by Don Franks
With his scab-enabling law being drawn from the member’s bill ballot, Parliament’s youngest MP, Jami-Lee Ross, has won ten minutes of fame.
The National member for Botany’s Employment Relations (Continuity of Labour) Amendment bill would repeal section 97 of Labour’s 2000 Employment Relations Act. Section 97 prevents the use of volunteers, contractors or other casual employees by an employer during a strike or lockout.
Jami-Lee argues that: “restricting the ability of employers to engage temporary replacement labour can have a considerable impact on the productivity and financial viability of an organisation.”
Peter Conway, NZ Council of Trade Unions Secretary, responded: “National have rejected this policy to date and we encourage them not to change their mind. There are very few strikes in NZ. In 2011, the latest data available, there were only 12 work stoppages. This is the lowest number since the series began in 1986.”
“But if this Bill became law then it would reduce the impact of a strike, it will create huge conflict between strikers and replacement labour when there is a dispute, it will make it harder to protect pay and conditions.
“Fair employment laws that encourage collective bargaining as the way to higher wages and productive and safe workplaces, not changes that undermine bargaining and make it even harder for workers to get ahead, would be a much better way,” he concluded.
I am right with Peter Conway in opposing this new scab-enabling law. With all the anti-strike legislation already dumped on us by successive National and Labour governments, we don’t need more.
If passed, the new Jami-Lee Ross bill will haul the industrial culture even further to the right, making scabbing more socially acceptable with the sanction of parliament.
However, I part with Peter on a few details.
There can be no such animal as a “fair employment law” under capitalism. The capitalist system is inherently exploitative of workers and cannot be rendered fair to both sides by any legal means. Unions should push to remove legislation that restricts workers, but not, please, in the name of being fair to all. That way is not only a time-wasting road to never never land. It also requires admitting concessions to the other side, in the name of “fairness”.
It is equally in vain to argue a worker’s case in terms of “productive workplaces”. As anyone who has ever pulled on overalls knows, the recipe for a productive workplace is one where the boss encounters the fewest restrictions on his or her power. As far as we’re able, those of us on the shop floor seek happy, safe, organised, well-rewarded workplaces.
But unless our class consciousness is defective, we have no interest in productive workplaces under the present system. Capitalist productivity has no bearing on workers’ well-being.
Finally, while we should agitate and organise against reactionary legislation like the Scab Enabling bill, workers and unions should not depend on governments to do their job for them.
That strategy comes at a price, which, under pressure, will be found to be too high.
For example, the hiring of temp, strike-breaking, labour is a criminal offence in the UK:
“Regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 (SI 2003/3319) precludes the provision of temporary workers to perform the duties normally performed by a worker who is taking part in a strike or other industrial action. An employment business supplying workers in these circumstances will be committing a criminal offence, and the employer could be found to be aiding and abetting that offence.
“The restriction does not apply if strike action is unofficial (i.e. is not endorsed by a union) or where the employment business providing the temporary worker does not know about the industrial action and has no reasonable grounds for knowing about the industrial action.
“The Regulations do not prevent an employer from directly employing temporary employees on fixed-term contracts to cover the work of employees on strike, rather than hiring agency workers.”
A careful reading of the above regulation shows it may be of some fleeting benefit to union offices, but is no friend of workers power.
Moreover, the acceptance of such laws allows the state to set the agenda of scabbing. The only body on earth with any business setting that agenda is the working class. We can expect no lasting or solid salvation from any parliament. Unions should instead use their time and energy building this culture – zero picket-line toleration of scabs.