Court ruling deals blow to Britain's controversial closed-shop system

The closed shop -- a system under which British workers cannot obtain or hold jobs without belonging to a trade union -- has been dealt a blow by the European Court of Human Rights.

The court, which is guardian of the Human Convention of Humarn Rights, has ruled that three British workers who were sacked for refusing to join a union were wrongfully dismissed.

The court's decision is being hailed as a victory for those who believe trade-union membership shuld be voluntary. It is also a rejection of Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC) view that the closed shop is a legitimate weapon in the fight to uphold workers' rights. It does not amount to a total rejection of the closed shop, however.

The three British workers, all railwaymen, struggled for five years before their view was accepted by the court at Strasbourg. They are to be compensated for the loss of their jobs.

British employers and Conservative members of Parliament are bound to use the court's decision as an argument in favor of banning the closed shop.

As a result of a law approved last year, an employer may now be required to pay damages if he dismisses a worker for refusing to join a union. No closed shop can be established unless a majority of workers vote in a secret ballot in favor of doing so. Otherwise the closed shop remains legal.

The British government has been preparing to tighten still further the rules governing trade-union membership, and the outcome at Strasbourg will strengthen the hand of James Prior, the secretary of state for employment, when he sets out to do so in the autumn.

Mr. Prior will hear his TUC opponents say that the European court's judgement falls short of a total condemnation of the closed shop. They point out the court concedes that compulsory membership in a trade union may not always be contrary to the freedom of association demanded by the Human Rights Convention.

Nonetheless, Britain's influential Institute of Directors believes the Strasbourg decision has registered an important point of principle: It is against European laws on human rights for any worker already in a job to be dismissed for refusal to belong to a union.

Among the key British industries still maintaining the closed shop are railways, the coal mines, the post office, local government, and the newspaper and printing industries.

Closed shop is jealously guarded by the TUC and individual unions. If the government decides to interpret the Strasbourg judgment as a green light for attempting to ban the closed shop completely, it will have a battle on its hands.

Ironically, the government may find itself opposed by some employers who accept the closed shop because it simplifies the problem of dealing with the trade unions. These employers say that it is better to have all workers at a plant in the one union than to have mixed unions membership or a high proportion of employees in no union at all.

In a statement following the Strasbourg decision, the government said it would study the judgment closely before responding to calls that closed-shop legislation should be tightened.

There is little doubt, however, that Mr. Prior, with solid support from Margaret Thatcher and senior Cabinet ministers, will take heed of the implications of the three rail workers' victory.

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