Province needs legislation banning replacement workers

Lana Payne
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Like any law, anti-scab legislation is needed to keep the few bad apples from spoiling the entire barrel

When rational, evidence-based arguments fail, stoop to scare tactics, hyperbole and exaggeration. Throw in a liberal dose of economic voodoo and, if youre lucky, some of it will stick like throwing mud.

Thats exactly what employer organizations have been doing around the issue of anti-scab legislation.

Nationally, employers managed, at the last minute, to beat back an organized and sustained lobby by labour activists to get anti-scab legislation for employers operating in federally regulated jurisdictions representing about 10 per cent of the countrys workforce.

Although it appears the matter may not be dead quite yet. There are rumblings that the Liberals may introduce another bill banning replacement workers. After promising to support the last private members bill, many Liberals sided with the Conservatives, caving to pressure from corporate lobbyists and torpedoing the proposed legislation that had made it all the way to third reading.

Provincially, the issue of anti-scab legislation has gained considerable attention since a Voiseys Bay sub-contractor hired replacement workers during a legal strike by 120 workers, members of the steelworkers union.

Employers here are demanding that the Williams government leave the provinces labour laws alone or, as they would have us believe, the sky will fall in.

Marilyn Tucker, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers Council, says anti-scab legislation will mean more power for unions, eliminating a tool that employers have to apply pressure during collective bargaining.

What the position of the employers council ignores is that over 95 per cent of negotiations are settled without strike action or a lockout. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of employers have never used replacement workers and have opted instead to negotiate fairly to bargain in good faith with their employees.

In effect, most employers have operated as if there already were a ban on replacement workers.

But laws are not for the majority of people. They are for the minority of any population that is irresponsible, or worse. Laws also serve as reminders to the rest of us regarding what is acceptable behaviour in a civil society.

Therefore, like any law, anti-scab legislation is needed to keep the few bad apples from spoiling the entire barrel from tainting what has been a decent labour-relations climate, a good place to do business.

A ban on replacement workers will not, as Tucker claims, give more power to unions. It will merely level the playing field.

In 1999, the Sims Commission, which examined the Canada Labour Code could not reach an agreement on replacement workers. As a member of the commission, Rodrique Blouin, a University of Laval professor of industrial relations, supported banning replacement workers.

He noted that the use of replacement workers undermines the structural elements that ensure the internal cohesion of the collective bargaining system by introducing a foreign body into a dispute between two clearly identified parties.

In other words, as Blouin concluded, it upsets the economic balance of power shifts the original neutral ground of the dispute and leads eventually to a perception of exploitation of the individual.

As the Canadian Labour Congress pointed out recently to a parliamentary committee, in a mature collective bargaining relationship, the parties recognize that the use of replacement workers does not solve collective bargaining issues; it simply exacerbates them.

Some employer and business groups have also argued that banning replacement workers will hurt the economy and result in higher labour costs. Of course, there is no evidence for this. In fact, if you look at the two provinces that have anti-scab legislation Quebec for over 30 years and British Columbia for a decade and a half they have healthy economies, proving that labour rights and economic growth and success are not incompatible.

Of course, many countries in the world also ban the use of replacement workers during disputes between workers and their employers. Its not like Newfoundland and Labrador will be reinventing the wheel if it modernizes its labour laws.

One of these countries is Iceland, which has been celebrated as one of the most dynamic places on Earth to do business by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

And yet, as the Canadian Labour Congress points out, this is a country that boasts strong labour laws, with over 85 per cent of its workers belonging to a union.

The provinces employers council is supporting and condoning the actions of a tiny number of rogue employers that do not want to bargain fairly, and that have no respect for the rights of unions and working people to organize and collectively bargain.

This is exactly the case in Voiseys Bay. The workers have been on strike since mid-April, and if research and history tell us anything, when replacement workers are used, strikes are often prolonged, nasty affairs.

It is time to take on the rogue employers. The provincial government must ask itself if it is going to allow a few irresponsible employers to sully a stable labour-relations climate.

The government must ask itself if it is going to allow our prospering economy to be held ransom by the irresponsible and immature actions of a tiny number of employers, or if it is going to stand up for fairness and balance, for collective bargaining in good faith.

After all, fairness needs fair rules.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement.

Her column returns June 24.

Organizations: Conservatives, Newfoundland and Labrador Employers Council, Canadian Labour Congress Sims Commission University of Laval United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Geographic location: Voiseys Bay, Canada, Quebec British Columbia Newfoundland and Labrador Iceland

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