UNION leaders have hailed an important victory for shop stewards involving a Bolton social care provider.

Care worker Fiona Mercer said she was disciplined, suspended and prevented from working over a Unison-led dispute with Alternative Futures Group (AFG) concerning sleeping-in shifts.

Protests took place in Bolton over AFG's axing of sleep-in payments for care workers at their operations across the north-west.

Mercer and Unison's claim, in the grounds no-one should be unfairly treated for taking part in union activity, was rejected by an employment tribunal in Manchester initially.

An employment tribunal judge ruled her human rights had been infringed but the action did not breach specific parts of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act.

But the union took the case to an employment appeals tribunal and reversed the decision.

In her ruling, Mrs Justice Choudhury, president of the Employment Appeals Tribunal, said current UK legislation was not compatible with international law and should be amended.

Christna McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said after the case: "Good employers have nothing to fear from this judgment.

"But those who’ve been treating staff unfairly because they’ve taken strike action will need to beware.

"Employees don’t seek to get involved in disputes at work. But staff are often left with little other option when employers behave badly.

"Until now, employers have used a loophole in UK law to pick on workers who’ve taken part in disputes, safe in the knowledge that nothing will happen to them. Now they’ll no longer be able to”.

Andrea Egan, Bolton UNISON branch secretary, added: "Bolton UNISON fully supported the Alternative Futures workers in their dispute two years ago.

"This is an absolutely fantastic result for Fiona. However it is also a fantastic victory for trade unions and workers in the UK.

"Workers have a fundamental right to take legal action over pay, holidays or other workplace issues and that right must be protected.

"This landmark ruling in Manchester shows that unions can protect members from employer bullying and harassment."