Lost in legislation

Unions worry as back-to-work legislation crops up across Canada
By Liz Foster
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2014

Provincial governments on both of Canada’s coasts recently met long-lasting labour disputes with a legislative response. Unions across the country worry workers’ rights will soon be lost in legislation.

Back-to-work legislation was introduced in the Port Metro Vancouver truckers’ strike after weeks of disruption from 250 unionized and 1,000 non-union workers. The legislation — which called for a 90-day cooling off period — included potential fines of up to $400 a day for unionized truckers and $10,000 a day for the union itself if they refused to return to work.

"This legislation is being tabled reluctantly and comes after multiple attempts over recent weeks to end the dispute and get Port Metro Vancouver back to full capacity," said Shirley Bond, British Columbia’s labour minister, in a statement following the bill’s introduction. "The disruption at Canada’s largest and busiest port is impacting our economy, jobs and our trading reputation."

Unifor reached a deal with the province, the federal government and Port Metro Vancouver only days later but Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s B.C. area director, said the threat of legislative action is a serious one.

The second the government announced its intentions to table back-to-work legislation, negotiations evaporated, he said.

"What it did was make it far, far more difficult for us to reach an agreement," McGarrigle said. "Immediately the employers started getting phone calls from their customers and the shippers telling them, under no uncertain terms, ‘Don’t agree to anything. Don’t agree to one penny more.’ In essence, ‘We’ll let the government do the dirty work for us.’ It’s just not the right way to proceed in collective bargaining."

Had a deal not been reached before the bill passed, Unifor was prepared to stand behind its members in the face of the legislation.

"Our members had no intention of going back to work or being bullied or swayed," McGarrigle said. "We were going to stand firm on behalf of those workers and we were determined to reach a fair deal."

Complicating matters was the fact that as many as 1,000 of the striking truckers were not represented by the union and would have been unaffected by the legislation. But unionized or not, McGarrigle said, back-to-work legislation affects all workers.

"People are having their rights taken away," he said. "Back-to-work legislation is just misusing the power of the state to crush workers. It’s no surprise they are completely outraged by that and they’ll fight passionately. Governments far too often resort to this and they don’t really intend on negotiating. For them, workers are people to be bullied and pushed around."

While the bottom line in B.C. was profit — the port reports that at its peak the strike affected $885 million worth of goods per week — in Nova Scotia the government introduced legislation in an effort to protect public safety.

The provincial government introduced essential services legislation in a strike by home support workers.

"Government supports the principles of collective bargaining, but we also have a responsibility to ensure essential services are provided," said Kelly Regan, minister of labour and advanced education, in a statement. This bill is about giving Nova Scotians peace of mind, and setting out a reasonable and orderly process so patients and families who need it most know they will get essential support, even during a strike."

Designation as an essential service is based on the risk of death or serious health consequences if the service is not provided. Workers represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) were affected by the legislation.

In an effort to curb workers’ rights, however, governments designate as many workers as possible, said CUPE’s national president Paul Moist.

"We have always provided by agreement some degree of essential services in a health-care setting," Moist said. "But when governments can designate up to 100 per cent of the workers as essential… How could the groundskeeper at the hospital be declared essential if hospital workers went on strike? Nothing against groundskeeping, it’s very important, but it’s hardly a threat to life and limb."

Essentially, he said, essential services legislation forces employees back to work and weakens a union’s bargaining power. It is for that reason CUPE recently announced its intention to launch a legal challenge against Nova Scotia’s Essential Services Act.

The union says the legislation — Bill 30 — forced more than 400 home support workers back to work and pushed the employees into accepting a deal that was dictated to them.

Nurses working for Nova Scotia’s largest health authority — also represented by NSGEU — could face back-to-work or essential services legislation in their own strike. The union, representing 2,400 nurses throughout the province, has reached an impasse with the employer. NSGEU president Joan Jessome said she hopes an agreement can be reached, when the nurses are in a legal strike position, but she is losing confidence the government will compromise.

If push comes to shove, she said, nurses would defy back-to-work or essential services legislation.

"We will conduct an illegal strike," Jessome said. "Essential services legislation puts 80 to 85 per cent of the workforce in the workplace at the time of the strike. It demoralizes workers. It’s not collective bargaining, it’s blackmail bargaining."

Back-to-work and essential services legislation are all about shifting power away from workers at a time when they are most in need of support, Jessome said.

"Workers never go on strike, legal or otherwise, lightly," said Moist. "People go on strike to back up legitimate workplace issues. It’s in the public interest to have free collective bargaining to set wages and working conditions. That public interest was forged between employers and employees. It’s a delicate balance. You can’t tip the balance in the favour of employers or governments… and think there’s not going to be consequences."