Poilievre says he needs to study replacement workers bill before taking position

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Monday he doesn't yet have a position on the Liberal government's proposed legislation to ban the use of replacement workers during strikes and lockouts in most federally regulated workplaces.

The bill, known as Bill C-58 in the House of Commons, was introduced last week and will apply to most federally regulated industries such as banking, airports and telecommunications, and ports. It will not apply to the federal public service or workplaces that are regulated by a province or territory.

"We're going to study the legislation," Poilievre told reporters at a press conference in Vancouver. "I never take a position before I have had a chance to actually look at what's written down on paper."

His response comes as the Conservatives try to make inroads with the more of the country's workers, placing a front-and-centre focus on cost of living issues and the anxieties it has brought to the country's working class.

On Monday he said that while he hasn't yet taken a position on the anti-replacement workers bill, he's on the side of workers.

"I don't blame the workers who are voting for strikes right now," Poilievre said.

"Conservatives are 100 per cent on side with workers, union and non-union, who are fighting for pay hikes," he said.

He laid the blame for rising costs at the feet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government spending.

Poilievre's political pitch has him selling himself as the one with the "common sense" approach that helps the "common people" while Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as elite and out of touch. He's targeting the message in particular at NDP and Liberal-held ridings in northern Ontario and parts of British Columbia where Conservatives think they could win in the next election.

At the party's national policy convention in Quebec City this past September, Poilievre used his keynote speech to say that workers were being "punished" through inflation and other taxes.

But some labour leaders are watching with skepticism, and are using the replacement workers legislation as a test for the Conservative leader who says he's friendly to workers. Unifor called on all parties to back the legislation in full, president Lana Payne said Monday, in a statement.

"If Pierre Poilievre truly supports the rights of working people there is only one way to vote," she said.

But Payne also pointed to Poilievre's record when it comes to workers, adding "we are not holding our breath."

Poilievre has voted multiple times in favour of back-to-work legislation over his nearly 20 years as an MP, including when the former Conservative government was in office.

Marty Warren, president of the United Steelworkers said the bill isn't perfect but supporting it should be a clear choice.

"Mr. Poilievre and his team have had plenty of time to review the bill," Warren said in a statement.

"We know it needs some work, but supporting it to committee is a no brainer for anyone who actually supports workers. Far from showing workers the support they need, again and again, Conservatives have recently refused to come clean with where they stand."

The Liberals promised in the 2021 election to ban the use of replacement workers in the event of a lockout, but Bill C-58 expands it to include strikes. That expansion is part of the confidence-and-supply deal the Liberals have with the NDP and is why Singh is celebrating the bill as a victory for his party.

The NDP has long advocated for the provision, along with union leaders. But business leaders aren't in favour of the bill.

Both the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Business say the legislation could prolong labour disputes and removes an incentive for labour unions to remain at the negotiating table.

Robin Guy, a vice-president at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement Monday that when similar legislation has been presented in the House of Commons over the years both Liberal and Conservative MPs voted against it, "knowing the damage it could inflict upon our economy."

Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, called on all MPs to reject the legislation.

"We hope that throughout the study of this bill and the different votes, that tough questions will be asked," Guénette said.

One of those questions should be about the timing of the bill, which he said appeared to have been done by the Liberals to satisfy the New Democrats in their agreement.

Guénette said the CFIB wants parties to consider declaring federally regulated workplaces, such as ports and railways, an essential service, which he says would benefit small businesses and the wider economy.

Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada warned the Liberals in a recent letter that the legislation could increase the cost of collective bargaining units "resulting in higher costs for consumers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press