Anti-scab legislation restores balance of power during labour disputes

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Message from the President Jerry Dias
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This column originally appeared in the Toronto star.

There’s a reason why they’re called scabs.

“Just as a scab is a physical lesion, the strikebreaking scab disfigures the social body of labour,” writes Stephanie Ann Smith in Household Words.

I could not have said it better myself. Scabs tear apart communities, pull down workers and prolong disputes – something, we at Unifor, know all too well.

Since Unifor formed in 2013, our three longest labour disputes in terms of overall days lost involved the use of scabs. Labour disputes that involved scabs lasted on average six times longer than those without scabs.

Scabs remove any incentive for the boss to bargain fairly and they tip the balance of power away from workers trying to exercise their right to withdraw services when an employer is unreasonable.

Quebec and British Columbia are the only two provinces who have anti-scab legislation to prevent bosses from undermining the entire collective bargaining process.

Quebec’s Labour Code forbids employers from using scabs to do the work of unionized employees, except for managers.

In B.C., employers can’t use new hires, contract workers or employees from another location  as scabs.

But even in these jurisdictions, employers have found ways to work around existing laws, and we still see scabs in our workplaces.

The federal and provincial governments must pass anti-scab legislation now, to stop employers from using replacement workers to try and bust unions, and BC and Quebec need to tighten their own anti-scab laws to give them real teeth.

In Regina, we saw the Co-op Refinery spend millions in 2019 building a scab camp that it filled with out of province scabs airlifted across our picket line by helicopter, hoping locked out union members would give up their pensions.

This deep-pocketed employer did that because it could, and the dispute dragged on 200 days.

Think about the detrimental effect scabs have on physical and mental health of workers. They defeat morale, fracture workplace relationships, create tension and sometimes outright violence, as outlined in a new Unifor study. This research paper, called Fairness on the line: The case for anti-scab legislation in Canada, makes a clear case for the urgent need for anti-scab laws nationwide.

We have witnessed the long and shameful history of scabs in Canada. Who could forget the 2002 Canadian Auto Workers strike at Navistar International’s truck plant in Chatham, Ont., where a scab employed by a professional strikebreaking company drove his van through the picket line, injuring three CAW members, one of them critically.

We’ve seen the consequences of unskilled replacement workers. Two years ago, when nearly 300 workers at a salt mine went on strike in Goderich, Ont., their employer bused in scabs, who for 10 weeks crossed the picket line of legally striking Unifor members.

The scabs posted videos all over social media mocking our members.

Their kids had to watch buses full of scabs roll into town knowing what it means. It was a kick in the face to their parents and to their community. It was heartbreaking.

I walked the scabs out of that mine. Lo and behold, without scabs, the company got serious about negotiating and we were back at the table to hammer out a deal within days.

The mine was in complete disarray when our members returned.

A 2009 study  found that once Canadian workers’ bargaining power is restored through anti-scab legislation, there may be a slight uptick in work stoppages in the first two years, but the length of disputes are cut so significantly that there is no overall rise on days lost.

That means more Canadians at work, doing their jobs.

This is about respect for Canadian workers. Using scabs drags out disputes, undermines workplace safety, creates division in communities, and animosity between workers and employers, destabilizing labour relations.

We’ve seen how Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has been courting union members lately. Perhaps he should consider putting his party’s support behind a nation-wide push for anti-scab legislation, to demonstrate his commitment to making a better future for Canadian workers and their families.

It’s time for Canadian provinces and the federal government to step up. And it’s time for friends of Canadian workers to get behind new anti-scab rules that will make a real difference.