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Textes d'opinion

Labour hides facts on new bills

Parliamentary hearings resume next week on two similar bills, presented by the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, that aim to prohibit employers subject to the Canada Labour Code from hiring replacement workers (or « scabs » in popular parlance) to fill the jobs of striking or locked-out employees.

The Canadian Labour Congress has launched a campaign to support the two bills and to put pressure on MPs to adopt them. Referring to the situation in the three provinces that have had such legislation, the CLC asserts on its Web site that they lost fewer working days to labour disputes than elsewhere. According to the union federation, anti-scab laws actually favour labour peace.

Only Quebec and British Columbia still prohibit replacement workers, since 1977 and 1993 respectively. In Ontario, a similar law was repealed after having been in force for only three years during the 1990s.

The data cited by the CLC are accurate but incomplete, and they hide much of the reality. It is true, for example, that in Quebec the average number of working days lost to strikes has fallen since 1976. But Quebec is not unusual in this regard. For various reasons that have nothing to do with anti-scab laws, the number of labour conflicts, along with the average number of workdays lost, has effectively declined across Canada since the late 1970s.

In Quebec, the number of work stoppages went from 311 in 1980 to 94 in 2004, rising to 147 in 2005, however. In Ontario, it went from 268 in 1980 to 72 in 2005. In the sectors covered by the federal labour code, 69 labour conflicts were recorded in 1980, 25 in 2004 and five in 2005. Is a new law really needed to hit zero?

Person-days not worked are another way of measuring economic losses in work stoppages. In the country as a whole, the number of person-days not worked because of strikes or lockouts fell from 949 per 1,000 employees in 1980 to 174 in 2001, rising to 301 in 2005.

The CLC’s assertions that Quebec has the best labour relations because of the province’s anti-scab provisions contrast with reality. Data published by Statistics Canada in August indicate Quebec still ranks first among the provinces in terms of work stoppages and person-days not worked.

In effect, 45% of the 743 strikes and lockouts listed in Canada between 2003 and 2005 took place in Quebec, Ontario came in second with 31% of work stoppages and British Columbia third at 5.1%. Work stoppages under federal jurisdiction accounted for 5.5% of the total.

As for person-days not worked, workers covered by federal law recorded the highest proportion (33%) despite the small number of work stoppages, followed by workers in Quebec (30%) and Ontario (15%). But this is an exception rather than a trend. In the three preceding years, from 2000 to 2002, the proportions were 14%, 18% and 37% respectively.

As the Statistics Canada study explains, « areas under federal jurisdiction contain several large unions, and relatively long strikes involving workers in some large bargaining units in 2005 contributed to the high number of workdays lost. » It is interesting to note that many of the companies that come under the Canada Labour Code are large corporations operating in what traditionally have been oligopoly or quasi-monopoly situations. This may help explain the greater length of disputes observed recently, (between 2002 and 2005, labour conflicts took place at Telus, Aliant and Videotron.) When these companies face work stoppages, the risks of losing market share or of closing are relatively low. The incentive to settle quickly is thus weaker for companies and unions alike.

Beyond these figures, other socio-economic factors may affect the length and number of strikes, including the unemployment rate in a province, wage variations in previous negotiations, whether or not a strike occurred in previous negotiations, and the size of the bargaining unit. Accordingly, a statistical study taking account of these various factors is likely to portray the situation more accurately and to make for more enlightened debate. The only studies available comparing the evolution of labour disputes in the provinces provide a portrait quite different from assertions by activists who favour anti-scab laws.

Studies by M. Gunderson and A. Melino (1990), J. Budd (1996), and P. Cramton, M. Gunderson and J. Tracy (1999) find that anti-scab provisions are linked with longer strikes. As for the frequency of strikes, the first and third of these studies find that such provisions increase the likelihood of a strike occurring, while the second study finds they have no significant effect on the frequency of strikes.

Members of Parliament should take note.

Norma Kozhaya est économiste à l’Institut économique de Montréal.

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