Madam Speaker, I am very proud to rise in this House this evening to defend the fundamental rights of the workers of this country. Today, those rights are being threatened, I could even say violated, by this bill that, once again, we must now study in this expeditious, but unfortunate way.
At the same time, I rise with very deep concerns about the direction that, day after day, this government is imposing on the House and therefore on our society and its communities. The Conservatives' vision and direction are frankly authoritarian and show a thinly veiled contempt for the workers of this country, for its ordinary men and women who, every morning, get on the bus and, every evening, make their lunches and their children's lunches, so that they can go and earn their living by the sweat of their brows. This government has an outrageous soft spot for those who run the big companies and the big banks in this country.
This government is completely out of touch and unapologetically ideological. It keeps telling us that the invisible hand of the market will solve all of society's problems. According to their ideology, simply encouraging individuals working in isolation to achieve their own ends is the way to achieve the common good. As progressives and social democrats, that is not a vision we share.
Deregulation, privatization and liberalization in other countries have failed miserably. Among the more recent examples is that of the “Celtic tiger”, the European dragon, Ireland, which for years adopted a neo-liberal approach and now lies in ruin while a neighbouring country, Iceland, consulted its citizens and took a different approach that was in the best interest of its people.
Last summer, around this same time, shortly after the historic May 2 election, I had the honour of rising in the House with my new colleagues, particularly our friend and former leader, Jack Layton, to fight for the rights of postal workers. The government conspired to lock them out. They were the very first victims of the government's wrong-headed, backward and anti-worker policies.
I am proud of the fact that I rose in the House back then along with all of my NDP colleagues, because that is the real reason we were elected. We were elected to stand up for people, and that is what we are doing today as New Democrats and progressives in Parliament.
We have to stand up to protect everyone from this right-wing government's attacks. A year later, little has changed in the House. Unfortunately, this government keeps doing the same thing over and over again. If it were as harsh with itself as it is with repeat offenders, we might be headed in a better direction right now.
This is the third time in a year, or the fourth if we count the two different groups of Air Canada employees. That is quite extraordinary. This government has a laissez-faire attitude, but it intervenes directly in a bargaining process and disrupts the existing balance when it comes to negotiating a collective agreement.
It intervenes to tell workers at a private company that they cannot collectively decide on their working conditions or negotiate them. This right is recognized not only under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also by the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that collective bargaining is a fundamental aspect of Canadian society. Today this fundamental aspect is being attacked by the Minister of Labour and the Conservative government.
I would like to make an aside, because it is important to put Canada's legal and international obligations into context.
Together with the International Labour Organization, Canada signed Convention 87 on the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize.
This convention recognizes the right to free association and bargaining.
I will cite the opinion of Michael Lynk from Western University in Ontario on this freedom of association. The quote is in English because the original version is in that language.
The right of unionized employees to strike through the peaceful withdrawal of services in order to defend their economic and social interests has been widely accepted as one of the pillars of the freedom to associate, along with the right to organize and the right to collectively bargain. Although the right to strike is not explicitly stated in either Conventions Nos. 87 or 98, the caselaw developed by the Committee on Freedom of Association and the cumulative reports of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations have read the right to strike into the meaning of the freedom of association. A leading ILO study that reviewed the jurisprudence of the two Committees has stated that: “the right to strike is a fundamental right of workers and their organizations;” “strike action is a right and not simply a social act;” and “the right to strike is essential to a democratic society.” The Committee on Freedom of Association has ruled that: the right to strike [is] one of the essential means through which workers and their organizations may promote and defend their economic and social interests.
The government's violation of the constitutional right to strike and the freedom of association has already been challenged twice in the case of Canada Post and Air Canada. It is quite likely that this evening's bill will be added to that black list.
Government intervention hurts relations between workers and management. Once again, the government is unwise to meddle in an area that is none of its business. It is interfering in the collective bargaining process, and, it bears repeating, it threatened to pass special legislation not 24 hours into the strike. The government is going to create a situation that will spoil labour relations at Canadian Pacific. This will leave scars. People will no longer be motivated at work. They will be upset and frustrated, and rightly so. That is what this government is about to do. That is unfortunate.
Experts representing managers, workers and unions all agree that interfering in free collective bargaining will worsen the already tense relations between employers and employees.
George Smith—who is now at Queen's University, but who was a negotiator for Air Canada and CP in the past—has pointed out that the government is naive to believe that it can legislate peace in labour relations and is actually making the situation worse. He said:
Naively, the government thought it could legislate certainty and legislate peace, and neither of those things have resulted.
You’re mortgaging the future, and not knowing how much that mortgage is going to cost. In spite of the appearance of labour peace, there is no such thing.
The Conservative government continues to make bad decisions.
Not only does the government propose bad solutions, not only does it act when it should step aside and leave it up to the two parties to negotiate freely, but when the government is asked to act to save jobs, it is asleep at the wheel. The government was incapable of enforcing the Air Canada Public Participation Act on behalf of Aveos employees when 2,400 people were mercilessly laid off, including 1,800 workers in the Montreal region, where I have the honour of representing the residents of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie.
We have a government that stays sitting on its hands, that does nothing, that does not lift a finger to save people who had good jobs, were well paid, and contributed to the economy. In the case in question, the government did not want to get involved because it stated that it was not its business, that it was a matter for the private companies themselves. Yet, when the private company is Canadian Pacific and it is having problems at the bargaining table, it takes less than 24 hours for the sword of Damocles to be brandished by the Minister of Labour and for that sword to be placed above the heads of Canadian Pacific workers. We in the NDP find that unacceptable because it demonstrates a lack of respect for workers.
One should not be too surprised, however, because this very same government is also directly attacking Canadians' and Quebeckers' pensions. Yet barely a year ago, during the election campaign, the Conservatives never came clean about their intention to increase the eligibility age for old age security.
Yet before an audience of billionaires in Switzerland, the Prime Minister saw fit to announce that he was going to make changes. Now, he never mentioned this to Canadian voters, which very clearly demonstrates a lack of respect and a contempt for Canadians. Moreover, it is an attack that will affect the poorest workers, those of most modest means, which is unacceptable, just as it is unacceptable to attack the employment insurance system. This will hurt temporary workers, contract workers and seasonal workers.
This government does not care about people, does not care about the little guy, does not care about workers; it just wants to force down wages. The Conservatives know one direction and one direction alone when it comes to pensions and wages: down, down, down, except in the case of their corporate fat cat friends.
We need to say it frankly and stop beating around the bush. I believe that this is the first time in history that we have ever had a government that hates the government so much, meaning that the government detests the state that it leads. It does not like the state. It does not like social programs or the redistribution of wealth. And yet, it is running this country, while trying to smash it up and diminish it. It can readily be seen that it is an authoritarian government that feels deep contempt for our parliamentary and democratic institutions. It is a government that prefers intimidation to discussion. It is a bulldozer of a government that gagged parliamentarians more than 20 times in a single year. It is appalling, using closure more than 20 times.
Once again, debate is being limited on a special law that forces a return to work at Canadian Pacific. It is unacceptable. Members want to discuss and exchange ideas and to debate them, but the Conservatives do not like debates.
I am going to refer to two numbers, because I like to use numbers from time to time. The three readings of the current bill have been limited to three and a half hours of debate. For an act that is going to affect 5,000 families in Canada, this is completely unacceptable. Later on, when we meet in committee of the whole, one hour has been scheduled for discussion, when there are 308 members in this House. I took out my calculator and did a little math. If every member in this House were given the opportunity to speak, each would be able to do so for 11.7 seconds. Eleven seconds is what the Conservative government is offering us to discuss this bill in committee of the whole. This is unacceptable and appalling. It is beginning to be rather obscene. It is obscene to see this government destroy the legacy of social programs and institutions that were established with a view to a better society, a more just society in which people live in dignity through good jobs.
Workers are the ones who fought to abolish child labour. Workers fought for a weekend off—except, it would appear, the workers at Canadian Pacific—and for a 40-hour week, instead of having to work 12, 14 or 16 hours a day, as they used to. It is workers who fought for an employment insurance system and for health and safety protections. None of this fell from heaven. People fought for these things. It was not bosses or the government who decided all of a sudden one fine morning that it would be very nice to offer these things.
Let me provide my colleagues with some context by explaining why people at Canada Post, Air Canada and Canadian Pacific are so angry. They certainly have a right to be angry. The 100 most highly paid CEOs in Canada earned $44,000 in the first three days of 2012. They earned $44,000 between January 1st and 3rd. That is the average salary of a Canadian worker, the average annual salary. The CEOs pocketed the same amount in two days. On average, the 100 elite CEOs in Canada make 189 times more than the average Canadian worker.
Take one as an example. The CEO of Canadian Pacific earned $6.5 million in 2011, in one year. That may seem like a lot, but compared with his severance pay, it is peanuts. He quit his job and is no longer the CEO of Canadian Pacific. His severance was $18 million. These are the same people who are targeting the pension plan of 5,000 workers, who had the effrontery to ask them to slash their pension benefits by 40%. That is money they themselves have put aside. Today, management is trying to twist workers' arms and shove unacceptable cuts to their pension scheme down their throats.
Pension plans are under major attack everywhere in Quebec and Canada. We in the NDP are going to stand up and defend workers' pension plans.
I have a hard time understanding how a company that made a profit of $570 million last year, made a profit of $142 million last quarter and for the last four quarters has paid its shareholders a significant dividend is a company in difficulty. How come this company has to launch an attack on the pension plan of 5,000 Canadian families? How did we as a society get to that point today? Why is this Conservative government like the tower of Pisa? It always leans the same way, and never towards Canadian workers. It is unacceptable.
Why is it that Canadian Pacific cannot resolve the problem of worker fatigue? This has been a problem for years. The workers' requests and demands are rather simple. Since they are always on call, since they are always available and their vacation disappears all the time, they simply want to have the assurance that they can be at home with their families for two 48-hour periods per month. And they were told no by a company that made $142 million in profit in the last quarter. Is that the Conservative government's vision for Canada? CEOs get an open bar, while everyone else has to beg for scraps. Is that what the government wants—golden parachutes for bankers and attacks on workers' pensions? These attacks are very real.
A 50-year-old employee with 30 years of service at CP would lose $9,900 a year if management's demands are accepted, and that employee would have no other options. A younger employee, for instance someone who is 30 and has 10 years of seniority with CP, would lose $30,000 a year with the changes that management is demanding. That is unacceptable.
It is completely appalling that in a country as wealthy as Canada, the gap between the rich and the poor is only growing. Even people who are working are forced to seek assistance and turn to food banks, for instance. Since 2008, the number of people in the greater Montreal region who are turning to food banks has increased by nearly 40%.
By introducing special legislation—as in the case of Canada Post, Air Canada and now Canadian Pacific—this government is sending a clear message that employers can attack the working conditions of their employees, negotiate in bad faith—as is the case at Canadian Pacific—and their Conservative bodyguards will come to their rescue whenever they need help. The message being sent to employers is that they no longer have to negotiate. The Conservatives are always there to help them along and impose repressive legislation.
This has resulted in a serious imbalance in our labour relations regime, which is based on free bargaining by management and the union, where one party can exert economic pressure on the other. When a special law is imposed, the balance of free collective bargaining is upset. As we heard earlier, this is vital to our bargaining regime and has resulted in more peaceful labour relations and civility in our society.
Now we have a government that is already moribund, after being in power for just one year, and that has added insult to injury with its Trojan Horse. This mammoth bill amends 69 existing laws and is more than 450 pages long. The government also imposed closure on this bill. And what does the bill contain? It contains even more sustained and vicious attacks against workers, despicable changes to employment insurance and old age security, and the repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. What we see here is perfectly aligned with the Conservatives' policies.
In closing, when it comes to the challenges of pension plans, the challenges of Canadian Pacific employee fatigue, and the challenges of employment insurance—with the pressure to reduce the salaries of seasonal, temporary, contract and self-employed workers—the picture looks pretty bleak. However, I would like to finish on a more positive note. I would like to finish with a message of hope for Canadian and Quebec workers.
The NDP will always be there standing beside workers and fighting the Conservative government's regressive policies. It will be there proposing real change and an alternative way of doing politics.
Our brand of politics will support the majority of the population, 99% of workers. We just need to be patient a little longer and continue to fight for a better society.
There will be an election, and together we are going to oust this government, which does not care about the concerns of Canadian workers.