Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan tabled new labour legislation Thursday proposing new “anti-scab” provisions, a commitment that he needed to meet by the end of the year under the terms of the minority Liberals’ confidence-and-supply deal with the NDP. The minister is also framing the move as “the biggest thing to happen to collective bargaining in Canada, in decades.”
The bill, entitled “An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Canada Industrial Relations Board Regulations, 2012” seeks to ban the use of replacement workers or “scabs” when a union employer in a federally-regulated industry has locked out employees or is in the midst of a strike.
The changes would also prohibit employers from using new hires, contractors or employees in the same bargaining unit from doing the work of union members during these work stoppages. Officials providing a technical briefing to reporters about the substance of the bill said the legislation will cover approximately one million employees, working for approximately 22,350 employers.
These include air and rail transportation, banking, telecommunications, broadcasting, as well as postal and courier services. Bill C-58, as it’s been labelled, will not apply to the federal public service. Of the employers that fall under this legislation, approximately 34 per cent are unionized or covered by a collective agreement.
The legislation allows for an exemption in cases where there are threats to health and safety, or serious environmental or property damage that could not be managed by the existing workforce. And, should a union believe an employer is using replacement workers in ways that go beyond these special circumstances, they can file a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB), which would then investigate.
Once law, any contravention from federal employers could be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day.
“I’ve spent a lot of time around the bargaining table over these past two years. It is hard work, and it is tense, and it is messy. And it works,” O’Regan said, speaking about the legislation outside of the House of Commons, backed by MPs and union representatives.
“And when we say the best deals are made at the table, we mean it. So, today is about keeping parties focused on the table and providing more stability and certainty for the economy.”
In addition to the “anti-scab” provisions, Bill C-58 seeks to improve the process for maintaining workplaces’ activities by encouraging employers and trade unions to reach earlier agreements in terms of which activities remain essential in instances of legal strikes or lockouts.
POLITICAL CONTEXT OF BILL C-58
The bill, considerably consulted on between October 2022 and January 2023, also fulfills a 2021 Liberal election commitment The last Liberal platform pledged to “create a fairer collective bargaining process by introducing legislation to prohibit the use of replacement workers.”
Still, ahead of Bill C-58’s tabling, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh held a press conference in the West Block foyer, touting the pressure his party put on the government as what resulted in the Liberals advancing these “historic” protections for unionized jobs, which he said would empower workers when demanding better wages and working conditions.
“After decades of battle, after decades of fighting, we are finally going to see a government bill that we forced to make happen, that’s going to ban scab workers in our country,” Singh said. While already pledging to push amendments to strengthen the bill, the NDP leader indicated he hadn’t yet seen the version that was then about to be tabled.
“We’ll look carefully at the law to make sure it’s going to meet the needs of workers,” he said.
One of Singh’s MPs, deputy leader and labour critic Alexandre Boulerice, joined O’Regan for his announcement and was credited for putting “good policy above politics.”
According to the terms of the two-party arrangement, the bill only needed to be tabled in the House of Commons this year and not necessarily passed. Seeing the bill become law may take some time, given what the NDP anticipates will be resistance from the Conservatives.
STAKEHOLDER REACTION TO BILL C-58
Canadian Labour Congress President Bea Bruske told reporters Thursday that the bill “will greatly help bring fairness to workplaces right across Canada,” by rebalancing the scales during strikes by preventing employers from using scab labour to undermine the collective bargaining process, however, not all stakeholders are on-side.
While Bruske said Bill C-58 will “lead to less labour disruptions, fewer work stoppages” and likely result in “swifter negotiations,” the legislation should be amended to ensure the protections are urgently brought into force upon passage, rather than the currently prescribed 18 months post-royal assent.
According to one of the government officials speaking with reporters on a not-for-attribution basis, this amount of time post-passage is needed because stakeholders need time to prepare for these significant changes, from unions adjusting their negotiating strategies, to the CIRB putting the requisite resources, procedures and processes in place.
Also reacting to the bill’s tabling, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) called the legislation “terrible news for small businesses,” warning these provisions could end up prompting more labour disputes, resulting in knock-on effects for the companies that rely on key federal workplaces such as ports.
“Already the government has given huge additional powers to unions over the last number of years, but this is a big one. We can expect more strikes, more lockouts and longer ones as a result of a ban on replacement workers. This takes at least one tool that employers have to use in a limited way away as an option,” said CFIB President Dan Kelly in an interview with CTV News.
Source: CTV News