Challenging the trade unions – a landmark case

How one black man changed the course of British labour relations:
Edwards vs the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades

union1In 1967 Beresford Edwards (Nana Bonsu) challenged the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) union decision to dismiss him and won the case. While working at a printing firm in 1967, Edwards was a temporary member of SOGAT. The Union had a system whereby the employers deduct the employee’s Union contribution from his pay, but despite his written instruction, this was not done in Edwards’ case and he fell into arrears with his subscriptions for six weeks.

According to the rule of the union, any temporary member in arrears automatically lost his/her membership. Consequently he lost his union card and since it was a ‘closed shop’ he automatically lost his job.

Edwards decided to take the Union to court and claim for damages and won. The case went to the High Court in London, where Lord Denning denounced SOGAT, ordering £7,971 compensation to be paid to Edwards. Lord Denning in concluding his ruling said,

“No trade union can give itself by its rule an unfettered discretion to expel a man or withdraw his membership; A man’s right to work is now fully recognized by the law”.

Lord Denning (Alfred Denning, 1899 – 1999) was “Master of the Rolls, who headed the civil side of the Court of Appeal for 20 years was the most influential post in administering English law. He was known for exerting an enormous influence on the development of the law from the 1960s to the 1980s. His judgments were often overruled by the House of Lords, but in many cases prompted a later change in the law by Parliament. He was the last judge to have the right to stay in the job for life.

Edward’s case marked the first major blow to Trade Union closed shop operations in the England, some twenty two years after the United States ended this practice in 1947. All forms of closed shop practices in the UK ended in the UK with the introduction of the Employment Act 1990.

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