After a five-day strike that began on April 26, the Trudeau government deprived the dockers of CUPE 375 of their right to strike through passing back-to-work legislation. The union executive chose not to defy the law and agreed to return to work on Sunday, May 2. Even if the dispute is not settled, this government of the bosses has taken away these workers’ best weapon. At some point, someone, somewhere, will have to dare to challenge the use of unjust and undemocratic back-to-work legislation.

The bosses’ offensive against the right to strike

In Canada and Quebec, the right to strike does not exist. As soon as a strike becomes too effective, the government steps in to take the bosses’ side and passes back-to-work legislation.

Back-to-work legislation has been used 35 times at the federal level and 42 times at the provincial level in Quebec since the 1950s. Justin Trudeau, our favorite hypocrite who falsely presents himself as a friend of workers, had served this medicine to postal workers in 2018. He is acting exactly like the Stephen Harper Conservatives before him. François Legault called for this back-to-work legislation, as did Mayor Valérie Plante. In Quebec, both the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois have a terrible record in this regard.

Do we ever see this type of legislation against lockouts? No. Was there a special legislation to prevent the incessant provocations of the Maritime Employers Association (MEA)? No. This is because the state is in the service of the bosses.

The democratic right to strike has been relentlessly attacked for decades. Until a union challenges these unjust laws, they will continue to be used in a routine fashion.

A fight that concerns all workers

Thus, the struggle of the dockers has gone far beyond the immediate issues of bargaining, and has become a struggle to defend the right to strike. 

Since the announcement of the back-to-work legislation, La Riposte syndicale has consistently explained that we have the opportunity to turn the tide by defying this legislation. Many dockers have expressed their agreement with this perspective. The president of the union, Martin Lapierre, stated at the April 29 dockers’ rally: “And if ever, I tell you, we don’t defy this law, it’s because we’ve calculated it, we’ve chosen it, and that doesn’t mean we’ll take a knee in front of that boss!” The very fact that he directly mentions the possibility of defying the law shows that this feeling existed among the ranks.

But after all of this, the union still returned to work. The struggle is not over, and our comrades will be the first to come out in support of the dockers in the aftermath at the first necessity. Unfortunately, we have to say that we think that not defying this unjust, undemocratic and certainly unconstitutional law was a mistake. The conditions were there for defiance to happen. 

The executive of CUPE 375 has stated that the union will challenge the law in court. This may or may not end in a court victory eventually. But the law has done its damage here and now! 

Court challenges take years. In the meantime, the strike is broken. A legal victory years later does not prevent a defeat today with no real recompense in the future. 

This is what happened, for example, during the 2011 postal strike. Stephen Harper implemented back-to-work legislation very similar to Trudeau’s against the dockers. In 2016, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that law unconstitutional and it was struck down retroactively. But that didn’t change the fact that the 2011 strike had been broken. And it didn’t stop Trudeau from implementing back-to-work legislation again against those same postal workers in 2018.

Unfortunately, the tactic of challenging unconstitutional laws in court while respecting them in the moment doesn’t work, as it loses the momentum of the movement.

The dockers are not alone!

The strong potential of solidarity with the dockers has already been demonstrated. A solidarity group launched by comrades from La Riposte syndicale gathered almost 2000 people in one week. Messages of solidarity have been sent from across Canada and around the world. This is enough to contradict the defeatist argument that dockers could not challenge the law because they would be “alone“. Clearly, the dockers are not alone! Thousands of people would have come to block the port in solidarity with them. The government can’t fine thousands of us!

One cannot underestimate the enthusiasm that would be generated by a defiance movement, especially among nurses, teachers, rail and construction workers, all of whom have faced back-to-work legislation or the threat of it. With a call for defiance and building a mass movement, the other unions would be faced with the choice of actively participating in the dockers’ struggle, or disassociating themselves and covering themselves in shame. In the face of a mass movement, any act of government repression pours petrol on the flames by creating martyrs. In previous instances of defiance, “No fines, no victimization” was a precondition of returning to work, or fines were covered by solidarity from the movement. Moreover, as the law would likely be ruled unconstitutional later, any fines or punitive measures would be reversed.

We are now back to square one, but without the democratic right to strike. In the Senate, Martin Tessier of the MEA said that if the back-to-work legislation passed, the MEA would withdraw the shift schedules hated by the dockers—the very schedule changes that caused the strike in the first place. But can we count on his word? The employer has repeatedly demonstrated its intention to break the dockers. 

We think it would have been possible for the union leadership to explain that the dockers would not submit to a law that was designed to break workers and that violates the right to association protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More than ever, this perspective is needed in the labour movement. 

Union federations need a plan

CUPE 375 is not alone in its struggle. The Quebec and Canadian trade union federations have unanimously denounced the back-to-work legislation. But unfortunately, they have not shown any concrete way forward. Either there was no action proposed, or there was a naive call for Trudeau not to introduce his law. 

Some may say that it is not up to other unions to tell CUPE 375 what to do, and that the call to defy back-to-work legislation must come from the union itself. But the duty of the central labour federations was to say, “For too long we have accepted the bosses’ laws. It is time to defy the back-to-work legislation that destroys our strikes. If you defy this undemocratic law, we will support you financially and on the ground!” An inspiring call like this would have boosted the confidence of the dockers and their leadership. 

It is about time for the labour movement to prepare for back-to-work legislation. In every negotiation, it is the elephant in the room. The collective agreements of construction workers expired on April 30, and already rank-and-file workers are talking about the back-to-work legislation that will come. We think that discussions about the fight against back-to-work legislation should take place in all union locals. The movement desperately needs a concrete plan to defy these unconstitutional laws. The future of our movement depends on it. 

Defend the right to strike, defy back-to-work legislation!

Without the right to strike, the labour movement is nothing. We are building on the shoulders of giants. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, our forefathers defied unjust laws designed to prevent workers from organizing. Without that, workers would not have the gains they have today.

These gains are now all under threat. With the economic crisis that has been raging since 2008, and now the huge crisis triggered by COVID-19, the bosses are on the offensive.

Other struggles against the greed of the capitalists will inevitably come. We will have to lead other strikes to defend our gains and prevent the bosses from plunging us into miserable working conditions. And to do that, sooner or later, someone will have to defy the back-to-work legislation that plagues the labour movement. 

As Yvon Charbonneau, president of the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec, said at the dawn of a strike in defiance of a back-to-work legislation in 1983:

“The responsibility of the union movement in such circumstances is to assume the risk of a battle in which we will have blown up padlock laws, in which we will have safeguarded our collective rights, our working and employment conditions, it is to take into account the interests and real needs of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed, of those on social assistance, of the millions of users of public services, it is to oppose authoritarianism and fatality.”

We call on all those who wish to defend this perspective in unions across Quebec to join La Riposte syndicale to do so.

Defend the right to strike! Defy back-to-work legislation!