Federal NDP, unions happy Liberals will include strikes in anti-scab law

OTTAWA — Including striking workers in a proposed anti-scab bill was a “major component” of negotiations while hashing out a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberal government, according to the NDP.

The deal promises to introduce a new law by the end of next year that would ban the use of replacement workers – also known as “scabs” – if unionized workers in federally regulated sectors are locked out or on strike.

“It’s a huge win,” said Matthew Green, the NDP’s deputy labor critic.

“The use of importing replacement workers … completely undermines the democratic principles of having unions and collective bargaining.”

The Liberals committed to limit the use of replacement workers in their 2021 election platform, and that is repeated in the mandate letter for Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan.

But there’s a key difference: the mandate letter specifies the rules would apply when workers are locked out by their employer. The deal with the NDP also includes workers who are on strike.

A spokesperson for O’Regan’s office said the change is “reflective of ongoing conversations and feedback from stakeholders,” but Green said the NDP is taking credit for “using our power” to put it on the table.

The Canadian Labor Congress said that difference is important because almost 85 per cent of federal work stoppages are strikes, not lockouts.

Unions have been lobbying for the change for decades, and both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP have introduced anti-scab bills in the past. They’ve all been defeated by Liberal and Conservative votes.

In 2007 then-Bloc MP Richard Nadeau told the House of Commons he wanted to amend the Canada Labor Code “to prohibit strikebreakers” and “end the disparity between the labor codes of Canada and Quebec.”

Quebec’s law was adopted by the Rene Levesque government in 1977 after a number of bitter labor conflicts. British Columbia is the only other Canadian jurisdiction with a similar law, which has been on the books since 1993.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, whose 240,000 members include the federal public service, said it welcomes the pledge. But national president Chris Aylward said the government “must move quickly to enact it.”

That cautious optimism was echoed by Mark Hancock, the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“I’ll really believe it when I see it, but we’re really happy about it,” he said.

Hancock said bringing in replacement workers shifts the power dynamic in a labor dispute.

“It’s like dropping a grand piano on a scale,” he said.

“When we go on strike and we’re giving up that paycheque, it’s a strong incentive for us to stay at the bargaining table and work out a deal. Employers who can utilize scab labor don’t have that same incentive to negotiate in good faith.”

Toronto labor lawyer Chantel Goldsmith said anti-replacement worker laws, on the other hand, give unions “a ton of leverage” during collective bargaining and could be “hugely detrimental” to employers.

“If the employer knows that they can’t have a replacement worker, then their hands are almost tied in that they have to kind of agree with the union’s demands,” she said.

A 2009 study in the journal Canadian Public Policy found that anti-scab laws lead to more strikes – but shorter ones.

In addition to the federal public service, the proposed rules would apply to many federal Crown corporations as well as broadcasting and telecommunications companies, grain elevators, feed and seed mills, and transportation infrastructure including airlines, airports, ports, marine shipping, railways and road transportation services.

Given those important transportation links, there could be wider implications on supply chains and other businesses if strikes become more frequent.

“After two years of pandemic where small businesses have been hurt by the pandemic, many of them had to contract a huge level of debt,” said Jasmin Guenette, the vice-president of national affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“The impact of work stoppage for those large companies has a direct impact on many small businesses … because they rely on (that) infrastructure to get access to the products that they need, or products they need to ship.”

The hope for the NDP is that provincial governments will follow the federal government’s lead, once the changes become law.

“We have to hold them accountable to the commitments they’ve made in the agreement,” Green said.

The federal labor minister said the Liberals will draft the bill carefully.

“It is important that we get this right and we’ll be consulting with stakeholders and conducting policy research and analysis before legislation is brought forward,” O’Regan said in a statement.

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