Last week the federal government introduced a new piece of legislation, C-58, which is aimed at banning the practice of employers bringing in replacement workers during a contract dispute.
Experts say the legislation is the culmination of decades of work by the labour movement in Canada, while it also represents the fulfilment of a key demand in the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement.
Here’s what you need to know about the new piece of legislation.
What does the bill do?
The bill has two main components. The first makes it illegal for employers in federally regulated industries to bring in replacement workers to continue operations previously executed by unionized employees during a legal strike or lockout.
Federally regulated industries include sectors like banking and telecommunications, totalling over one million employees. Around a third of those employees are unionized, according to the federal government. The legislation does not, however, apply to the federal public service.
The bill also sets out penalties for breaking the rules — $100,000 per day for employers — as well as some exceptions, such as for non-unionized contractors hired before notice of a lockout or strike, or in cases where there could be a threat to health and safety, property or the environment.
A second part of the bill details new processes for what are called maintenance of activities agreements. These new rules force unions and employers to negotiate early in the bargaining process (within 15 days of a notice of strike or lockout) which services would continue in the event of a dispute. If they can’t agree, the matter gets referred to the Canada Industrial Relations Board for a decision within 90 days.
“It’s a good bill [from the perspective of] what organized labour has been arguing for with regards to anti-scab legislation, as it’s called by unions and working people, versus the management term, which is replacement worker,” said Charles Smith, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan specializing in labour politics.
“This has been one of labour’s key legislative demands for the last 50 years. And I think on that level the labour movement is going to be celebrating today,” he said.
Smith said the bill could reduce large-scale disruptions by forcing more deals to be made at the bargaining table.
Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University, also noted that the bill could reduce potential violence on picket lines and mitigate the damage to workplace cultures following a contract dispute.
“At some point all work stoppages end and workers have to return to their jobs. But the resentment that’s caused by the use of scab labour, that lingers. It poisons labour relations and it inevitably leads to lower workplace morale,” he said.
What are people saying about it?
As Smith noted, the bill is being hailed as a major victory by the labour movement.
“This legislation is a step toward levelling the playing field. It will be good for the economy and good for labour relations, it encourages unions and employers to resolve their differences in the very place designed for that to happen, the bargaining table,” said Lana Payne, national president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, last week.
“Workers have called for anti-scab legislation for decades, as it has been a missing piece of Canada’s federal labour law,” said Bea Bruske, head of the Canadian Labour Congress.
“I think the anti-scab law was pretty high on the labour movement’s wish list,” Savage said.
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Business groups this week expressed opposition to the legislation, arguing it would weaken key services and increase labour disruptions.
“There’s a reason why similar bills were always voted down in the past. They put too much power in the hands of large unions, and they are a threat to the economy as a whole. It looks like this bill is introduced for political reasons and not because it’s necessary,” said Jasmin Guenette, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.
Savage said previous, opposition-led attempts at labour reform have often been derailed following pressure from employers.
“They’ve usually faltered because Liberal MPs got cold feet and switched their votes on second or third reading based on pressure from the business community,” he said.
“The dynamics are a little different this time around as a result of the confidence and supply agreement. But we should expect strong business opposition to this bill.”
Savage and Smith both said similar provincial legislation in Quebec and British Columbia had not led to a noticeable increase in contract disputes leading to strikes or lockouts.
What are the politics involved?
The anti replacement worker legislation was a key demand in the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement. The two parties worked closely on the legislation, and the resulting bill closely mirrors previous NDP proposals, Savage said.
In an event announcing the legislation Thursday, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan repeatedly made note of his close working relationship with NDP deputy leader and labour critic Alexandre Boulerice.
So part of the motivation behind the bill is to fulfil that confidence and supply requirement, Savage said. And as a “transactional” party, he noted, it was clear that the Liberals are trying to shore up support with unions.
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“The other thing that’s happening here, though, is that I think the Liberals see this as an opportunity to use the legislation as a wedge issue to undermine recent Conservative efforts to build up support amongst blue collar union members,” said Savage.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been making a concerted political push to garner the votes of working Canadians. But Smith said this bill presents the party with a challenge, and a choice between the newer attitude on labour and older Harper-era positions.
“When you look at the Conservative record, especially since Harper, there’s no appetite for the reforms that the labour movement has advocated for. And I think Poilievre is very much in that corner,” he said.
Poilievre’s office did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News on the party’s position.
Smith said one puzzling aspect of the legislation is a clause that says it will come into force 18 months after it receives royal assent.
O’Regan said Thursday that was largely to give the agencies responsible for handling labour disputes and the new processes enough time to adapt to the new regulations.
Savage said the labour movement is probably hoping this legislation will have a cascading effect throughout the provinces, where legislation mirroring the proposed federal law could crop up.
Smith also noted that the legislative win might translate to a greater political push in the next election.
“Given all the things we’ve been seeing in the last 12 months with regards to strikes and struggles and labour wins, this I think puts a little wind in the political sales of the labour movement in as much as it actually shows that those struggles can have political meaning,” he said.
He said that the political momentum labour might glean from the bill may or may not translate to victories at the polls for labour-supported candidates, but the momentum is there.