Bill to ban replacement workers fails

British Columbia and Quebec are still only jurisdictions that refuse scabs

Bill 86 in Ontario, the most recent attempt to ban replacement worker during a strike, was defeated at second reading on October 8, 2009. (The vote was 25 to 10; some honourable members must have been taking an extra-long Thanksgiving long weekend.)

The next most recent effort to pass anti-scab legislation was in the House of Commons in 2007. That bill had strong and co-ordinated backing from unions and, originally, support from the Liberal party. But, when push came to shove, the Liberals changed their minds and the bill was defeated.

Recently, Steve Ashton, one contender for the leadership of the Manitoba NDP, has suggested that he might support a ban on replacement workers in that province; his opponents have taken the opposite position.

Currently, only British Columbia and Quebec ban replacement workers. Ontario did in 1992 under Bob Rae, but the Conservatives repealed that legislation in 1995. Manitoba, as well, had a time limit on strikes followed by mandatory final-offer-selection arbitration in 1988 to 1991. Quebec’s legislation dates from 1977 and B.C.’s from 1993.

Most rhetoric in support of or opposition to banning scabs centres on “balance” in labour relations: whether it exists now or must be established through a ban. Balance is not something on which a numerical value can be placed and is an indication of nothing other than point of view.

For example, speaking against the Ontario private-member’s bill, former Conservative labour minister Elizabeth Witmer claimed that banning replacement workers “would render the employer quite helpless.”

There is hard evidence that anti-scab legislation makes strikes more frequent and longer, but it compares replacement-worker provinces with banned provinces. Unionists claim that, strike-by strike, disputes where replacement workers are used are longer than those where they are not.

As well, the most recent study, published this year in Canadian Public Policy by Paul Duffy and Susan Johnson of Wilfrid Laurier University, suggests that this effect of more and longer strikes disappears after a couple of years.

And, the province of Quebec bans replacement workers, yet the Journal de Québec strike was both long and characterized by considerable use of scab labour to produce the newspaper, as found on several occasions by the Quebec Labour Relations Board.

Unions point to picket-line violence resulting from a confrontation between strikers and security guards hired to get replacement workers onto the site as a result of the lack of a ban. Opponents don’t try to deny this, though one suggests that establishing special criminal penalties against employers and security contractors is the answer.

The amount of effort expended by unions in the vain effort to achieve federal anti-scab legislation may have soured some against a similar campaign. Still, the issue is alive and dear to the hearts of many unionists. It will not easily go away.

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