The RMT Union has secured a significant victory on behalf of its members following a hearing in Leeds Employment Tribunal – one that could cost the companies concerned in excess of £4.8 million.

The legal proceedings were brought by Thompsons Solicitors on behalf of 1,250 RMT members, who argued their union had been bypassed in collective negotiations when the employer made an offer directly to the workforce which had already been unanimously rejected in a ballot conducted by the union.

The case relates to events which took place in 2017 when Virgin Trains held the franchise on the East Coast Main Line between London, Yorkshire, North East England, and Scotland. The employees concerned have subsequently been transferred to LNER and Hitachi who are now liable in respect of the sums awarded under the judgement.

The decision centres on pay negotiations which took place between March and October 2017. Following a meeting on 17 October, the RMT agreed to put the proposals made by the company to a ballot, although its representatives advised the membership they were not acceptable owing to various outstanding concerns which included changes to sick pay provision. In light of the advice provided by the Union the members voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposal. In immediate response to this ballot outcome the company made a direct offer to all of the workforce on 13 November 2017, including the RMT members who had already voted to reject the deal. It did this instead of continuing collective negotiations either with all recognised trade unions or with the RMT alone. The RMT asserted this direct offer to its members was an unlawful inducement and in contravention of the legislative provisions.

The Employment Tribunal agreed the offer made to RMT members was unlawful and had arisen as a result of a “unilateral decision by VTEC’s (Virgin Trains East Coast) management to treat collective bargaining as at an end and to implement the pay award” when under the agreed procedures that was a decision that should have been taken jointly by both the employer and the unions concerned. The Tribunal also concluded that objectively viewed there was no impasse in the negotiations. Management knew RMT had to seek the views of its members on the deal that had been proposed and there was no reason why talks could not have continued as a consequence of the proposal being rejected. The Tribunal concluded that the company’s purpose had been to avert further collective negotiations illustrated by the fact it did not want to use the agreed procedures in place to continue with the talks.

This is the latest in a series of rulings over the last year that tackle ‘unlawful inducements’ where employers have acted outside of collective bargaining procedures. This includes the ground-breaking case against Kostal from last year, as well as the INEOS ruling from June 2022 – both of which Thompsons successfully won alongside the trade union Unite.

Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of RMT, said: “This judgment illustrated the importance of parties adhering to the procedures that have been agreed to negotiate on pay and terms and conditions. The union had been appalled that the company had simply walked away from the negotiations when the members voted against the original proposal and sought to impose the offer, warning its members that they would not be afforded anything better if they did not do so. This was no way to treat loyal employees who have the right to be represented by their union throughout what is an agreed process.”

Neil Todd, a trade union law expert at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “This is yet another significant victory for trade union collective rights. The bedrock of good industrial relations is adherence to the collective agreements in place which have been negotiated over decades. The law requires these processes to be respected for good reason in that they provide vital industrial stability.

“The case law now makes very clear an employer cannot circumnavigate agreed structures to negotiate terms and conditions simply because it does not like the fact its proposals have been rejected.”