The Trudeau government’s new bill banning temporary replacement workers during strikes and lockouts in federally regulated workplaces is bad in so many ways.
It is unnecessary, given that the gains made in the past year by workers in the auto industry, in the federal public service, in grocery stores and elsewhere are evidence there is a balance in labour-employer relations. The ban’s implementation would unjustifiably tip the scales in favour of unions.
There is also plenty of research showing that a ban on replacement workers could result in more frequent strikes that last longer – evidence the government has chosen to ignore but which contradicts one of its main reasons for implementing the ban.
If that research is correct, the ban could harm the economy by subjecting Canada’s federally regulated transportation infrastructure – the trains, planes, trucks and ships that form the sinews of our supply chain – to frequent and lengthy job actions.
And in a period when the country’s productivity rate is catastrophically low, it might result in higher wages in the short run but could lead to lower investment in the long run, as companies are forced to spend more on wages and less on innovation. That could further hinder growth and, ironically, put downward pressure on wages.
The debate over banning replacement workers during strikes or lockouts has gone on for decades in Canada. British Columbia and Quebec have bans in place, and Ontario tried it for a brief period in the 1990s before abandoning it. At the federal level, previous governments have all shied away from handing unions so powerful a weapon.
The only reason the minority Liberals are acting on the issue now is that tabling such a bill by the end of 2023 is a pillar of their parliamentary alliance with the NDP.
But as well as being the price of the Liberals’ survival, it is also their attempt to garner the support of working-class voters who are beginning to veer into the Conservative camp, a phenomenon discussed in this space recently.
The bill effectively eliminates the ability of most businesses to continue some level of activity during a strike or lockout, tilting the bargaining table sharply in the direction of unions, which can wait out the helpless employer and demand a higher settlement.
It is also an inducement to unions to resort more quickly to strikes, rather than working through long negotiations after a contract has expired.
The government seems aware of this danger, most notably because it is exempting the federal public service from the replacement worker ban.
As well, the proposed bill attempts to mitigate the obvious imbalance it creates by imposing a 15-day deadline early in the bargaining process for both sides to reach a “maintenance of work” deal that would determine which jobs need to continue during a strike or lockout. If no deal is reached, the Canada Industrial Relations Board would have 90 days to settle the question.
That would be a good move with or without the ban on replacement workers. But it doesn’t solve the larger problem – that the Liberals are moving ahead despite the evidence, some of it based on the lessons of B.C. and Quebec, that such bans result in more frequent and longer strikes.
If one of the government’s main goals is truly to have fewer and shorter strikes in federally regulated businesses, then arguably it should allow replacement workers, since that’s the best lever employers have for pressuring unions to settle.
But the Trudeau government is not interested in better labour relations. Its goal is to stay in power and to try to find something, anything, to stop it from bleeding support. The bill, once passed, comes into effect 18 months later – likely just in time for the fixed election in 2025. No doubt the Liberals and the NDP will wield the ban between now and then as proof of their support for unions, and as a cudgel against the surging Conservative Party.
But no one should be fooled. There is a good reason no previous federal government, Liberal or Conservative, has ever thrown this bone to unions. It’s a terrible idea that will have a profound and lasting impact on Canada’s economy.