People have fought for rights in their workplaces as long as there have been workplaces. The first labour strike in recorded history took place in Egypt in the reign of Ramesses III (1184-1153 BC) when tomb-builders at a site in Western Thebes, frustrated at delays in receiving their wages, laid down their tools and walked off the job. Over two millennia later, in AD 1245 at the town of Douai in northern France, Europe recorded its first strike. Canada’s history of job action began in August of 1794 when voyageurs at Rainy Lake struck for higher wages.
The struggle was rejoined with particular ferocity with the massive changes to the workplace brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of the principal advocate and guardian of workers’ rights, the modern trade union. Workers did not gain fully democratic workplaces, but they did earn a strong voice, and realized major improvements in working conditions. After the Second World War, the struggle abated as the industrial countries settled into a period of unprecedented prosperity.
Then a new period of workplace change, driven by globalization and advancing technology and abetted by neoliberalism, overwhelmed working people and undermined the gains they had made. The result was a decline in union power and membership. A decline in working conditions followed closely behind.
Now, as I have written elsewhere, the struggle is resurgent. And essential. If we are to have a democratic society, self-governance must inform the workplace no less than it does politics and government.
Canadian unions achieved a major victory to that end last week with Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan’s introduction in the House of Bill C-58. The Bill will make it illegal for employers in federally regulated industries to bring in replacement workers (“scabs” in union parlance) to continue operations during a legal strike or lockout, something unions have been seeking for decades. The Bill also sets out penalties for breaking the rules.
The use of replacement workers has long undermined collective bargaining by tipping the balance of power to employers. The Bill will not only create a more balanced bargaining process but should also reduce large-scale disruptions by forcing more deals to be made at the bargaining table. It should also reduce the potential for violence on picket lines and mitigate damage to workplace cultures following a contract dispute.
Unions are delighted with the Bill. According to Lana Payne, national president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, “This legislation is a step toward levelling the playing field. It 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.”
Bea Bruske, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, added, ““We have seen years of record corporate profits while workers’ pay lagged far behind. … If we ban the use of scabs once and for all, we can take a real step towards less labour disruptions, avoiding work stoppages and building a more balanced economy—while increasing the benefits and respect workers deserve.”
The labour movement hopes the Bill will encourage more provinces to follow the federal lead. Currently only Quebec and B.C. have such legislation.
Needless to say, business groups, deprived of a big, if unfair, advantage, are opposed.
The Bill closely mirrors previous NDP proposals, and indeed is one of the party’s demands for their partnership with the Liberals. The Bloc Québécois also strongly supports the legislation. The Conservatives, whose leader Mr. Poilievre has been promoting himself as a friend of working people, have been wrong-footed by the proposal and are suspending judgement.
This leap of progress for workplace democracy illustrates yet again the value of having a social democrat party like the NDP as a player in the political arena.