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Tories push on with laws to use agency workers to scab on strikes

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It's being rammed through without the usual parliamentary stages
Issue 2810
Smiling rail workers pickets with red RMT union flags

Rail workers need to fight against new agency worker laws (Picture: Guy Smallman)

In an attempt to stem the rising tide of strikes, the Tories have announced they are going ahead with plans to allow companies to step up scabbing. 

They want to change the law so that businesses can supply agency workers to break strikes. And they are going to do it by a procedure designed to bypass the normal parliamentary procedure. It’s an overt piece of class legislation—pro-management, pro-boss, pro-bullies.

The news was released just as tens of thousands of railway workers were beginning their second day of strikes on Thursday.

Under current trade union laws, employment companies aren’t supposed to supply scabs during strikes. But there are many loopholes already that they try to exploit. The new law will strip away all restrictions. Ministers said they hoped that it would help to weaken future strikes by allowing temporary workers to carry out crucial roles. They mean mass strike-breaking.

The change will be done through the method of a “statutory instrument”. This procedure is used to extend an already-existing piece of law. It can make a new measure effective within 40 days and it would apply to the whole of England, Scotland and Wales.

Labour will probably oppose the move on the grounds that—horror of horrors—it might ”increase industrial unrest”. But don’t expect total confrontation with scabbing plans.

The Tories ludicrously claimed the rail strikes are wholly ineffective—and simultaneously are a brutal assault on ordinary people. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said, “Once again trade unions are holding the country to ransom by grinding crucial public services and businesses to a halt.”. 

At the same time transport secretary Grant Shapps said, “Despite the best efforts of militant union leaders to bring our country to a standstill, it’s clear this week’s strikes did not have the desired impact.” One of them had not absorbed the script.

There is a degree of theatre in the Tories’ move. Rabid backbenchers, nervous about the direction of Tory policy, will get the message from Boris Johnson that he is “taking action” over strikes. 

And the worst trade union leaders will have another weapon to scare workers about the odds against them. That will be reinforced because the government has also announced it is raising the maximum damages that courts can award against a union when courts find strikes unlawful. For the biggest unions, the maximum fine will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.

This will prod union leaders’ to repudiate unofficial walkouts, which have been showing glimpses of revival.

It’s highly unlikely that agency workers can make more than a marginal difference in the rail strikes. Bosses won’t easily find safety-trained and experienced scabs to fill in for key roles.

But the legislation is a danger and could be used in other cases in the future. For example, the Labour council in Coventry has used its own scabbing firm during the recent bin strikes. They, and similar employers, would find this easier if the law is changed.

The right response is to fight the new laws but also increase strikers’ mobilisation and picketing now and in the future. From postal workers’ strikes to P&O, some agency workers have refused to scab.

The worst response came from the TUC union federation earlier this week when it put out a cross-class appeal with the bosses’ Recruitment & Employment Confederation against a law change.

The rail strikes have made workers more confident. That confidence has to be turned into action to win over pay and jobs—and to stop new anti-union laws. A good start is for everyone to support the rail workers’ strikes.

Labour leader’s war on solidarity

Keir Starmer is stepping up action on the rail strike—to attack Labour MPs who showed solidarity with the RMT union.

Labour frontbenchers who went to picket lines on Tuesday have been encouraged to issue public apologies or risk disciplinary action. Starmer had given instructions for frontbenchers to stay away.

The Guardian newspaper says some of the MPs involved have been asked to issue a statement explaining their attendance.

One source, an MP, said the whips were “threatening people at the moment, trying to get them to issue apologies

And a senior party source jokingly suggested a junior frontbencher had been asked to claim they had been “ambushed by a picket line”. That’s a reference to an excuse used to explain Boris Johnson’s attendance at his own birthday party.

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