Without replacement workers, strikes will be more frequent, lengthy and disruptive

If you rely on a commuter train to get to work, the Trudeau government’s new bill banning replacement workers, currently at committee stage in the Senate, stands a good chance of making your journey far more complicated every time a strike is threatened. If Bill C-58 is passed, employers will be unable to hire replacement workers during a strike or lockout to maintain services to the public. Every federally regulated sector is targeted in the bill, including railways.

This kind of legislation is rare in Canada. Only Quebec and British Columbia ban replacement workers outright. Which is why it’s not surprising that these two provinces rank first and third, respectively, for working days lost to strikes and lockouts over the last 10 years.

If there is a ban on any recourse to replacement workers, the impending strike at Canadian Pacific Kansas City Limited (CPKC) can be expected to have devastating effects. This follows from the key role played by the network’s 80 rail traffic controllers, based in Calgary. A crucial aspect of their job is to ensure that no two trains are on the same track at the same time. Without these people on the job, the CPKC network cannot run any trains at all.

That’s obviously bad for freight hauling but it’s also bad for commuters: across the country five well-travelled commuter train lines use the CPKC’s tracks and therefore require the services of its 80 Calgary-based rail traffic controllers. If the ban on the use of replacement workers were to come into force today, passengers on the Saint-Jérôme, Vaudreuil and Candiac lines in the Greater Montreal area would all be in a serious jam. They would have to wait for resolution of the labour dispute before they could travel to work by train again. From the shutdown of these three lines alone, about 13,500 passengers a day would lose their normal means of getting to their livelihoods.

In Toronto, all the users of GO Transit’s Milton line would be affected. In Vancouver, everyone who relies on the West Coast Express would have to find some other way to get to work. All this trouble because 80 workers in Calgary decide to go on strike.

It’s also reasonable to foresee major repercussions for air transport, where a similar walkout by air traffic controllers could ground all aircraft. With summer vacations looming, a work stoppage by Air Canada’s pilots or baggage-handlers or some form of work action by catering staff or air traffic controllers could significantly disrupt air travel for the many.

For hard-working Canadian families, this could mean losing out on vacation travel with the kids, forfeiting hotel and car rental deposits and going on staycation instead of adventure vacation. Though this example may seem extreme, remember that about 58,000 passengers pass through Montreal’s international airport every day. For Toronto Pearson, the number is nearly 123,000 per day. Closing either down due to a regulatory ban on replacement workers would have serious consequences for the transportation plans of large numbers of people.

Given all these highly undesirable outcomes, is it any wonder that back in 2016 the Liberals voted against the adoption of similar legislation? Their view back then was that there should be no general prohibition on the use of replacement workers and that the labour code should balance unions’ right to strike with the employers’ right to try to keep supplying its products and services.

Far from recalibrating labour relations, Bill C-58 delivers into the hands of a few small groups — sometimes only a few dozen union members — the power to paralyze the entire country. Legislators should be wary of trying to please a few union leaders at the expense of millions of working Canadians.

Gabriel Giguère is a Senior Policy Analyst at the MEI and the author of “The Harmful Consequences of the Adoption of a Federal Law Banning Replacement Workers.” The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.

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