Scabby the Rat. Source: RoySmith, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unifor has launched a national campaign calling on all elected officials at the federal, provincial and territorial levels to pass legislation against the use of replacement workers, AKA scabs. Fightback supports anti-scab laws, but these will only be enacted if the labour movement abandons support for the pro-scab Liberals and institutes policies declaring that picket lines mean do not cross. Hard pickets are necessary to stop scabs and to force the hand of the bosses’ government.

The need to stop scabs is a pressing one for Canadian workers. Bosses everywhere have gone on the warpath in the form of lockouts, union busting, and attacks on wages, benefits and working conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend. Far from the mantra that “we’re all in this together”, the bosses have seized on this global health crisis to extract ever greater concessions. The use of scab labour is a major crutch for capitalists attacking workers. By helping bosses maintain profits during lockouts and strikes, scabs allow the employer to hold out longer and to starve their workforce into submission.

What does Unifor propose?

The campaign by Unifor, as detailed on the union’s website, seeks anti-scab legislation based in part on existing laws in Quebec, B.C. and outside Canada. Such legislation would “prohibit employers from using replacement workers for the duration of any legal strike or lockout”, “include significant financial penalties for employers who defy the legislation”, and “allow limited use of temporary workers, only to undertake essential maintenance work to protect the integrity and safety of the workplace.” Unifor is asking supporters to sign a letter petitioning their MPs to amend the Canada Labour Code accordingly.

Prohibiting employers from using scabs and financially penalizing those who do so are both good demands. However, we believe the third demand allowing for the use of temporary workers is a mistake and should not be part of the campaign. Unions are always free to negotiate essential exceptions to a picket line, but such situations should be negotiated and not part of legislation. Adding such caveats only weakens a campaign calling for anti-scab legislation and are frequently abused by the bosses.

One issue that has exacerbated the debate around anti-scab laws is the revelation that some bosses have been using the federal Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to fund scabs. PressProgress reports that the Co-op Refinery in Regina successfully applied for money from CEWS last year during its seven-month lockout of nearly 750 workers, who were members of Unifor 594. To maintain production during the lockout, the company brought in hundreds of scabs, flying many in via helicopter and housing them in an on-site camp that encouraged the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to the Liberal government not requiring private companies to disclose how they use the wage subsidy, businesses such as the Co-op Refinery can use that money for whatever purpose they like. For that reason, Unifor has correctly called for the government to close the “scab loophole”.

Pro-scab Liberals no friend of workers

Fightback welcomes any measures that would protect workers against scabs. However, this is not the first time Unifor has called on the government to enact an anti-scab law. In 2016, the Trudeau Liberals voted down anti-scab legislation that would have banned replacement workers in federal workplaces during a strike or lockout. As Unifor national president Jerry Dias said at the time, “The Liberal government came to power saying they would bring fairness to workplaces across Canada. With this vote, that promise is broken.”

This experience makes clear that if the labour movement is going to call for anti-scab laws, it must also fight the Liberals as a bosses’ party opposed to anti-scab laws. Unfortunately, Unifor leaders have not done this. Three years after the Liberals’ pro-scab vote and less than a year after the government took away postal workers’ right to strike, Dias invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Unifor’s 2019 convention as its keynote speaker! In that year’s federal election, leaders of Unifor and the Canadian Labour Congress once again advocated so-called “strategic voting”, which encourages people to support the anti-worker Liberals. Since the election, the Trudeau government has kept up its attacks on workers and union rights, most recently by passing back-to-work legislation to crush the Montreal dockers’ strike.

Now Unifor leaders are again calling on the government to pass an anti-scab law. But why would Liberal MPs vote any differently in 2021 than they did in 2016? Maintaining the policy of support for the Liberals will only undermine Unifor’s anti-scab campaign. Trade unionists who want to fight scabs must decide: You can support the Liberals or you can support anti-scab legislation. But you cannot support both.

Hard pickets stop scabs

History shows that progressive labour reforms are almost always a side-effect of vociferous class struggle. In many ways, the law is only a recognition of the balance of forces in the class struggle at any given time. Workers will never win anti-scab legislation by appealing to the bosses’ government that this is a good idea. We will only win anti-scab legislation by proving on the picket lines that the alternative to passing such laws will be far worse for the capitalist class.

That means setting up hard picket lines and being prepared to back them up with force. The definition of a hard picket is simple: it means taking seriously the idea that “picket lines mean do not cross” and putting it into action. Absolutely no one crosses the picket lines. The working class can only rely on its own organizations, and the most direct method to stop scabs is for workers to physically prevent them from entering the workplace.

Maintaining hard pickets is a signal from the labour movement to the bosses: “We make the law on this picket line. We stop any scabs from going through.” If the repercussions of maintaining hard pickets are too damaging for capitalist profits, then it will be better from the perspective of the capitalist government to pass laws against scabs. Workers keeping out scabs must become a reality on the ground before it will ever be recognized in law.

Hard pickets should be combined with calls for anti-scab legislation and against “strategic voting” for the pro-scab Liberals.  Allowing bosses to bring in scabs is unacceptable to workers. We need a policy of hard pickets to force the government to recognize this fact.

Anti-scab legislation now!
Close the scab loophole!
No support for pro-scab Liberals!
Picket lines mean do not cross!