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19 July 2022

Rail union chief slams “scab charter” to replace strikers with agency staff

At a fraught transport select committee session, unions and rail bosses clashed over strike action.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Rail trade union leaders and those in charge of Britain’s trains gave fiery testimony last week on government proposals to make it easier for businesses to employ agency workers during strike action.

MPs last week voted through the proposed legislation by 289 votes to 202. It’s a decision that rids the “outdated blanket ban” on temporary workers being used to cover for striking staff, said business minister Jane Hunt. Critics of the measures have dubbed the plans a “scab charter”.

What happened?

The upcoming changes came up at a 13 July transport select committee discussion, which was a special session on the recent rail strikes. “No worker rushes to go on strike,” Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), told the committee. “No worker wants to receive the levels of abuse we receive… it’s a last resort.”

Whelan continued: “And as for [the] ‘scab charter’ that you’ve created, or the government’s created and passed…  scab labour can only work for scab management, and it will impact and destroy the industrial relations of this [rail] industry going forward.” 

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Safety concerns around operations and maintenance of services are among the main worries about agency staff being used to cover rail services. For any operator that uses “scab labour”, Whelan said it was “unsafe” and that unions would not be “working with them [any more]”, much to the shock of most of the committee.

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“I will put that on the record,” he continued, adding that unions will see any rail operators that choose to use agency staff in an extremely negative light moving forward.

How did rail bosses react?

After Whelan – who spoke alongside Eddie Dempsey, a senior figure within the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) – gave his testimony, rail bosses were next to give evidence. Steve Montgomery, the chair of the Rail Delivery Group, the industry body that represents Britain’s main operators, told the committee that rail bosses and staff who cross the picket line are often subjected to “verbal, face-to-face [and] a lot of social media intimidation”.

Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said that while negotiations between vested parties have been respectful, Whelan’s “scab” comments were “not at all helpful” in easing tensions between unions and train operators. “We’ve made it really clear ahead of the strikes that whilst there might be differences of opinions, we have to respect one another and our individual views,” he said.

How will the legislative changes affect the industry?

A few hours after Monday’s select committee session had concluded, the RMT announced that railway workers are to stage a one-day strike on 27 July – a month on from three days of strike action at the end of June.

During the session, Shoveller said that the government’s proposals to replace striking staff with agency workers – a change relevant to all industries – will have “limited if no effect” on the rail industry circumventing future strikes.

This is because, Shoveller explained, there is “no agency market” of staff to perform critical safety roles, including signalling and maintenance.

“We will use agency staff where it’s sensible, but we’ll not compromise on safety,” added Montgomery.

“We’ve got to avoid getting into this position in the first place,” Shoveller said towards the end of the session. “It’s a very sad thing – from the evidence we’ve heard this morning – that strikes features so strongly in the railway narrative… I’d much rather put all our efforts into making sure we create an industrial relations environment where strikes become irrelevant.”

Read more: Why Britain’s summer of strikes is about to get worse