HC Deb 05 December 1950 vol 482 cc178-81
13. Mr. Blackburn

asked the Minister of Labour what inquiry he has made into the strike of members of the Electrical Trades Union against the British Overseas Airways Corporation; what damage was caused by the strike; and what steps he has taken to bring the strike to an end and to prevent a repetition of such strikes.

14. Sir Ralph Glyn

asked the Minister of Labour if he is in a position to make any statement regarding the dispute of certain electricians in the British Overseas Airways Corporation which is seriously affecting British trunk airlines.

17. Mr. Bell

asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any information concerning the situation at London Airport arising out of the dispute between between the British Overseas Airways Corporation and the engineers employed there; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Isaacs

Arising out of the refusal by two electricians employed at the London Airport to become members of the Electrical Trades Union, the electricians employed with them ceased work without permission on 22nd November last to hold a meeting. For this they were suspended for the rest of the day. On the following day when asked to work overtime in accordance with the terms of their contracts of service, 25 electricians refused to do so and were suspended; 125 other electricians stopped work and three days later another 25. The suspension of the 25 men who refused to work overtime was lifted on 28th November but, so far, there has been no resumption of work. Representatives of the management and the union met officers of my Department for joint discussions on 24th November and the position is being kept under close review.

The severe dislocation of service is causing serious inconvenience to the public and heavy financial loss to the B.O.A.C., the extent of which cannot yet be accurately gauged. The B.O.A.C. have made it clear that they cannot com- promise on this issue and that there must be a return to work before any discussions can take place. The men on strike are in breach of their contracts of service. They must recognise their duty to the public and should return to work at once.

Mr. Blackburn

While congratulating the Minister upon the firm tone of the remarks he has made, may I ask him whether he is aware that the general secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Mr. Walter Stevens, is a declared and open member of the Communist Party, that this strike has already caused a great blow to our prestige and very great anxiety throughout the world? May I therefore ask him whether he will consider informing those who are responsible for this wanton breach of peace in industry that he will consider at least using the same powers as he used in the gas strike?

Mr. Isaacs

I have to bear in mind the underlying facts of the matter, and while I have no comment to make upon the statement about the political opinions of the general secretary of this union, I can say that we are keeping in day-to-day touch with the matter. We have now brought it to a point where there is direct communication between the secretary of the union and the Corporation, from which I hope—although it does not seem very clear at the moment—we may find a basis for settlement.

Sir R. Glyn

As the Ministry of Labour have not been able to intervene before, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether this is because they have no power to intervene in a dispute of this character? In such circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman consider taking powers to enable him to protect a public service like the B.A.O.C., so that it is not interfered with through Communist influence?

Mr. Isaacs

These are very important supplementary questions and I apologise if the answers are rather long. The point is that we have not just intervened; we intervened right at the beginning, using our powers of persuasion for conciliation. The point which arises is that we cannot refer this to the Tribunal because the Tribunal cannot and does not deal with questions relating to employ- ment of non-unionists, so we are left without an authority which can give binding decisions on the matter. We have been able to persuade the local joint advisory council to consider it and to have it re-referred to the National Joint Advisory Council who, having considered it, say that it is a matter for settlement between the firm and the union concerned. Thus, we are back where we started. We are still dealing with the matter, however, and we have to establish contact between the two parties concerned.

Sir R. Glyn

Can the Minister say whether it will not be necessary for him to come to the House for further powers so that arbitration can function?

Mr. Isaacs

I should like to consider that in a calmer atmosphere and to examine the whole question of what powers we have and whether others should be taken.

Mr. McCorquodale

Can the Minister say whether the Electrical Trades Union are supporting the strike and, if so, does he not realise that they are supporting an illegal act?

Mr. Isaacs

Again, we get on to legal questions, and I may find myself saying something and apologising for it a couple of days afterwards. The point is that the strike would be illegal only if I had referred the dispute to the Tribunal, but I cannot refer to the Tribunal a matter with which the Tribunal has no power to deal. We have, therefore, a complicated question of legality or otherwise. Please do not ask me to try to answer it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the right hon. Gentleman taking special steps to secure that at least the services carrying mail and other urgent matter to our troops in Korea are operated?

Mr. Isaacs

It is not a question of any steps that I am taking, but I can assure the House that the Corporation are doing all they can—and I think successfully—intrying to overcome these special difficulties.

Earl Winterton

As the right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not in a position to make any statement on the legal aspect of the question, can be explain to the House what he means by the statement "breach of contract"? I was always given to understand that "breach of contract" means that an offence has been committed. What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by that statement?

Mr. Isaacs

Already I find that I have walked into something. The point with which I was dealing was a question of criminal breach. This is a common law breach which was not in my mind when I answered the supplementary question. The rights of action are with the employer and not with the Ministry.