The federal NDP is calling for leadership that protects workers by introducing anti-scab legislation that will cover union members in federally-regulated industries. If it passes, Canada will join Quebec and British Columbia, which have anti-scab legislation for workers under provincial jurisdiction.

It’s a move that will give a much-needed boost to workers’ power. One of a union’s core functions is supporting workers organizing together to get a better deal from their employer. Bargaining collectively is key to workers’ power. Together, we get better wages and working conditions than we could on our own.

Our bargaining power ultimately comes from our ability to stop work by striking. In fact, when the Saskatchewan government made it nearly impossible for provincial public sector workers to strike, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the right to strike was an essential component of collective bargaining and freedom of association.   

Most collective bargaining is resolved without work stoppages, but some lockouts or strikes can stretch into years. Employers use lengthy lockouts to demand pension and benefit concessions, contract out work, or even try and break unions. Using replacement workers, or scabs, reduces the bargaining power of locked out or striking workers and escalates tension on picket lines.

We’re seeing this with the Co-op Refinery lockout in Regina, a workplace under provincial jurisdiction, where the employer is helicoptering in replacement workers to bolster its attack on Unifor members’ pensions. In mid-February, the City of Fredericton locked out municipal workers, members of CUPE 508, while at the same time recruiting scabs through an Ontario-based corporation. Fortunately, the lockout ended quickly. As of press time, locked-out CUPE 4193 members, workers at a landfill near Bathurst, NB, were also facing scabs.

A 2015 study suggests the impact of anti-scab legislation will vary depending on union density, broader economic conditions, and other differences in labour legislation, such as card-check certification. Some researchers have found that anti-scab legislation may lead to fewer long lockouts and slightly higher wage settlements.

People who opposed anti-scab legislation in BC and Quebec predicted there would be more strikes, and that investors would be less likely to set up shop in these provinces. These predictions did not come true.

Analysis shows employers are increasingly contracting out, transferring work, and using scab labour during extended strikes and lockouts across the country, including in the federal jurisdiction. In the 2002-2003 Vidéotron strike in Quebec, the employer used scab labour because the telecommunications sector was under federal jurisdiction. The 10-month strike affected 2,200 Vidéotron workers, members of CUPE locals 1417 and 2815. The use of replacement workers reduced our members’ bargaining power and made the employer less willing to reach a deal.

The NDP is showing leadership by supporting anti-scab legislation to level the playing field between workers and employers. It’s time the federal government made this the law.