The clash of the stark political realities of left vs. right is being played out in the corridors of power of British Columbia's Liberal government.
The flashpoint arises because of the Labour Relations Code prohibition on employers that prevents them from hiring replacement workers during a labour dispute.
Shortly after taking power in 1993, the NDP introduced a new code, and at that time, many viewed it as shifting the labour relations playing field in favour of workers - including the Section 68 ban on replacement workers.
Today, only two provinces - Quebec and British Columbia - maintain this prohibition.
The tension is not a new phenomenon and the arguments on both sides are persuasive. Back in 1995, a task force of labour relations experts headed by former Alberta Labour Relations Board chairman Andrew Sims noted that "no issue divides the submissions we've received more than the issue of replacement workers."
The task force said that "labour was virtually unanimous in favour of a legislative prohibition on the use of replacement workers (a so-called "anti-scab" law). Management was equally unanimous in its opposition to such a proposal."
Today, on the eve of a provincial election, Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal colleagues find themselves pressured by the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbing for restoration of a level playing field on this issue. This association represents more than 27,000 businesses and 120 local chambers, and is seen by many as the voice of B.C. business.
The chamber and others of the right-wing persuasion make the point that in the global marketplace, businesses are like water - they will move to jurisdictions that offer the greatest location economies. Small and mid-sized businesses (SMEs) are poorly equipped to weather strikes and as a result, must readily yield to workers' demands. This results in reducing the international business competitiveness of SMEs. In turn, employment is constricted and investments are impeded. Business groups contend that these provincial labour codes result in economic discrimination that prevents the economic viability of SMEs in the face of global competition in a harsh economic climate. It is not a legitimate use of government's power to restrain SMEs from hiring replacement workers during labour disputes.
On the other end of the continuum, the replacement workers - the aforementioned "scabs" - are seen as a weapon available to employers to break legitimate and lawful strikes. In support of the left-wing position, they contend that employers hiring replacement workers add fuel to the fire, increasing the threat of violence at the worksite.
They also argue that the duration of the dispute will be significantly increased and settlements made more difficult as a direct result of employers hiring replacement workers.
Finally, they contend that the subsequent relationships between employers and employees are likely to be seriously damaged for prolonged periods of time when strikes are protracted.
Consider the 1997 labour dispute at Canada Safeway. The grocery chain was involved in a protracted strike in Alberta and B.C. , with the disputed issues substantially the same in both provinces. The only significant difference between the two disputes was that in Alberta, Canada Safeway was legally able to use replacement workers to keep the stores open during the dispute. British Columbia was not, and the B.C. strike lasted twice as long as in Alberta.
The evidence is persuasive. SMEs struggling to make payrolls on the first and 15th will be held hostage during the labour disputes if they are prevented from engaging replacement workers during the period of negotiations.
Conversely, large organizations and government employers will be tempted to exploit government legislation to break the will and determination of their workers. That too is inequitable.
So the question becomes repeal Section 68, or not?
I reluctantly conclude that the larger benefit to the community from fostering a viable economic workplace able to compete globally has to be preferred over the interests of a few. However, as a proponent for right-wing values, I find myself uncomfortable with this opinion.
Campbell must repeal Section 68 in order to restore the balance to collective bargaining and return British Columbia and its labour legislation to a level playing field, consistent with most other Canadian jurisdictions.
(Terrance Power is a Wharton Fellow and professor of strategic and international studies with "the school of business at Royal Roads University in Victoria. He can be reached at email@example.com)