Madam Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to again express my great disappointment and bitterness that we should have to debate a bill this evening that is completely inappropriate and represents an extreme solution to a problem that could have been solved long before tonight.
Earlier I asked about the implications of the bill, which deals with fundamental rights, namely the right of association and its corollaries, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.
Once again, the government has failed to show leadership or interest and it did not present any solutions to the dispute, which could still have been resolved a few days ago, before the unlimited general strike was called. The government has failed to act. It decided to stand back and instead choose a legislative path that demeans workers and deprives them of their fundamental rights.
Members will understand that it is out of the question for our political party, the Bloc Québécois, to accept this so-called last resort based on the pretext that everything else has been tried, when we are firmly convinced that everything has not been tried.
Yesterday, we were at the eleventh hour. The course of events could still have been altered. The government says it is impartial and wants free bargaining, so it has to walk the talk and make sure workers regain the right to negotiate under conditions that are conducive to success.
Everyone is feeling the effects. When the parties have known for a month that cabinet has special legislation in the works as a solution to the inevitable, that sends a strong signal to the bargaining table and lets the employer know that it need not bother finding a solution to the dispute.
Special legislation was announced before workers even started their first strike day, and along with that announcement was one about mediation sessions. Yesterday evening, however, after the union did its duty and spent the whole day negotiating in defence of its position, the employer walked away from the bargaining table. That suggests a power imbalance between the parties, and we find that unacceptable.
I also want to point out that these 1,100 Port of Montreal workers are men and women who work many hours every day to ensure the well-being of the entire population, of all Quebeckers and Canadians. We need these workers. Any conversation about Quebec's or Canada's economy is also a conversation about these workers.
The Port of Montreal is a vital institution. It is also unique because, as we all know, it is Quebec's only container port. That makes the work these people do pretty important.
I want to say that they are watching tonight and wondering how we are going to take care of them. I would also like to take a few minutes to talk about these workers.
Do members know what a dock worker's job entails? Do they want to know what dock workers do?
I found something very interesting. It gives a good idea, a good picture. I will take the time to talk about it because, when we vote tonight, we should be thinking about dock workers.
In Port Window magazine, I found the following description: “Dockworker: a well-paying job that takes concentration and dexterity.” I want to talk about Manon Comtois, because there are also women in this trade. Here is what a day in her life looks like.
Wedged in the driver's seat in the glassed-in cab, between heaven and earth, her hands gripping levers, Manon Comtois keeps her eyes fixed on the container hanging from the long cable of her crane. She needs all her concentration as she lowers the heavy 40-foot long metal box into position, 20 metres [or 65 feet] below, onto the trailer of a truck that looks like a toy. All four corners of the container must absolutely and perfectly match the four corners of the trailer. Slowly … Click!
Even though she followed in her father's footsteps and became a longshoreman, she says that she is not doing the same job that he did in his day. She already has 21 years' experience. She added:
...before automated equipment came along, dock work was much more physically difficult. To unload a ship, the longshoremen had only the strength of their two arms. Cargo arrived in bulk, in bags or in wooden boxes. It took weeks to empty a vessel. Now unloading time is calculated in hours!
...The tasks are many and varied.... The biggest challenge in the dock work profession...is the scheduling. A dockworker must be available 19 days out of 21 and may have to work an eight-hour shift at any time of the day or night. Loading and unloading vessels can be done 24/7 depending on when the vessels calls at the port. Freight transport doesn't wait! The difficulties directly related to performing the tasks are the whims of Mother Nature...
This shows that the dispute at the Port of Montreal is not about wages or benefits, but about hours of work, work-life balance and the right to disconnect.
Angelo Soares, a well-known professor in Quebec, conducted a study on these workers and looked at their work and their working conditions. It is unfathomable that, in the age of automation, workers are required to call in to get their shift schedule and are required to work 19 out of 21 days, and those two days off are not guaranteed to be a weekend. How are they supposed to plan for anything with that kind of schedule?
I am sharing this because I want to reiterate that our focus needs to be on these workers. This is their fight. They sounded alarm after alarm about the need to resolve the problem, and then there was that disgraceful move during negotiations. After they signed a truce and negotiations resumed, there was one last offer from management, which 99% of the workers rejected. More than 90% of the 1,100 members voted. The workers made it clear that the solutions put forward were not acceptable. Did the union threaten to call a general strike then? No, it did not.
In the chronology of events, we forget that the employer was so scared that it tried to seek an injunction just in case. The longshoremen did not trigger the strike.
The union called a full general strike recently because its priorities were work-life balance and the employer had to nerve to impose a measure to change work schedules during negotiations and while the collective agreement still applied.
Yes, the longshoremen were outraged. They announced that they would go on a full general strike, but that they were prepared not to if the employer dropped this measure. That is not nothing.
Since yesterday and the day before, the Bloc Québécois have been saying that there is a solution for resuming free, unconstrained bargaining without fear of back-to-work legislation. Departmental representatives confirmed that, according to their interpretation, the legislation that was introduced would prevent management from imposing such measures. If that was the government's intention, it could have easily taken action. It claimed that its hands were tied.
It could have easily forced the employer to lift this measure. The longshoremen would have been back to work today if the government had the will to find a solution. Instead it raised the threat of special legislation that would force them back to work and impose conditions as well as mediation and arbitration. That does not necessarily promote free bargaining. A solution was available to the government.
Workers in Canada fought for a very long time to get freedom of association, the right to negotiate freely and the right to resort to job action. In turn, the employer has the right to declare a lockout. The Canada Labour Code is outdated and does not adequately protect workers. The Canada Labour Code gives the employer the right to lock out.
Quebec dealt with that issue in 1977, and that right no longer exists. The right to disconnect has to be included in the Canada Labour Code. We must also improve conditions for precarious workers and on-call workers who have to work long hours unsupervised. Employees who do not comply with these requirements are subject to disciplinary measures. It is time to change that. We have to recognize that the rights that are being violated today are basic rights that must not be taken lightly.
There have been crises. Recently, there was the rail crisis, which had repercussions for CN. Pressure had to be applied to the government to intervene and find solutions because the situation was unacceptable. The goal always has to be finding a way out of the crisis, but this evening, the government wants us to pass a bill that will not only fail to resolve the situation, but also violate some very important rights.
As others have said, if the government champions free, informed, impartial negotiation, it has to demonstrate impartiality.
What does it mean to be impartial? Passing special back-to-work legislation in a situation where bargaining would ensure these rights and would allow workers to negotiate freely is tantamount to picking one side over the other.
If that is what happens tonight, I would describe it as a cowardly act, and I apologize for the strong language. It would mean abdicating our fundamental role as parliamentarians, which is to be the guardians of the rights of the entire population, including workers.
I appeal to my colleagues and remind them that this can be avoided by voting against the special legislation. We must not wash our hands of the problem. Instead, we must focus on possible solutions. If the government, the Prime Minister or even the Minister of Labour had intervened without taking sides at the first sign of trouble, there would have been possible solutions.
When both parties sit down, say what is wrong and a message is sent, and the experienced negotiators say nothing can be done, that is the time to act. The government has had plenty of opportunities to take action since the end of last year's truce. We deplore this lax attitude and lack of leadership.
This bill makes no sense and denies dock workers their rights. Tonight's bill will not send Port of Montreal dock workers back to work in a spirit of co-operation to do a good job; rather, it will just be strong-arming them. I do not think we have the right to force these employees back to work when there is no reason for it and there are other solutions available.
If we want to make sure that the Port of Montreal gets back up and running like everyone wants, let us reject this bill. Let us vote for a solution that involves free bargaining. Let us give the parties the tools to go back to work with a good balance of power, rather than giving all the power to one party.