Defending Unions from Back-to-Work Legislation

By Chris Rigaux

December 4, 2009

On December 2nd, Teamsters union officials ended the strike at CN Rail before the federal government passed the back-to-work legislation it had threatened to use. In typical fashion, the officials called an end to the strike before CN engineers had voted on the tentative deal, making it all the more likely that workers will see no alternative to ratifying it when a vote is held. While the strike is now over, the threat of back-to-work legislation changed how this situation played out. This strike demonstrates why such legislation should be opposed.

Back-to-work legislation requires that a strike end and threatens heavy fines and/or jail time for workers who disobey. It is usually used against public-sector workers , but not always. The privatization of CN Rail in the 1990s has resulted in a farcical situation where the federal government was prepared to legislate away the rights of private-sector workers in the interests of the “national economy.” In the eyes of the federal government, CN is too important to be struck but not important enough to remain nationalized.

There is a long history of using back-to-work legislation to end “troublesome” strikes. Recent targets of back-to-work legislation in Canada have included CUPE Local 3903 at York University (2009), the BC Teachers Federation (2005) and the Toronto public transit workers (2008). Railway workers have the dubious distinction of being probably the first victims of back-to-work legislation in Canada: in 1950, a pan-Canadian strike by railworkers was declared unpatriotic in the context of the Korean War and promptly made illegal.

Back-to-work legislation is such an effective weapon against unions because it relies on the bureaucratic labour relations system in Canada. Since World War II, Canada has developed a system of labour relations that, in exchange for providing unions with legal recognition and some limited rights, has banned unions from fully exercising their power. Canadian unions must be in a legal position to strike, which means they cannot go on strike during the life of a contract. If workers defy the law, the union can face heavy fines and officials risk jail time for not preventing “their” workers from going on strike. The result is that union militancy gets to be seen as dangerous by the leadership — it gets built up for contract votes or during strikes, but is played down in-between negotiations.

Without this system in place and the threat of fines or jail time for officials who fail to keep the membership in line, governments would have to rely on conservative union leaders to police unionized workers or resort to violent repression against strikes. Back-to-work legislation is part of this bureaucratic system. Everyone who supports social justice should oppose back-to-work legislation on the principle that it reinforces the control that the state has over workers. The more depoliticized and tame the labour movement becomes, the less it is able to act as a vehicle for mobilization and organization for social change. Unions solely focused on contracts and playing nice within the confines of what is “acceptable” are not what workers need, but back-to-work legislation is one of the weapons the state uses to discipline unions into doing just that.

It is important to remember, however, that the strike by CN railworkers was not a wasted effort. While it is true that the state quickly brought back-to-work legislation to the table in order to intimidate the railworkers, it is also true that the 1700 railworkers managed to shut down large parts of the Canadian economy in only five days of being on strike, and in doing so managed to make CN back down on the job-killing concessions they had been pushing for. Had there been no back-to-work legislation, the railworkers would have undoubtedly forced a better deal on the company than what they got in the end.

Socialists champion the self-organization of the working class. Among other things, this wordy phrase means we support, as a fundamental political principle, the right of workers to form unions and strike. The vast majority of the residents of this country are workers of one sort or another, and all have a fundamental right to organize collectively for their economic and political interests. Socialists have a duty and obligation to help assist this process where possible — and this includes defending workers’ organizations, such as unions, against attempts by the state to limit their power by imposing back-to-work legislation.

Chris Rigaux is a Winnipeg worker, activist, and socialist.