In the context of a bitter industrial dispute on the railways, the Court of Appeal has upheld a train company’s right to impose roster changes on its on-board staff where their normal working patterns had become unworkable due to major engineering works.
The train company had sought to modify shift patterns worked by senior conductors and train managers to take account of the temporary closure of a station during the engineering project. However, the union insisted that those changes could not be imposed without negotiation.
Following a ballot, the union’s members had voted in favour of industrial action, short of a full strike, which resulted in a large number of train delays and cancellations. Managerial staff had to be deployed to fill staffing gaps and passengers endured significant inconvenience.
The company sought an injunction restraining the union from inducing or procuring breaches of contract by its members. That application was dismissed by the High Court on the basis that the company had no contractual right to make the roster changes without first entering into negotiations with the union in accordance with the terms of collective agreements.
In allowing the company’s appeal and issuing an injunction, the Court noted that the engineering works had made existing rosters unworkable. Subject to its duty to co-operate with its employees, the company had the power to cancel and replace the rosters insofar as it considered it necessary to do so. On a proper interpretation of the collective agreements, the company had ‘limited legal space’ in which to dispense with staff agreement to the roster changes.