Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Labour and Seniors Minister Seamus O’Regan holds a media availability in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 11.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In a trying year for labour relations in Canada, Seamus O’Regan was often the man in the middle.

The federal Labour Minister and his Liberal colleagues had several high-profile, economically sensitive disputes land squarely in their laps in 2023. In April, the government was hit with a two-week strike of more than 150,000 federal public servants. In July, a strike of port workers shut down the country’s West Coast ports for two weeks. In October, an eight-day strike of St. Lawrence Seaway workers brought the vital inland shipping corridor to a standstill.

In all three disputes, the government faced loud and persistent calls from business interests to implement back-to-work legislation. In all three, they refused.

Mr. O’Regan would like to keep it that way. The cabinet minister from St. John’s is clear that he’s not disposed to giving anyone the easy way out by intervening in work stoppages.

“Stop looking to me to do end runs on collective bargaining,” Mr. O’Regan said in an interview. “Sometimes people look to government to interfere, to make things happen more quickly, or in a way that would be more favourable to them. Invariably, my response is to sit at the table, do the work. Government shouldn’t be involved in this.”

I talked with Mr. O’Regan just ahead of his constituency office holiday party, as he prepared for a welcome break after a contentious fall sitting in Parliament and a particularly unharmonious year for Canadian labour.

Government statistics show that through the first 10 months of 2023, nearly 2.4 million person-days of work had been lost to strikes and lockouts – already the biggest annual total since 2005, and about double the annual numbers in the years immediately preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

This despite still historically strong employment, an economy that has managed (so far) to resist recession and annual wage gains running higher than they have in decades.

Certainly, high inflation coupled with high interest rates have played a big role, as workers and employers have felt the pinch, and everyone wants to make up for lost spending power. But Mr. O’Regan believes that there’s a psychological aspect, too – a hangover of fear and distrust from the pandemic.

“We’re just rattled, we’re jarred. We went through a period of time where we were afraid of one another. And I don’t think we’re over it,” Mr. O’Regan said.

“People at those negotiating tables, whether they’re with unions or whether they’re with employers, they’re products of the world around them, and products of their lives at home. If things seem a little more testy at negotiating tables in this country, it’s just because those tables are occupied by people who are feeling that, too,” he said.

Our conversation took place not long after Mr. O’Regan had gone to Bay Street to deliver a speech in late November to the financial community. That’s akin to having lunch in the lion’s den for a minister of a government that has often been viewed as, if not anti-business, at least routinely tone-deaf to the concerns of corporate Canada.

I asked Mr. O’Regan what message he wanted to get across to the business community.

“That my motivation in this, and most things I have tried to do politically, is really about stability and certainty,” he said. “I’ve had my ups and downs in life, and I have coveted stability. I think a lot of people, particularly these days, do too.”

For its part, the business community has let Mr. O’Regan and his government know that they’re not thrilled with some of its more baldly pro-labour policies – such as its recently tabled legislation banning replacement workers in government-regulated workplaces. The bill (C-58) was in second reading in the House of Commons before the holiday break.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has argued the bill, if passed, would “destroy” the “carefully constructed balance between employers and unions that encourages negotiated settlements.” The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the legislation would “put too much power in the hands or large unions,” and “could prolong the duration of strikes and increase their frequency.”

Mr. O’Regan doesn’t buy the argument that a replacement-worker ban tips the scales in favour of unions.

“The problem has been a long-standing one, that what workers bring as their value – their actual labour – could be usurped, or you could work around it, by just having it replaced. If you were looking at two neutral negotiating bodies across from each other at the negotiating table, and one could have its value replaced by somebody else that’s cheaper – nobody would look upon that and say that that seemed in any way fair,” he said.

“We’ve accepted it because it’s just always been the way, but it’s always been the way since Charles Dickens’s time. It was the way back when children worked looms,” he said. “It’s archaic.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe