide why the employee was dismissed, the judge said the employee had a ‘pretty good chance of success’ in showing that it was down to his trade union involvement. The recorded meeting’s transcript showed clear irritation that the employee had involved his union. The tribunal also felt the sacking of the person who had recorded the meeting was relevant. The employer hasn’t lost the case yet, but the employee has now been reinstated pending a full hearing, after the employer indicated they would consent to it.
This case shows the importance of keeping your cool even when the waters are boiling. With a ravaged business and plunging profits, the employer in this case had every reason to seek to reduce its outgoings. Its mistake was reacting badly to the involvement of the employee’s trade union and being openly disparaging about unions and their activities in a staff meeting. However pressurised the economic environment, managers and businesses must behave professionally in relation to both employees and their trade unions. Showing your frustration, however understandable, can land you in hot water.