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High Court Takes Heat Out of Office Cleaners Industrial Dispute

Office block, LisbonThe freedom to picket and protest peacefully is jealously guarded by law. However, one High Court case, involving an industrial dispute between office cleaners and their employer, strikingly showed that there is no carte blanche for noisy, aggressive or disruptive behaviour which conflicts with the rights of others.

A trade union representing cleaners who worked for an external contractor at a prestigious Central London office block complained about redundancies and that its members were not being paid a living wage. Strike action and picketing of the block were planned but the employer took pre-emptive legal action.

The union argued that the employer was intent on restricting lawful picketing by its members and peaceful demonstrations by their supporters. However, the employer submitted that there was a real risk of mass protests and potentially violent direct action by those who had no direct connection to the dispute.

The Court noted the importance of freedom of expression and the right to protest and picket lawfully. There was, however, online video evidence of previous, far from peaceful, protests organised by the union and the tone of its publicity material was aggressive and angry.

In those circumstances, the Court found that there was a real risk that direct action in support of the cleaners might tip into public disorder, harassment or intimidation. It issued an injunction against the union and its general secretary which, amongst other things, banned demonstrations within an exclusion zone around the office block.