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labor Strikes Are Meant To Be Disruptive

Critics of new anti-scab legislation in Canada are worried about the ability to “get things done.” But halting production is the very purpose of strikes — to create disruptions that force bosses to negotiate.

Unifor members on a picket line outside General Motors Canada's Oshawa Assembly Complex in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, on October 10, 2023. ,(Cole Burston / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As the Canadian government’s anti-scab legislation works its way through Parliament, the usual suspects continue to complain about protecting the rights of workers. Most recently, Canadian Chamber of Commerce vice president and deputy leader of government relations Robin Guy took to the pages of the Financial Post to take issue with Bill C-58 and to warn that should it pass, the Canadian economy and business as we know it would crumble under the force of labor’s new weight.

Guy argues that banning scabs — or “replacement workers” as he and the legislation call them — in federally regulated workplaces would exacerbate job action, leading to more strikes that will undermine an already-sluggish Canadian economy. Worrying about infrastructure in particular — trains, ports, planes — he writes, “Although politicians claim to be addressing Canada’s productivity challenges, they are advancing anti-replacement worker legislation that will reduce productivity, further erode our global reputation and keep Canada from simply getting things done.”

There’s an awful lot hidden in the words “simply getting things done.” Guy’s lament for the state of the Canadian economy contains an argument that reflects what so many capitalists and their minions take as an article of faith: workers are grist for the mill. Whatever slows or stops the smooth feeding of labor and raw materials through to profit-generating outputs is to be viewed, at best, as suspect and threatening.

No doubt, Guy’s argument will resonate with many who view labor action as disruptive (which it’s meant to be), costly (which it need not be, if employers bargain in good faith), and unnecessary (which couldn’t be further from the truth). We live in an economic system supported by the “common sense” of marketeers who never stop in their efforts to undermine labor rights.

Many who buy into the bogus, anti-worker narrative take for granted what unions have delivered: better working hours, better working conditions, and better pay. These sorts would burn the ships that delivered them safely to port, not imagining they might ever need them to return home again. That’s a serious problem and this is an opportune moment to revisit why strikes — and collective bargaining — are so important, and how those rights are undermined by scab workers.

The Anti-Scab Law Making Its Way Through Parliament

The Liberal government’s anti-scab law bans replacement workers in federally regulated industries during strikes and lockouts. Those industries include airports, airlines, railways, ports, telecoms, and certain subsectors of the agriculture industry. As written, it carves out exceptions for pressing health and safety concerns related to physical, property, and environmental damage. It’s also got quite a long lead time, eighteen months out from proclamation, which some Canadian unions are concerned about. But the law, which also applies to some crown corporations, is otherwise quite welcome. In fact, it’s so welcome that even the Conservative Party voted for it on second-reading.

Attempts to introduce such a law federally have failed in the past. While Quebec and British Columbia ban scabs in their jurisdictions — and have for decades — a federal law has been elusive despite decades of efforts to establish one. The current bill is a product of the Liberal–New Democratic Party supply-and-confidence agreement, which is to say that it’s the product of a minority parliament in which the governing party is induced to cooperate with its political rivals.

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Guy is worried about the effect of the anti-scab law, but the fact is that such laws encourage employers to solve labor disputes at the bargaining table and prevent them from undermining collective bargaining rights by bringing in replacement workers. This approach leads to fewer and shorter strikes, provided that bosses and owners bargain in good faith and the balance of power remains fairly distributed between parties.

Historically, workers have long seen their powers eroded by ever more powerful capital, particularly since the 1980s. For labor rights to be meaningful — that is, for them to exist in practice rather than just in theory — those rights must be impactful and difficult, if not impossible, to undermine by circumventing their reason for existing.

Anti-scab legislation also reduces the prospects for violence on and off the picket line.

Why We Strike

Strikes have been around for a long, long time. Indeed, the Guinness Book of World Records tracks the first organized work stoppage to Egypt in 1152 BCE, when artisans at the royal necropolis downed tools. Union action and rights as we know them today emerged much later, in the late nineteenth century. They developed following the Industrial Revolution, which led to the rise of wage labor and a pronounced class division between workers and capitalists.

Canada has a robust history of strikes. In 1872, printers in Toronto agitated for, among other things, a nine-hour workday and made great strides in the struggle for better working conditions. The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which was violently repressed by the state, emerged from widespread disaffection at social and economic inequalities and remains to this day an iconic moment for labor.

The 1949 Asbestos strike in Quebec, which helped launch the career of future prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, pressed back against provincial repression — and seventy-five years later that spirit lives on in the province. The Days of Action from 1995 to 1998 in Ontario also marked a pivotal moment of resistance in Canadian labor history. Mobilized against the “Common Sense Revolution” policies of the Mike Harris government, the actions featured eleven regional and citywide rolling strikes. More recently, a 2022 strike by CUPE workers forced Ontario premier Doug Ford to repeal anti-worker legislation that threatened collective bargaining rights, while last year saw roughly 160,000 federal public service workers demand better wages in one of the largest strikes in the country’s history.

It wasn’t, however, until 2015 that the Supreme Court of Canada recognized — or, more accurately, confirmed — the constitutional protection of the right to collective bargaining and the related right to strike. In a 5-2 ruling, the court sided with workers over the government of Saskatchewan, which was taking liberties with whom it designated an essential worker and in ordering striking workers back to work.

In her reply to two dissenting justices, including now chief justice of the Supreme Court, Richard Wagner — who argued the ruling would tilt the balance of power in favor of labor — Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella wrote:

In essentially attributing equivalence between the power of employees and employers, this reasoning, with respect, turns labour relations on its head, and ignores the fundamental power imbalance which the entire history of modern labour legislation has been scrupulously devoted to rectifying.

What Abella articulated in 2015, which some people forget today, is the critical nature of the right to collective bargaining and the attendant right to strike as a part of essential worker rights. They’re pivotal in addressing the inherent power imbalance between labor and capital. Moreover, her judgment underscores a crucial point: these rights lose their force if they are undermined by capital’s capacity to do an end run around them. Employing scab labor is just such a circumvention, which is why prohibiting the practice is so important.

Disruption Is the Point

Naturally, strikes will be disruptive. They will disrupt business. They will disrupt employment. They will disrupt economic output. They will disrupt access to goods and services. That’s the point. Strikes are meant to be disruptive because they are meant to induce both parties to find a solution at the bargaining table. Workers don’t love sacrificing their time and livelihoods for sport — strike pay isn’t exactly lucrative. They resort to striking and picketing as a strategic response to their relative lack of power in negotiations, aiming to level the playing field and secure a fair bargain when negotiations seem or are unlikely to yield results at the boardroom table.

Strikes are about leveraging solidarity to secure workplace gains for the many. For the wealthy and comfortable, strikes are most often a trifling disruption. However, they can also pose a long-term threat for elites insofar as they are a means by which workers can assert power and reclaim what is lost to them as wage or salaried laborers in workplaces that resist democratic control.

For workers, strikes are necessary tools that will secure better working conditions and pay in the long run, even though they may cause pain to them and others in the short term. The efforts of unions extend benefits not only to their members, but also to the broader workforce at large, who often enjoy higher wages and better working conditions as a result. The short-term sacrifices, painful as they may be, are more than a reasonable price to pay for long-term gains.

Scabs, on the other hand, are parasites. They are tools of capital who leave workers worse off in the short and long term. They are sand in the gears of worker power, hindering the progress that strikes aim to achieve by filling in labor gaps during work stoppages. Scab labor undermines workers’ solidarity and bargaining power. Every level of government with legislative authority over this issue should ban it across all industries.


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David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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