Source: World Bank/Flickr

Bill C-58, a law introduced by the federal government that purports to ban the use of “replacement workers” (i.e. scabs) in labour disputes, passed its first reading in the House of Commons on Nov. 9. Labour leaders in Canada have hailed the bill as a major victory—the fulfilment of longstanding calls for anti-scab legislation, a core demand of the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement. In truth, the legislation is full of caveats and loopholes for the bosses, and takes power away from rank-and-file workers. Bill C-58 is a cynical political manoeuvre by Liberals who are sinking in the polls.

What is in Bill C-58?

The bill, which amends the Canadian Labour Code and Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) regulations, has two main parts. The first would ban employers from bringing in scabs in federally regulated industries to do the work of unionized workers during a legal strike or lockout. These industries include sectors such as banking, telecommunications, rail and air transport, postal services, uranium mining, and radio and television broadcasting that employ more than 1 million workers in total. However, only one-third of these workers are unionized, according to the federal government. Significantly, the law does not apply to federal government workers.

Bill C-58 would impose fines of $100,000 per day to employers who break the rules, yet makes exceptions, such as for non-unionized contractors hired before notice of a strike or lockout. It also waives penalties to employers if they hire scabs in situations that might pose threats to property, the environment, or health and safety. Specifically, the bill waives penalties for using the “services” of scabs, for example if there is a “threat to the life, health or safety of any person” or a threat of “serious damage to the employer’s property or premises”. These are significant loopholes that bosses are sure to exploit by interpreting them in the broadest possible sense.

The second part of the bill concerns maintenance of activities such as supply, production, and operations during a strike or lockout. Bill C-58 would require employers and unions to come to an agreement no more than 15 days into the bargaining process about what work must continue in the course of a labour dispute. In the absence of such an agreement, the matter would be referred to the CIRB, which would have 90 days to decide what work must be maintained.

This requirement is another way to weaken and delay strikes. It also incentivizes class collaboration and takes power away from rank-and-file union members, including their ability to deal with scabs. If union leaders must agree with the employer within 15 days of bargaining about what work will be maintained during the strike or lockout, this effectively gives bosses a veto. 

Workers who strike do so only as a last resort, when bosses have made clear they are not willing to satisfy the workers’ demands. Why should those same bosses possess a veto to determine what work will continue during a strike? If bosses do not agree, the matter is referred to the CIRB. Capitalist state institutions such as the labour board tend to side with bosses over workers. Similar to binding arbitration, delegating these decisions to the state or so-called “neutral” arbiters takes power away from workers and resolves disputes through backroom deals by lawyers, instead of by workers’ democracy and mass mobilization. 

We have heard many times that striking workers put lives or infrastructure in danger, but that is just a cynical insult. Workers in struggle are totally capable of deciding what services should be maintained and which shouldn’t based on their experience in the workplace, and should not let the state decide for them. 

Capitalists seek stability amid rising class struggle

“We’re banning the use of replacement workers because we believe in collective bargaining,” Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said in his announcement of C-58. O’Regan’s statement combines lies and hypocrisy. As detailed above, Bill C-58 does not ban the use of scab labour. It offers many exceptions for employers and plenty of ways for them to continue hiring scabs. Furthermore, this is the same Liberal government that crushed the 2018 postal workers strike and the 2021 Montreal dockworkers strike with back-to-work legislation. The government that banned workers on multiple occasions from exercising their democratic right to strike now claims to believe in collective bargaining! O’Regan insults the intelligence of every working class person.

“Our economy depends on employers and workers negotiating an agreement at the table,” the labour minister added. “That’s where we get stability for our economy, that’s where strong labour relations are forged, and that’s where the best deals get made.” Here O’Regan is more truthful and gets to the real heart of the matter. The crisis of capitalism has left workers struggling to keep their heads above water, leading to increased strikes across Canada. Faced with rampant inflation, the rising cost of living, and stagnant wages, more and more workers have no alternative but to fight. Meanwhile, employers seek to maintain profits by squeezing workers through cuts to wages and benefits.

These antagonistic interests of workers and bosses are a recipe for class struggle. From the perspective of the capitalist class that the state represents, the resulting “instability” is harmful to the economy. The Liberals seek to restore stability in class relations by increasing the likelihood that bosses and unions will negotiate agreements at the bargaining table, and not on the picket lines.

Even if the bill offers generous loopholes for the bosses, business groups have railed against Bill C-58. Jasmin Guenette, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, says similar bills have been voted down in the past because they “put too much power in the hands of large unions, and they are a threat to the economy as a whole. It looks like this bill is introduced for political reasons and not because it’s necessary.” Naturally, any bill that prevents a complete free reign for the bosses will be denounced by these people. However, Guenette is correct that C-58 was introduced for political reasons, by an unpopular Liberal Party grasping at straws for any support as they lose ground to Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives.

Meanwhile, it’s hardly a surprise that Poilievre, a right-wing populist who postures as “pro-worker”, refuses to support the bill. At a Nov. 13 press conference, Poilievre said he would not take a stance on C-58 until he had a chance to study it. “Conservatives are 100 per cent on side with workers, union and non-union, who are fighting for pay hikes,” Poilievre claimed, while refusing to support legislation ostensibly introduced to help workers.

Federal employees represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) found out how hollow Conservative claims to support workers are when they went on strike this year. Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, Poilievre’s Treasury Board critic, refused to say whether the Conservatives would support PSAC’s demand for a 13.5 per cent wage increase. Poilievre hectored Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons for not doing more to end the strike, while being careful not to explicitly spell out what this would mean: back-to-work legislation. Both capitalist parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, are enemies of the working class.

Union, NDP leaders echo the Liberals

Does Bill C-58 benefit workers? Major labour leaders have said so. Lana Payne, national president of Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union, calls Bill C-58 “a step toward levelling the playing field.” Echoing the words of Liberal labour minister, Payne says the legislation “will be good for the economy and good for labour relations. It encourages unions and employers to resolve their differences in the very place designed for that to happen, the bargaining table.”

Left out is the fact that the most irreconcilable differences between unions and employers get resolved through strikes and lockouts. Results of bargaining indicate the relative balance of class forces at any given moment. Workers win when they use or threaten to use their most powerful weapon: withdrawing their labour-power by going on strike. Like O’Regan, Payne describes an idyllic picture of class peace, in which workers and capitalists can resolve their differences together amicably by sitting down and having a rational discussion. But the antagonistic interests of workers and employers sooner or later lead to class struggle.

The federal NDP went even further in its praise for C-58, calling it a “historic result for Canadian workers” and “anti-scab legislation that gives workers more power to demand better wages and working conditions.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, appearing at a press conference with Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske, United Steelworkers national director Marty Warren, and members of the NDP caucus, took a celebratory tone and described C-58 as the result of NDP pressure on the Liberals. “This bill would not have happened without us and the work of the Labour leaders standing with me today,” Singh said. “Left to their own devices, Liberals would have included massive loopholes benefiting the bosses during labour disputes,” he added. But as we have seen, Bill C-58 includes precisely these kinds of loopholes, such as excluding huge groups of workers, or allowing bosses to bring in scabs by claiming threats to property or safety.

Even penalties outlined in the bill, such as fines of $100,000 per day for employers who break the law, are more toothless than they appear. To be sure, paying a daily $100,000 fine is not nothing, but we must understand the larger context. During the 2019 CN Rail strike, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, a chemical industry lobbying group, said that larger companies were losing more than $1 million per day because of the strike. For affected employers, paying $100,000 each day for bringing in scabs who can maintain operations is a fraction of the losses they would be suffering without the use of scab labour. Bill C-58 does nothing to prevent employers who can pay these fines as a cost of doing business to prevent greater losses from continuing to employ scabs.

The fight for workers’ power

With the support of the NDP, the passage of C-58 into law is likely assured. But are we to believe that Liberals will not resort to back-to-work legislation again in the future to crush strikes? Will the Liberals now refrain from attacking workers with austerity measures, from deploying the RCMP against Indigenous land defenders, from killing workers overseas by supporting a proxy war in Ukraine or the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza? The fact that the Liberal government is so unpopular it has resorted to this desperate move to gain support from workers does not change the fact that the Liberals are a party of big business, whose interests are diametrically opposed to workers’. It is shameful that the NDP has been propping up the Liberal government all this time.

Workers should not look to a party representing a hostile class to solve our problems. We can only rely on our own collective strength and our own methods. These are the methods of class struggle: of strikes and mass mobilization, of rank-and-file workers’ democracy. The best way to stop scabs is not by putting our trust in mutual agreement with the bosses or leaving our fate to the Canadian capitalist state, but by maintaining hard picket lines

Moreover, both the strength of the bosses and their use of scabs flow from the capitalist system itself, which can only be defeated by workers taking power. To eliminate the power of the bosses, we must eliminate the capitalist system. Only by building a mass revolutionary communist party capable of overthrowing this system can we win the war against bosses and scabs.