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Legislation introduced in Ottawa to ban use of replacement workers


By Leo Ryan, Editor

Canada’s Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan Jr. today introduced legislation which proposes to ban the use of replacement workers in federally regulated workplaces which include ports during a strike or lockout.  The long-anticipated initiative drew rapid approval from labour union circles and sharp criticism from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

The anti-scab legislation is a key feature of the supply-and-confidence agreement struck in 2022 between the minority Liberal Party and the NDP.  The Liberals had committed to limiting the use of replacement workers in their 2021 election platform. But the last time such a bill went to vote in 2016, both the Conservatives and Liberals voted against it.

In the past few years, unionized docker strikes at the ports of Vancouver and Montreal have had major impacts of supply chains across Canada. Currently, CUPE union members have been locked out by employers at the Port of Quebec since September of last year.

Bill C-58 would ban employers from using replacement workers to do the work of unionized employees who are on strike or locked out. An exception would apply in situations where there are threats to health and safety, or threats of serious property and environmental damage that could not be managed by the employer’s existing workforce.

If a union believes the employer is using replacement workers in capacities beyond this exception, their recourse would be to file a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB), who would then investigate the issue.

Once law, non-compliance from federal employers could be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day. 

The federal government also recognized that the current maintenance of activities process can be lengthy, further prolonging or complicating disputes.

To strengthen the maintenance of activities process, Bill C-58 would require employers and unions to come to an agreement early in the bargaining process to determine what work needs to continue during a strike or lockout, if any. The parties would have 15 days to do this. If they cannot come to an agreement, the CIRB would decide what activities need to be maintained within 90 days. The Minister would continue to have the authority to refer questions to the CIRB to protect the health and safety of Canadians.

“We’re banning the use of replacement workers because we believe in collective bargaining,” said Mr. O’Reagan Jr. ”Our economy depends on employers and workers negotiating an agreement at the table. That’s where we get stability for our economy, that’s where strong labour relations are forged, and that’s where the best deals are made.”

 Small business and union response

Meanwhile, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Bill C-58 was “terrible news for small businesses.”

“If passed, this bill could prolong the duration of strikes and increase their frequency,” Jasmin Guenette, CFIB’s vice-president, said in a press release.

“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.

“It looks like Ottawa has not learned any lessons from the most recent strikes at BC ports. If passed, this bill could prolong the duration of strikes and increase their frequency. We’ve seen it happen in British Columbia and Quebec, where there’s already a legislation to ban replacement workers and where they have experienced more strikes than other jurisdictions. Long strikes at ports or rails hurt small businesses’ operations and finances.”  

To strengthen the economy and ensure fairness for small businesses, CFIB recommends government to reject the proposed anti-replacement worker legislation and consider making ports and other federally regulated workplaces, including rail, air, trucking service providers and telecommunications, an essential service with binding arbitration

Lana Payne, the national president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, said Bill C-58 is a win for everyone who has fought for stronger labour rights.”This legislation has been a long time coming,” Ms. Payne said. “The right to strike, to withdraw our labour, is integral to free and fair collective bargaining.”

(Photo from Unifor shows locked-out workers demonstrating at Port of Quebec)