House of Commons Hansard #94 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was health.

Topics

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:50 a.m.

Liberal

Marc Garneau Westmount—Ville-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Acadie—Bathurst for his speech.

The Minister of Labour said that she was reluctant to intervene. I think that she was actually in a hurry to intervene, citing a very fragile economy. She first talked to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board about health and safety issues. That is ridiculous, because those issues are not even part of this dispute.

I have two questions for the member from Acadie—Bathurst. First, the minister said that job action would have a devastating effect on the economy, but provided no numbers or evidence to support that claim. Second, does the member think that the minister is sending us an implied message that the air transportation sector is an essential service?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:50 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, there are two sides to this.

Let us first talk about the negative impact on the economy. Disputes sometimes take place. These things can last a week, two weeks, three weeks or a month. That is when a dispute becomes harmful to the economy and we should consider what can be done. But that is not at all the case here. The government announces five months ahead of time that if there is a strike or lockout, it will intervene. It is completely interfering in the negotiations, which upsets the balance of power between the two parties. It is as though the minister told Air Canada to sit back and do nothing, because the government plans to intervene and get the collective agreement that the company wants. The problem with this government is that it interferes. The government should not interfere; instead, it should simply appoint mediators and conciliators. That is the government's job.

Furthermore, as for essential services, last year the government was already looking at the possibility of declaring the economy an essential service in the Canada Labour Code. Come on. If it did that, it would mean the end of bargaining and the end of unions. They would no longer exist. Well, that is the Conservative government for you. It suggested the economy should be considered an essential service. Any employer could then simply claim that a strike would harm the local or national economy, and the right to strike would be over. This goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If something like this were to go to the Supreme Court, I think we would win. The government is going further than any other country in the world right now by taking away the right to strike and the right to lockout.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:50 a.m.

NDP

Christine Moore Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to know what my colleague thinks about this motion and the situation of the economy. If we count speaking times, seven members will have the opportunity to speak, if everyone uses their time. That means that 2.27% of the House will have the opportunity to speak to this bill. I think this is a complete lack of democracy. As well, she says it is to protect the economy because of the situation.

I would like my colleague to answer my question. Air Canada is an airline, but are there other airlines in Canada? If someone really has no choice but to travel, can they do business with another airline? Are there buses in Canada? Are there cars, trains, boats or other things? Are Canadians absolutely incapable of travelling if Air Canada is the only one affected? Is it the economy in its entirety and transportation capacity in Canada that are completely threatened by this strike, or is it only a portion, with alternatives for people who really have no choice?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:50 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, there are several airlines: CanWest, WestJet and Porter, or Air Transat for people going on vacation. There are indeed airlines. As she said, there are boats, ferries and all sorts of things. In any event, the economy could be used as an excuse for everything. That is what I am afraid of here: the economy can be used as a pretext everywhere. It will always be an excuse. Fundamental rights cannot be taken away from working people.

I want to remind Canadians about the Canada Post case. That was a small group, if we compare it to 33 million people. The government said that 33 million people were going to be deprived of their mail. That was true, but by saying it they automatically deprived those people of a right. It meant that those people did not have that right.

Now it is Air Canada. The government says this is going to prevent people from travelling, so they lose their rights. Who else is going to lose their rights? Who? That is what is disturbing. This is a fundamental right that our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents fought for. To put an end to those battles, workers were given rights: the right to bargain and the right to strike legally so we do not have street fights, so that blood does not run in the streets. That is what was done so that working people would have the right to be respected.

The Conservative government is taking that right away from them. That is not right; it is unfair and it is unacceptable. I say that this way of doing things is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government is taking away the right to debate in the House, here, because that is indeed what this is: only 2% of the debate on an important subject will take place. The minister herself says it is important, but she is depriving the workers of fundamental rights.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:55 a.m.

NDP

Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Mr. Speaker, my father worked in maintenance at Air Canada for 30 years. Today my thoughts are with him and his former colleagues.

The minister talked about the tremendous efforts the government is making to facilitate the negotiations, and she said that the workers had refused attempts to reach an agreement. That is an edited version of the story, and it attempts to demonize the workers and the unions. We still do not know why these workers refused the agreement, what they are calling for and what working conditions are important to them.

Since the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst is an expert on these matters, perhaps he could refer to the Canada Post case and tell us what the workers wanted in their agreements and what they were not willing to give up. Can he give us any information on what Air Canada's workers want as working conditions, which they are not willing to give up?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:55 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, Air Canada's employees have been making concessions for 10 years. For the past 10 years, they having been working to save Air Canada. While they were making efforts to save the company, Air Canada's former president took off with $80 million in his pockets. Another president left with $5 million in his pockets. In the meantime, the workers gave their all. Today they are saying that it is their turn to have better conditions, better wages, a guaranteed pension and a better schedule.

All of us here know, but maybe Canadians do not: between flights, Air Canada workers do not even have a place in the airport where they can go to take a break. They do not even have a room where they can go and sit down. They walk around and sit on the benches like passengers do. Those are the types of things they want, improvements to their working conditions. Now, the government will decree that the workers will not get what they are asking for, because it is going to step in. The minister herself said that things were not going well for Air Canada and that the government had to intervene. She did not say that things are not going well for the employees, but for Air Canada. She is the Minister of Labour and she has to provide for the well-being of the employees as well.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is an episode of Groundhog Day here. Here we go again with more back to work legislation presented. The government is injecting itself in the midst of a labour dispute with a private company.

I would like to go back and comment on some things the minister shared during her speech. She said that Parliament has intervened in various labour disputes in the country over 35 times since 1950. That may be so. If we look at essential services, and what is considered to be essential changes over time, there are times where intervention is warranted. It would be interesting to go back and see, of those over 35 interventions by Parliament, how many have been preceded by a motion to limit debate on a bill that was not even seen yet. The government is setting the table in limiting the debate even before we see the proposed legislation. We have seen some pretty archaic legislation presented by the government, certainly in the case of Canada Post. I would like to know how many interventions have been led by notice restricting the amount of debate on a particular motion before it even came forward.

She also indicated during her comments that the government was taking this action as an important and integral step so that the economy of the country would not slow down, so that this work stoppage would not interfere with the progress that has taken place with the economic recovery in Canada.

I would like to take a moment to reflect on the progress. We know now that 1.4 million Canadians are unemployed. This number has continued to grow since October of last year. We know that there are more unemployed young Canadians. The youth unemployment rate in the country right now is about 14.7%. Even more compelling than that is the shrinking participation rate of the youth workforce in the country over the last number of months. Some young Canadians have given up seeking work. They are disengaging from the economy.

We know that people are unemployed for longer periods of time. In 2008, the average duration of unemployment was 14.8 weeks. Last year, that duration was 21.2 weeks. Under the stewardship of the Conservative government, we are reaching record highs in youth unemployment. Its answer to that is to close the youth employment service centres across the country and give young people even less of an opportunity to find employment. That has been its approach. If it is doing this for the economy, I am sure Canadians are saying, “the government has helped enough, step away from the economy, the damage has been done”.

I would think the impact on the economy of this particular strike would be marginal. It would be fairly limited. There are other carriers in the country. WestJet, Porter and various air carriers offer other opportunities to travel across the country. Most business operators, even though they still travel and use air travel during the course of regular business, use the technology we have available today. Skyping and Internet calling are very commonplace.

Coming from a small community like Sydney serviced by Jazz Air, if we are not able to get to Halifax with a connector flight, we certainly can still get access to it because there are other ways to get out of Sydney. Whether or not this is an essential service, let us look at the transit strike in Halifax. A great number of the residents normally access that public service on a daily basis, ensuring that they can get back and forth to work. That strike has been going on for eight weeks now. Therefore, comparing a public transit strike with this particular lockout and the legislation being brought forward by this minister is like comparing apples and oranges.

We see this as a heavy-handed approach on the part of the government to inject itself here. It is certainly not new. This is the fourth time the government has injected itself into the midst of a labour dispute, and we have seen the actions undertaken by the government in these cases. We know that employees at Air Canada, the grounds crew, baggage handlers, machinists, pilots, flight attendants and customer service attendants, have all been impacted by the actions of the government. Those 48,000 employees have lost their right to free and fair collective bargaining. If we throw in the postal workers, about 75,000 Canadians have lost their rights. All of those lost rights add up to one colossal wrong, and it is wrong on the part of the government to inject itself here.

I am going to give the minister some kudos here because I think she did what she could leading up to this, and I am going to recognize that. She changed the mediator. She did not inject her own personal views into this but saw that the talks were stalling and put in another mediator. If we were in power, we would have done the same thing. However, it was the past actions of the government that gave an indication to the management at Air Canada that the minister was going to come forward with legislation regardless of the outcome of the mediation talks. The management believed it could count on the government to bring forward back to work legislation; that is where the well was poisoned. The landscape was changed as a result of the minister's prior actions because Air Canada management knew this was coming.

What is happening with Mr. Rovinescu, the CEO of Air Canada, is that the Minister is really doing his job. He should be compelled to find a way through these negotiations, to find some way to accommodate his workforce so that the airline can continue to operate and serve Canadians. Knowing the minister is coming forward with this legislation makes his job easier. In his situation, at the end of this month, he will get his $5 million bonus. That is unbelievable. Over 10 years, since Air Canada filed for protection under the bankruptcy laws, we know that the concessions made by the workers total $2 billion. They had wage rollbacks and benefit concessions totalling $2 billion over 10 years. They have done their part to bring this company around and to help Air Canada survive.

When Mr. Milton left, he got a golden handshake of $80 million on the backs of the workers. Now we have Mr. Rovinescu picking up $5 million. I know $5 million does not look like a lot to some people on the government side, but it is not bad. His job is just made that much easier knowing that the Conservative government will come up with back to work legislation.

It rattles the morale of this company. It further wedges the worker-management relationship within Air Canada and serves no one well. It further hurts a great airline. Every Canadian complains about the weather and we complain about Air Canada. There is not a lot of love for Air Canada by those who have ever lost a piece of luggage or ever been delayed by them. For them, it is about that darned Air Canada.

I fly three weeks of the year back and forth to my riding and a few times outside of that. I do not think there are any people at any company who have a tougher job and do a better job than the people at Air Canada. The disregard and disrespect for their rights shown by the government is shameful.

Judging by some of the comments made, there is no justification for the steps taken by the government. I want to read a couple of quotes, if I could. The union president, Paul Strachan, from the Air Canada Pilots Association talks about the track record of the government injecting itself into past disputes and the concerns about that. He states that “It does affect the bargaining landscape, absolutely” and that the power to intervene is like the “sword of Damocles hanging over the heads” of all union negotiators.

Dave Ritchie, the Canadian general vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, says:

I asked [the minister] to stay out of the process, but she didn't, so I am disappointed in her move. I'm not too happy about it.

He added that it hurts their relations.

However, it is not just union officials who are going on the record talking about the actions of the government. There is a quote from George Smith, Air Canada's former director of employee relations and now a professor at Queen's University. He talked about the interference of the government in the current dispute and in past disputes. He is a person who sat at the table a number of times and who has been through many negotiations over the years. He argues that if disputes are placed in the hands of arbitrators, management is unlikely to get what it wants. That is a fact.

In his own words:

We had strikes and lockouts over my 10 years at Air Canada and the government never had to intervene.

This has all the appearances of the federal government doing what's best for the country but really it's a disaster.... If you are negotiating a difficult labour contract, the process is being taken out of your hands and the government will do it for you. The “showdown” element which hurts in the short run but results in a fair settlement is gone. The net result will be labour agreements that are uncompetitive.

That comes from a respected voice, a guy who sat on the other side of the table representing management in many negotiations.

We know that hammering out labour agreements is a difficult process. Certainly, when we consider the global economy, we see that many businesses are just trying to stay on their feet through these tough times. However, I think that most Canadians understand when they work for a company that has been able to sustain itself and to right itself that they were part of the good work that went on to make sure that company was competitive and stayed afloat and, really, has grown over the last number of years.

There has to be an opportunity provided to those workers who contributed to that success. There has to be an opportunity to share in that success. However, even just the opportunity to share in that success has been taken away by the government. That is what is egregious and truly unfortunate in this case.

We have seen this time and time again where two parties sit down and think they have an agreement in place. The representative of a union representing 8,000 or however many people may leave the table thinking he or she has the bases covered. However, it is not for the union executive to say they have a deal, but instead that they are willing to take the deal back to their membership.

Once a union executive signs off at the negotiating table, it probably has a pretty good feel that it has a chance of getting it through their membership. However, it not a fait accompli, not a done deal. They go back to the membership and have a vote and, in this case, it has been rejected, which just gives them the wherewithal to go back to the table and address the shortcomings of the proposed deal. That is their responsibility and what was going to take place in this case.

However, with the government coming forward with legislation, the management has seen the end of the movie already. One could say that they had a deal in place and that everything was done already, but that it not the case. The union membership has to sign-off on any tentative deals. That is why these are called tentative deals, because they are pending the acceptance of the membership. The union executive takes the deal back to their membership and if it gets voted down, we then go on to the next aspect of the process. In this case, they did not get the opportunity to do that.

This is the situation we find ourselves in. I am sure the government has legislation on the shelf ready for it to plug in the name of a company, whichever one is currently in a position to take its membership out and force management to come forward with serious considerations. However, we certainly have not seen any kind of resolve on the part of the government to be seriously supportive of fair and open collective bargaining. We have seen the government compromise that, and I do not think we can get it back. The dye has been cast. I am sure the public service unions in this country know they are in the crosshairs and that they have some tough times ahead. Certainly they are watching the upcoming budget with a great deal of anticipation. However, make no mistake about it, this government will certainly be willing to bring the hammer down on them as well.

To wrap up my comments, it is unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation again. It is unfortunate that the government has taken away the fair right of unions to negotiate fair collective agreements. The government has tilted the playing field in favour of the company. I think organized labour in this country has been dealt a blow since the Conservative government came to power and it is something we are going to see more of in the years to come.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:15 a.m.

Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo
B.C.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Revenue

Mr. Speaker, I listened intently to my colleague's comments regarding the strike and there are two things that stuck out in my mind.

First, he indicated that he did not believe this was an essential service. Coming from small rural communities, I beg to differ.

The member also provided some quotes from Captain Paul Strachan, the president of the Air Canada Pilots Association. I will give the him another quote and ask him for comment. Mr. Strachan testified before the Senate transport committee that he believed Air Canada was an essential service for this country and “...a cornerstone of our entire economy”. We happen to agree with Captain Strachan that it is an essential service and important for our economy.

Why does the member disagree with the president of the union and why is he in favour of jeopardizing our fragile economic recovery? Again, he quoted Mr. Strachan on the one hand and then on the other hand said it was not an essential service. That is in direct contradiction with the language Mr. Strachan used before committee.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, rather than finding ourselves back here in the House time after time discussing back to work legislation imposed by the Conservative government, the government might want to scope out what essential services actually are in this country and then there would be one blanket over all of those essential services. Maybe that is the debate that should be taking place.

If WestJet and Porter, two private airline companies, find themselves in the same situation as Air Canada, will the government bring in back to work legislation with them? That is the question that needs to be asked.

We know we have access to other service providers, other great Canadian airlines and VIA Rail. There are other modes of transportation that Canadians can use.

In order for the government to make it easy on itself, I would suggest that it map out what is considered an essential service here in this country.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to bring forward on a personal note an issue involving the city of Winnipeg in Manitoba.

We need to understand that the government has never been a friend of Air Canada workers, whether they work in Winnipeg, Mississauga or Montreal. We could talk about the flight attendants base or the pilots base in Winnipeg or the overhaul centre that was in Winnipeg. These are all important and valuable jobs to the province of Manitoba and yet Air Canada literally shafted the workers by not standing up for them. In the case of the overhaul maintenance workers, Air Canada allowed a form of privatization into a different area even though it had a legal obligation to maintain those jobs.

For the last couple of years, the Government of Canada has not stood up for those workers and now we see labour legislation being brought in once again to not allow free collective bargaining in an important industry.

Does my colleague understand and appreciate why many of the workers at Air Canada feel that the Conservative government just does not care about the worker, that it seems to support Air Canada over the worker? Does he not think that is unfair in terms of the free collective bargaining process?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, under the public air act, commitments were made to certain communities with regard to staffing levels and the allocation of resources in particular areas. That came about when Canadian Airlines and Air Canada merged. It is important to ensure that Air Canada abides by the commitments made through that act.

The government claims that Air Canada is a private company and, as such, it does not want anything to do with it. However, in this case, the government is treating Air Canada like a public service provider. It is duplicitous on the part of the government the way it treats Air Canada. It is hands off when it is a private firm, when it is in the interest of the workers, but when, in a case like this in contract negotiations, the government says that Air Canada is like a federal public service so it puts itself in the midst of the situation in an effort to bring it to a close because the Conservatives feel it is their responsibility as a government.

I can see why the member is confused with the government's approach to this particular case.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:25 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, in the context of this debate, my largest underlying concern is that we are undermining collective bargaining rights. However, when I focus on pilots, what comes to mind is the great hero "Sully" Sullenberger who landed a plane on the frozen Hudson River. One of the things that came to light in his interview after that great feat of heroism was his concern that pilots were not being paid enough, that the competition in the U.S. was allowing pilots to fly passengers when earning under $20,000 a year and that the cutthroat nature of the industry meant that passenger safety was at risk.

If the government is going to intervene, would it not be nice if just once it intervened on the side of increasing wages instead of undercutting the workers in favour of management? If that were to happen, then maybe there would be an incentive for management to come to a fair term and deal with its workers.

In this case, does the hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso think we might be undermining safety?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, when my friend and colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands made reference to landing a plane on a frozen body of water, I thought for sure she was speaking of J.A.D. McCurdy on Baddeck Bay .

Her point is absolutely valid and real. With the actions undertaken by the government, we certainly have not see anything that would lend itself to increasing safety within the operational guidelines of Air Canada. Rather, it has been, “What can we do to help our big corporate friends and certainly help along the management at Air Canada?” Whether intended or not, that is what has happened in this case.

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

Royal Galipeau Ottawa—Orléans, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso is an active member both in the House and in his community, so I suppose t he was in his district over the weekend. How would he have returned back here to make that eloquent speech this afternoon if the airline had not been in the air? Is Air Canada not essential to him and to the service that he gives to this country?

Air Service Operations Legislation
Government Orders

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is as convenient as heck. Is it essential? Absolutely, positively not. We would have driven to Halifax by car. We could have taken a train from Halifax and came up yesterday. We were delayed as it was. It is certainly convenient but it is not at all essential.