House of Commons Hansard #134 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was workers.

Topics

Government Business No. 15
Railway Operations Legislation
Government Orders

12:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Government Business No. 15
Railway Operations Legislation
Government Orders

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

All those opposed will please say nay.

Government Business No. 15
Railway Operations Legislation
Government Orders

12:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Government Business No. 15
Railway Operations Legislation
Government Orders

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Call in the members.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #153

Railway Operations Legislation
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I declare the motion carried.

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

April 17th, 2007 / 1 p.m.

Jonquière—Alma
Québec

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Minister of Labour and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec

moved that Bill C-46, An Act to provide for the resumption and continuation of railway operations, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, the Canada Labour Code and our labour legislation allow us to strike a balance between the parties' rights to collective bargaining and the use of tools such as strikes and lockouts. When the parties do not reach an agreement within a reasonable timeframe and the Canadian economy is seriously affected as a result, the government not only should act, but has a duty to act. We are at that point now.

As you are aware, the tentative settlement reached on February 24 between Canadian National and the United Transportation Union was not ratified by 79.44% of the employees. I therefore must introduce the Railway Continuation Act, 2007, today. This bill provides for the immediate resumption or continuation of the railway operations of the Canadian National Railway Company.

The members of this House know that the February strike at Canadian National by the 2,800 members of the United Transportation Union had an enormous impact. This work stoppage had serious economic consequences across the country. The Canadian Wheat Board, chemical producers, the Port of Vancouver, auto manufacturers, farmers, potash mines and forest and automotive industry stakeholders have all told us how the strike affected their operations.

It is hard for me to take this step today. I would have preferred it if the parties had reached an agreement themselves, and that is why I did everything possible to help Canadian National and the union in their negotiations. But as many members know, the negotiations were long and complicated, lasting 19 months. I would like to take a few minutes to describe the process.

The collective agreements in question cover 2,800 drivers, yardmasters, and trainmen and yardmen. Bargaining to renew these collective agreements has been taking place since September 1, 2006, when the notice to bargain was given. I appointed two conciliators on November 20, 2006, and meetings have been taking place since December 14. The collective agreements expired on December 31, 2006, and failing an agreement the parties were released from the conciliation process on January 19, 2007, that is, three months ago. I then appointed two mediators to try and help the parties to conclude an agreement before they acquired the right to strike or lockout. However, on February 5, 2007, the union announced that the members had voted in favour of a strike to support the union’s demands, and the strike began on February 10.

Canadian National management then attempted to continue offering essential services, such as food and fuel delivery in remote regions, but it was all very difficult. On February 20, I decided to send our senior mediator to Montreal and I asked the parties to work with her to try and reach an agreement. I am referring to Elizabeth MacPherson. Fourteen days into the strike, the parties found some common ground with our other mediator, Laurent Lessard, and Ms. MacPherson, and the workers went back to work. We appreciate the fact that they acted promptly for the sake of railway transportation operations and the resumption of economic activity. They did not delay and we took note of this.

However, last week on April 10, a majority of the union membership rejected the tentative settlement reached between both parties. CN rail workers have since resumed strike action, engaging in rotating withdrawals of service.

Many Canadian businesses struggling to recover from the last strike will once again face costly disruptions. We all know that in just a matter of a few days in February the strike was felt right across this country.

In the Pacific region, mill owners were faced with not having enough raw materials or no means of shipping their finished products. In the north, Canadian workers, owners and investors in the mining industry waited anxiously for much needed fuel. In the prairies, where grain owners have already been reeling from a difficult fall and winter season, the strike meant that no grain was moving.

In Ontario and Quebec, factories and industries struggled to find ways to manage having inventory accumulate while contending with slowing supply lines. In some cases workers were laid off or given reduced work schedules. Continuous uncertainty in the supply chain is the very element we are up against as a result of the rejection of the tentative agreement.

There seems to be little chance of ratifying an agreement at this time. The government and the millions of Canadians who have already been affected by the CN Rail dispute will not stand for any more disruptions to our economy and to our livelihood.

The legislation that we are moving forward today, the Railway Continuation Act, 2007, ensures the continued operation of CN Rail. This act also extends all previous collective agreements between CN and the UTU until the coming into force of new collective agreements to replace them.

The bill also provides for that the final offer selection process will be used to settle the issues in dispute by the parties. What is a final offer? Following three months’ negotiations between the parties, if there are still points of disagreement, the arbitrator will ask each party to make its offer, and the arbitrator will choose either the union’s or the employer’s proposals. There will not be an amalgam of the two proposals; it will be one or the other.

This forces the parties to reach an agreement. This is what we call the final offer. I repeat:, the arbitrator must choose between the employer’s final offer and the union’s. The arbitrator’s decision becomes the new collective agreement. It should be pointed out, however, that passing this bill does not in any way prevent the parties from continuing to negotiate and reaching an agreement. The bill actually expressly provides that the parties can at any time agree to conclude new collective agreements. We hope that the parties will continue to negotiate to resolve this conflict before the arbitrator has to decide the issue, but without paralyzing the economy and while continuing to work for everyone’s sake.

With this legislation, arbitration costs may be recovered in equal parts from the employer and the union. Furthermore, the legislation states that any contravention may result in fines of up to $1,000 for individuals, up to $50,000 for officers of both parties, and up to than $100,000 for the employer and the union if they do not respect the stated conditions.

The act would come into force 24 hours after it receives royal assent, making it possible for workers to be fully informed of its provisions and consequences. I would like to ensure that the members of this House truly understand that our government supports the collective bargaining process, which is fully covered by the current provisions of the Canada Labour Code. A settlement negotiated by the parties is always preferable to a solution imposed by the government. But when nothing works, it is our duty and our responsibility to act in the common interest and in the interest of the sound management of the economic well-being of our country.

The case before us is a good example of the importance of providing a balanced and stable legislative framework. The Canada Labour Code was thoroughly reviewed in 1999. Unions and employers were very involved in the exercise, which led to the amendments adopted in 1999. The current provisions of the code are the result of compromise and consensus, resulting in the well-balanced framework of the Canada Labour Code, part I. The results are evident: the government has not had to use back-to-work legislation since that time. Before the act was amended in 1999, this instrument of last resort— that is, back-to-work legislation— was used much more frequently. In fact, CN and the United Transportation Union have since renewed their collective agreement without a work stoppage.

In 2000, they reached an agreement through a conciliation process. Similarly, in 2003, an agreement was reached with the help of mediation. However, the current situation has become unique, which is why we must act. Railway operations are crucial to the Canadian economy and the well-being of all Canadians. Railway operations have become essential, not as defined by the Canada Labour Code, because this is not yet affecting the health and physical well-being of the public, but in the sense of the health of the economy. Railway operations play a crucial role in the functioning of Canada's economy. Additionally, our government is determined to ensure that Canada's reputation as a leader in the global economy is not tarnished, and that our country continues to be perceived as a place where businesses can depend on a railway network that is a reliable and efficient means of transport.

It is our responsibility to intervene when the stability of our economy and the livelihood of thousands of workers are at risk. Government intervention in this dispute is now inevitable. This is why we are proposing this bill here today. The provisions of the bill would allow for a fair and rapid resolution of the dispute. Our message is clear: we have made every possible effort to allow for settlement through collective bargaining, but we are not willing to stand by and watch this labour disruption jeopardize the Canadian economy.

I urge all members of this House from all political parties—the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, the NDP—and independent members to support this position, in order to pass this bill as quickly as possible.

I would remind the House that, regardless of this bill, there is nothing to stop the two parties from reaching an agreement. If they manage to do so, that agreement would take precedence. We must take action. We cannot continue to endure rotating strikes. The 14-day strike in February meant $1 billion lost in exports. Thus, it meant $1 billion out of $5 billion for the month of February.

I would like to reiterate that we encourage Canadian National, the employees and the union to negotiate and reach an agreement themselves. We must take action in the interest of the healthy functioning of Canada's economy.

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, the NDP cannot vote in favour of this bill because it gives CN managers a blank cheque. We have seen what this bad management has caused in communities across the country; I will come back to that later.

My question is simple. The government had a choice to make. We know full well that the safety of our railway is the major sticking point between the workers and the management of this company.

My question for the minister is simple. Has he talked to the Minister of Transport about resolving the railway safety problems that communities have been dealing with for years now? Have they tried to find solutions to satisfy the workers who are concerned about the growing number of accidents across the country?

Since the main problem is safety, did he talk to the Minister of Transport about what the government could do to resolve the safety issue? That is the problem. The problems raised by the minister are not the crux of the problem. This is a matter of safety in our railway operations. Communities have to deal with the accidents that occur across the country. Have there been discussions to resolve these differences, instead of simply telling the companies that we will impose what they want?

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, what does the hon. member want? Would he like the Canadian economy to be paralyzed for months and months because of a strike, because from the union's standpoint at Canadian National, we know there was a dispute between the American union and the Canadian union? Would the hon. member like the economy to be paralyzed and for us to wait indefinitely?

People are writing in to us. Some of them may even come from his own riding.

This includes Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, Sultran Ltd. in Calgary, Superior Propane in Calgary, Western Grain Elevator Association, West Fraser Timber in Vancouver, Nutrinor in Saint-Bruno, Keystone Agriculture Producers in Winnipeg, Tembec in Abitibi, Canpotex in Saskatoon, Canadian Chemical Producers' Association in Ottawa, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture in Ottawa and others.

Just yesterday our office received 78 phone calls from people asking us to please proceed with this. They need security in transportation and they need the economy going well. We answered the people from across Canada. We said that it was their responsibility, my responsibility and our responsibility to act for the health of the country

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Bloc

Carole Lavallée Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have an important question to ask the minister about his bill.

When he appeared before the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development to speak against Bill C-257, one of his arguments went like this, “You can see how well balanced my current legislation on replacement workers in the Canada Labour Code is working. Since it came into effect in 1999, there has been no need to pass back-to-work legislation”.

I would like the minister to explain something to me. We still have the same legislation on replacement workers, which is not really any legislation at all. Employers only need to pretend to negotiate in order to hire as many scabs as they want. But that was the argument he used. He still has the same legislation today. There is still no anti-strikebreaker bill, unfortunately, but the minister is obliged to introduce back-to-work legislation.

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, if the anti-strikebreaker bill that the hon. member introduced had come into force, the employees would not have been able to return to work between February 24 and April 10, even though the parties had reached an agreement in principle around February 24, because they would have had to wait for the results of the vote to be made known. We would have been without trains for two months.

How could the country function without trains? Would the hon. member please explain to the House why she could possibly want this to happen? Even though replacement workers can be used, it is not always easy to find them. People do not necessarily have the skills needed for the job. It is not easy to find people. That is why it is important to maintain a balance between employers and employees in the Canada Labour Code. It is working quite well.

Despite everything, though, sometimes particular situations arise where it becomes apparent that the parties do not want to reach an agreement and we cannot ensure that there will be good service for the economic health of the country and we have to assume our responsibilities. That is what we are doing here.

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

NDP

Peter Julian Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, the minister is talking about situations where there would be no trains and no service. But that is precisely what we have with all the problems we are seeing at CN because of bad management.

The government did not encourage talks with the Minister of Transport. That is absolutely absurd. So what have we seen for the last several weeks? No trains in Kamloops, Pickering, Montmagny or Fraser Canyon, precisely because of that bad management and lack of safety in the rail system.

What I am hearing from the minister is that the Conservatives have done absolutely nothing to settle the issue regarding those discussions and those disputes with the workers, who in fact want to have a safe rail system. The managers of the companies in the United States simply want to make big profits. So it is their responsibility to take measures that could have settled these disputes.

If I understand correctly, there has not been a single discussion about the question of safety and the escalating accidents we are seeing everywhere. What he is doing here is writing a blank cheque that will encourage more accidents, will encourage the stoppage and shutdown of the rail system across the country, because we will have even more accidents, since they have not solved the core problem.

Why have they not held a single discussion to solve the core problem in these disputes, which is the safety of our rail system?

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, the Canada Labour Code allows employees to strike. It also allows employers to order a lock-out. That is the principle of balance enshrined in the act. When there is a strike, which the unions are entitled to engage in, and which they call, we have an opportunity to conduct conciliation, followed by mediation and, ultimately, arbitration. At present, that is in the law and that is what we are going to do. We are going to allow the parties to do it. We are going to force them to bargain so that they can reach an agreement.

If one of the parties wants to abuse its powers, thinking that it can force the other to come around to its view, then it risks hitting a bump in the road. Why? Because under our legislation, after three months, if the parties have not agreed, if they have not reached an agreement, they will have to submit their offer. The union will submit its offer based on what it wants, CN management will submit its own offer, and the arbitrator will decide. The arbitrator will select offer A or offer B, but not something between the two.

No one wants to find themselves in that situation. We believe that it is in the parties' interests to sit down, bargain and come to an agreement, while keeping our economy functioning. That is what our legislation does, it provides for our system to function properly.

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Volpe Eglinton—Lawrence, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the Minister of Labour a question. We saw in his presentation and in his responses that he is thinking about the interests of workers in his plan. I would hope so.

I would like him to explain as briefly as possible whether his plan is compatible with all the existing regulations in the free market for resolving workplace conflicts between management and employees in a company. Can he tell us if the system he is suggesting we consider today, as parliamentarians, is compatible with all the other means available in the free market? Yes or no?

Railway Continuation Act, 2007
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Conservative

Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, during this dispute between the two parties, we made our conciliation services and then our mediation services available, providing the parties with the best people we could offer. They worked hard and an agreement was reached between the representatives of the union and of Canadian National. However, perhaps because of a dispute between unions—this is the right of the workers—the workers decided they were not satisfied with the agreement. They had a 3% annual increase, they had a $1,000 signing bonus and they had one year to discuss. They refused this.

Balance is important here. It is extremely important. One party cannot crush the other. Both parties must come to an agreement that is in the best interests of everyone, to keep the country running smoothly. With this in mind, we must now take—