Enough is enough

Anti-scab legislation? A sensible idea that’s long overdue

As the dispute between Ocean Choice International (OCI) and the hard-working fishers of this province escalates, we’re hearing a growing chorus of voices calling for the province to bring in anti-scab legislation, banning the use of replacement workers during a legal strike. NDP leader Lorraine Michael made one of those recent calls, and it’s not a far-fetched demand at all. An even more poignant call on behalf of the striking fishers of Newfoundland and Labrador came from this young woman, who wrote a deeply moving letter to CBC on behalf of her hard-working father, who was jailed for trying to protect his job, for trying to keep work in this province, and for standing up for the very basic right to strike, which is rendered meaningless if local labour laws permit employers to get around strikes by the use of scabs. If this province had the kind of anti-scab laws that some other provinces do, her father might be back at work now, where he deserves to be, instead of in prison, where he doesn’t.

In fact, considering the recent labour history of this province, it makes tremendously good sense for such a law to be brought in. It can do a lot to protect the much more vulnerable labour situation that exists in this province.

Anti-scab laws: nothing new, and nothing strange

Anti-scab laws have existed in this country for over 30 years. Quebec was the first province to introduce such laws in 1977, followed by British Columbia in 1993. Ontario also introduced anti-scab legislation in 1993, although it was repealed by the infamous Mike Harris in 1995.

The case for anti-scab legislation is a strong one. Evidence shows that anti-scab legislation boosts economic productivity and efficiency. In an assessment published two years ago, Brock University labour studies scholar Larry Savage reported that when Quebec introduced their legislation, the number of ‘worker-days’ lost due to strikes dropped from 6.4 million to 1.2 million in the very first year of the ban on scabs. It’s fluctuated over the years, but the Canadian Labour Congress reports that on average the number of days lost due to strikes in Quebec is less than half that lost under the Canada Labour Code. When BC brought in its anti-scab law, the number of work-days lost to strikes was cut in half in the first year. Without being able to rely on replacement workers, employers return to the bargaining table, and settle negotiations with their employees fairly. Furthermore, there is no solid evidence whatsoever to back up the claim – often made by employers – that anti-scab laws will drive away investment. In fact, after Ontario passed its anti-scab laws Savage reports there was a significant increase in investment and employment.

These are not simple cause-and-effect relationships: there were a lot more complex factors driving these trends than simply the anti-scab laws. But the point is that the record shows anti-scab laws do not have the sort of negative effect that opponents claim they have on either business investment or employment; and in fact there’s substantial evidence suggesting they actually improve things.

…there is no solid evidence whatsoever to back up the claim – often made by employers – that anti-scab laws will drive away investment.

In fact, the labour relations framework adopted by this country really relies on disallowing the use of scabs if it is to work properly. What incentive is there for an employer to reach an agreement with their striking workers, when they can just ignore them and hire new replacement workers? A province which allows employers to hire replacement workers ensures that strikes will be longer, protracted, and bitter. The use of replacement workers creates a labour relations atmosphere prone to tension, disharmony and violence.

Recent labour relations history in this province demonstrates particularly vividly the need for anti-scab laws. The Vale-Inco dispute in Voisey’s Bay dragged on needlessly for a year and a half because Vale-Inco was allowed to fly in replacement workers to keep the mine going. In fact, the willingness of Vale-Inco’s Brazilian owners to settle with workers in Ontario, but to refuse to settle with workers in this province was in significant part because of our more isolated location and smaller numbers. The Industrial Inquiry commissioned by the provincial government to try to determine why and how that strike dragged on the way it did, concluded that large foreign transnational corporations like Vale-Inco are so powerful that traditional labour relations don’t work. When a multi-billion dollar corporation spanning six continents is willing – and able – to sacrifice millions in profits just for the sake of crushing a union, our small, hard-working communities in Newfoundland and Labrador don’t stand much of a chance without government support. The obvious next step for the government to take is to implement legislation which will make a more even-handed, fair and equal labour relations arena for workers in our smaller and more isolated, rural workplaces.

As far as Canadian provinces go, you don’t get much more isolated and rural than Newfoundland and Labrador, so it makes sense for us to be in the vanguard of progressive labour legislation that will protect our workers and industries from the predations of the transnational corporations that are currently buying up Canadian companies. We ought to be smart and bring the legislation in now, before strikes and labour disputes exacerbate an already precarious labour shortage situation.

A test for the Dunderdale government

Danny Williams was no saint from a labour perspective, but one thing he did do was ensure that large corporations knew they couldn’t bully the people of this province around (he kept that role for himself). The hard deals he negotiated with the oil companies, coupled by his response to the Abitibi-Bowater crisis, demonstrated his willingness to lay down the law to large corporations. Some people disagree with the way the Abitibi-Bowater expropriation was carried out, but the fact is that it sent an important message – that if corporations do not pay their fair share to this province, and offer decent jobs and treatment for the province’s workers, then they will pay the price. Indeed, it took the Williams government’s announcement of an Industrial Inquiry to investigate the Voisey’s Bay strike – a warning shot that government intervention on behalf of workers might come next – to provide the necessary pressure for the eventual settlement.

But now that Williams is off playing with hockey teams and land development schemes, the province’s employers and businesses are testing the waters once again. The OCI dispute is not just about a greedy company wanting to safeguard its profits at the expense of local workers; it’s also about a large corporation pushing the provincial government to see how much they’ll be able to get away with under the new provincial leadership, much like a grade-school bully who tries to push the new teacher to see how much they can get away with. If the Dunderdale government wants to ensure that this province does not become a haven for protracted, violent labour disputes and diminished productivity, then they need to send a clear message to the province’s employers that failure to uphold decent labour relationships will not be tolerated. Passing anti-scab legislation would both send that message, as well as help to ensure that we don’t lose the worker-hours that we’re already losing when employers are able to bring in underqualified scabs and drag out strikes and labour disputes endlessly.

As a “have” province, it’s time for us to help set the standards for this country: not wallow at the bottom of the barrel.

A lot of anger has been directed at the RCMP for arresting hard-working fishers and members of our communities. But it’s not the RCMP that deserve the brunt of our anger – they, like all of us, are just doing their jobs, and have little choice in the matter. In fact, many of them probably find OCI’s behaviour just as revolting as the rest of us do. They’re caught in an awkward situation, and trying to deal with it as best they can. But the ones that deserve our censure and our attention – because they CAN do something about this situation – is the provincial government. Allowing employers to use scabs to try to break our communities is something this government can stop. It’s time for them to do that. We can join Quebec and BC at the vanguard of progressive provinces taking proactive action to improve our economy and labour climate. As a “have” province, it’s time for us to help set the standards for this country: not wallow at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s time for the provincial government to do the sensible thing, and introduce anti-scab legislation. The world won’t end: in fact it’ll get considerably better. And we’ll all benefit from that.

On CBC last week, Richard Alexander from the Employers’ Council made a bizarre case against anti-scab legislation. He seemed to be trying to say that workers get the right to strike, and in exchange employers get the right to use scabs in order to keep making money. That’s as skewed an interpretation of this country’s labour laws as you’ll ever hear. The fact is, a strike is the unfortunate worst-case scenario when employer and employees can’t reach an agreement. No union wants a strike, since it means workers lose their regular salaries and have to stand out in the cold instead of doing the jobs they want to be doing. It’s a sign that the employer is being so unreasonable that the workers are willing to give up their regular salaries rather than allow themselves to be exploited, and it’s meant to accomplish one goal: pressure the employer to negotiate reasonably. If employers are able to continue making profits – “meet their financial, legal and contractual obligations”, as Alexander put it – then workers should be able to keep drawing their regular salaries while on strike as well. What, think that scenario won’t work? Well you’re right – it doesn’t work, and neither does the use of replacement workers to allow employers to keep making profits at a bargain while our workers stand out in the cold on a picket line and our communities suffer.

The fact is, good employers don’t use scabs, because they don’t need them. They negotiate maturely with their workers instead of try to sacrifice them for the sake of their own profit. The ones who don’t do that, shouldn’t be able to cheat the system by hiring scabs.

There is nothing new in what we are seeing; in fact it’s a cycle that seems, at times, to be carved into our bones. The sting of the merchant still echoes off our coasts, and buried deep within the memory of countless communities lies a history of poverty and exploitation at the hands of merchants who placed their greed ahead of the sweat and tears that built this island and the Big Land over yonder. Etched into the shorelines of our history lies a cry for a better future, and a call to the generation at the helm: will they heed it?

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