The Right to Strike Is Under Attack – Again

Plans to force agency workers to cross picket lines is just the latest attempt to curb the right to strike – but it won’t hold back the wave of worker activity coming this summer.

Striking sail staff picket outside Cowlairs maintenance depot and signal centre on 21 June 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

In the face of a robust rail strike, desperate ministers are resorting to anti-union plans so unworkable and counterproductive that even David Cameron didn’t pursue them.

The government has dusted off seven-year old proposals to allow employers to replace striking workers with agency staff. First floated in 2015, this is a cynical policy that puts the country at odds with international law and has little chance of solving the problem it is apparently meant to tackle.

First, the idea that there is a pool of highly-trained signallers and other critical staff just waiting for the call to break a strike is fanciful. Solving the current dispute will require the government sitting down to negotiate with unions, not just chasing headlines and picking fights. As it stands, unions already routinely agree an emergency service in essential sectors such as healthcare where there is industrial action.

Allowing the deployment of agency workers would put workers in a horrible position. They would have to choose between crossing a picket line and turning down an assignment with the prospect that they will be denied future work by the agency.

And, of course, many agency workers, from supply teachers to bank nurses, are trade union members themselves. Many may turn up for a shift not even knowing they are expected to replace striking workers.

To make matters worse, under the UK’s weak employment laws, agency workers are not protected from suffering a detriment if they refuse an assignment because they do not wish to replace striking workers.

The government’s plans show a blasé approach to workplace relations.

If employers decide to ‘bus in’ agency workers during a strike, this will increase tensions between workers and their bosses. This is bound to make any dispute more difficult to resolve amicably, with tensions between management and the workforce more likely to grow and fester over the long term.

This is why even employment agencies, who might be expected to be relishing the extra business, actually oppose the changes. Employment agency trade body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation has been robust in its denunciation of the ‘wrong-headed’ plans. They don’t want to become involved in industrial disputes which are not of their making or the problems that might arise from deploying inexperienced or undertrained staff.

Then there are the obvious and stark risks to health and safety, too.

Agency workers will often lack the skills, training and knowledge to act as a substitute for permanent staff. They might be unfamiliar with processes in the organisation or company, and it will be difficult for them to take on the roles normally performed by permanent staff. And agency workers recruited at short notice are unlikely to have received relevant health and safety training.

This could lead to accidents or injuries in the workplace with the safety of other workers or indeed the public being placed at risk. At best, the quality of service provided—and the organisation’s reputation—is likely to be hit. At worst, the use of inexperienced agency staff could lead to the workers themselves or the wider public suffering harm as a result.

Let’s face it: no-one wants under-trained staff in food factories, working on track maintenance, or looking after children if the permanent teaching staff walk out of a school.

On top of that, ministers are breaching international law: the use of agency workers to replace striking workers would violate trade union members’ right to strike. This is safeguarded by International Labour Organisation Convention 87 Article 3, the European Social Charter 1961 (Article 6(4)), and Article 11 of the European Convention of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee has said that ‘the hiring of workers to break a strike in a sector which cannot be regarded as an essential sector in the strict sense of the term… constitutes a serious violation of freedom of association.’

Remember, too, that the UK agreed to follow ILO rules when it signed its trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union. So breaching those will do nothing to improve already-strained relations with the bloc.

Not that long ago, ministers said they would build a high-wage economy. Now pay is being eaten away by inflation for virtually everyone except for high-paid City workers. The government also vowed P&O Ferries would ‘not get away’ with its no-notice dismissal of 800 maritime workers. Little action has been taken.

Instead, we have seen Thatcher-wannabes identify what they think is an easy win by dismantling a prohibition on strikebreaking agency workers that has been in place since 1973.

These same ministers who once pledged to boost workers’ rights are now threatening to introduce laws requiring minimum service levels in some industries as a way of limiting industrial action in the transport sector and possibly far beyond that. It is yet to be seen whether such proposals are even workable.

Similarly, they want to up the damages to £1 million that can be claimed from unions if strike action is deemed illegal because it breaches the UK’s onerous and complex industrial action laws.

This all adds up to a concerted attack on trade unions—making it harder for working people to organise collectively to defend their jobs, their livelihoods, and the quality of their working lives.

Workers struggling with rising living costs will find it harder to secure pay increases, and as a result, the gap between the rich and low paid in the UK will continue to grow and families will continue to struggle to meet household bills—a shameful outcome for a government that promised to ‘protect and enhance’ workers’ rights only a few years ago.