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'Decades-long fight': MPs unanimously pass 'anti-scab' legislation

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A bill that would ban federal employers from using replacement workers or "scabs" during lockouts or strikes passed the House of Commons unanimously on Monday.

MPs from all parties voted in favour of the so-called "anti-scab" legislation, seeing it pass 316-0.

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan tabled the labour legislation in November 2023, satisfying a commitment under the minority Liberals' confidence-and-supply deal with the NDP.

Unveiling Bill C-58 – backed by MPs and union representatives – the minister framed the move as "the biggest thing to happen to collective bargaining in Canada, in decades," and braced for resistance from the Conservatives that did not materialize.

On Monday, O'Regan welcomed the all-party backing.

"It's not necessary, but I think on historic legislation like this, it's certainly very, very welcome," he said. "And I think it is a real message to workers right across this country, that they are valued and that parliamentarians have heard them."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet cast their votes "yea" virtually, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh voted in-favour, in-person.

The legislation is set to apply to an estimated one million employees, working for approximately 22,350 federally regulated employers, excluding the public service.

The legislation allows for an exemption where replacement workers can do the work of union members during work stoppages, in cases where there are threats to health and safety, or serious environmental or property damage that could not be managed by the existing workforce.

Singh, who credits his party for forcing the Liberals to advance these "historic" protections for unionized jobs after a "decades-long fight," celebrated the forthcoming passage before question period on Monday.

"With the incredible work of union leaders, of union activists, of workers, with the work of New Democrats who've been championing this for over 15 years … we can say today we will finally pass a law that will once and for all ban scab workers at the federal level," Singh said.

His intention is to next turn attention on the provinces and territories, in hopes those that don't already have comparable protections advance similar legislation to ban scab workers "at every level across this country." This is an effort O'Regan said he's already started.

The Liberals and New Democrats framed the Conservatives' position on Bill C-58 as a test of whether Poilievre was genuinely fighting to be an advocate for workers' rights.

In February – after being accused of trying to distract from stating their position on the legislation – the Conservatives joined the other parties in voting to support the bill in principle, seeing it unanimously pass on to committee for further study.

MPs who scrutinized the legislation and heard from stakeholders did pass a series of amendments to the bill earlier this month. Among the changes made was to prohibit employees from another workplace, volunteers, or students from being used as replacement workers.

Monday's vote comes as union leaders and labour groups voice caution about Poilievre's working class rhetoric, citing his past voting record on back-to-work legislation and other failed anti-scab bills.

Among those who have questioned Poilievre's commitment to Canadian workers is Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske.

Accompanying Singh to herald the then-anticipated passage of the bill on Monday, Bruske didn't mention the Official Opposition leader in her remarks, but thanked Minister O'Regan and the NDP for getting the legislation over the finish line.

"It's incredibly important that we level the playing field at the bargaining table. And this legislation does exactly that," she said. "No worker in Canada should ever have to worry about their job being replaced by a replacement worker. That is not fair. That is not right."

Trudeau recently touted his government's work on this policy as part of a speech to one of the largest unions in North America, during a trip to Philadelphia, casting himself as a champion of the working class while seeking to draw contrast with the Conservatives.

The Liberals had stated Bill C-58 was among their priority pieces of legislation to pass the House before the summer hiatus. The bill will now undergo a second round of scrutiny in the Senate.

Reacting to the bill passing the House of Commons, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) accused all parties of putting unions and "political interests" ahead of the economy.

"Today's vote … tilts Canada's labour laws even more heavily in favour of unions," CFIB president Dan Kelly said in a statement, calling on the Senate to "seriously consider the implications" of the bill during its study.

"If the legislation is passed and proclaimed, the current and future governments will deeply regret removing this important provision for employers keeping the economy moving during strikes or lockouts," Kelly said. 

Should the legislation receive royal assent, it is expected to take 12 months to see the suite of new protections and related procedures come into force, instead of the initially proposed 18 months, due to one of the committee reforms made to the bill.

It was a reform O'Regan said he pushed for after hearing the groups that'll be stickhandling much of the new regime, such as the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Canada Industrial Relations Board, could be ready in less time.

"The last thing that I wanted was to fundamentally change how negotiating in the federal sector takes place and then not have the resources or the ability there to make sure that we see it through," the minister said, vowing adequate funding to enact the new "anti-scab" provisions.

Once law, any contravention from federal employers could be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day. 

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