Mr. Speaker, I have the honour and privilege today to speak to a bill introduced by the member for Lethbridge. The bill seeks to make it illegal for anyone, employee or employer, to cause any cessation of work at any stage of the progress of grain from the premises of the producer of the grain to export.
It should be obvious that the bill would affect a large number of Canadians, indeed everybody who comes near the grain, from the farmer who grows the grain to the trains and ships which carry the grain. It would directly affect my riding of Erie whose economy includes the entire spectrum from grain production to the marine industry.
I wish to focus on one aspect of the bill and what it brings to the labour relations atmosphere with the government's own employees. That is the provision in the bill which would amend the Public Service Staff Relations Act by adding new criteria, limiting the right to strike.
The bill seeks to add to the Public Service Staff Relations Act in section 2 and subsection 78(1), words which have the effect of prohibiting employees from engaging in any strike activity in areas related to "the orderly progress of grain from the premises of the producer of the grain to export".
When the Public Service Staff Relations Act was introduced almost 30 years ago, legislators included a unique concept to labour legislation. This was the notion of designating employees as essential and denying them the right to strike. That is to say that employees whose duties included functions which were performed in the interest of the safety and security of the
Canadian public, those employees could not engage in a strike. If one was to search the Canada Labour Code or other labour codes, one would not find many examples of such a concept.
In my opinion, this is a good, reasonable and justifiable concept. Employees of the federal government and numerous other federal institutions should not be in a position to withdraw services which would cause harm to the safety or security of Canadians.
This provision has stood the test of time. When public servants engage in strike activity, a number of their colleagues continue to work and provide essential services to the public. The last public service strike provided us with many examples of this provision.
Both air and marine search and rescue operations continued. Ice breaking continued. Mariner's charts and maps continued to be produced and updated, and the all important function of providing notices to shipping carried on. As well, the fisheries patrols were maintained and employees involved in this function continued to provide a service to the public.
Air operations continued and airport facilities were maintained. Weather observations continued. Forecast were prepared and communicated to users. Of great comfort, notification bulletins affecting aviation safety continued to be produced and disseminated.
Naturally prison guards and correctional services are deemed an essential service and continued to perform their tasks. All those employees, including those who provide care and security for inmates, medical care, food, heating and all those functions necessary to maintain the system, continued to perform their duties.
Health care was maintained by designated employees in such areas as poison control, hazardous product identification, medical support at federal hospitals, ambulance drivers and dental and chronic care in isolated areas. Also designated were some employees who were involved in research related to health care which used laboratory animals.
Essential to Canadians, income security programs such as UI, family allowance and the Canada pension plan continued. This included the processing of new claims as well as issuance of benefits.
Employees involved in customs and immigration control remained on the job. Included among these essential jobs were employees responsible for the primary inspection of meat and fish products imported to Canada.
Not surprisingly, the provisions of the Public Service Staff Relations Act also preluded those involved with national security from striking. Included among these were the civilian and federal employees who provide support to RCMP operations.
Of interest to members, parliamentarian operations were designated an essential service. Hansard continued to be printed, along with commission reports and other parliamentary publications. As well, simultaneous translation services continued to be offered.
These are some of the examples of services considered essential for the safety and security of the public, and for which the public service employees could not withdraw services.
The central theme throughout this list is: these services are essential for the safety and security of the Canadian public. It is evident that the current provisions of the Public Service Staff Relations Act have by and large served the Canadian public well. By tinkering with these provisions and including the notion of economic hardship in the grain industry, are we trying to fix what is not broken?
It is an unfortunate but accepted reality that strikes will cause inconvenience and maybe even economic hardship to some. If we are to accept that employees have the right to strike to put pressure on their employer, then we must accept the results. If it is our view that strikes should not cause hardship to anyone, then it is my suggestion that all strikes be declared illegal.
This bill starts along this road. It is heading toward a destination that can only bring grief to employer-employee relations in the country. I would not argue that the movement of grain is not important to Canadians. Obviously it is. However, I do not believe that the production or movement of grain is essential for the security of the public. The movement of grain is, like many other commercial activities, an important economic activity in the country.
If we were to introduce the idea that there can be no strikes or lockouts in the grain industry which sector would be next? Is it the auto industry? Is it the shipping industry? How about forestry services? In certain sections of the country ore production is extremely important. Should we consider banning work stoppages there? If we are to use economic criteria I am confident that every member of the House could cite an enterprise worthy of consideration for a bill such as this.
I would like to remind members that in many jurisdictions police are given the opportunity to withdraw from their jobs. Medical practitioners and teachers also have this ability.
As I mentioned, if we accept that employees have the right to strike and to exert pressure on their employer, then they must be permitted to do so. The introduction of a provision in the Public Service Staff Relations Act prohibiting strikes in one specific area, be it grain handling or some other industry, begins to erode this right. Employees either have the right to strike or they do not.
The provision restricting the right to strike in the federal public service to those performing services essential for the safety and security of the public is a restriction but I think it can be reasonably argued. In addition, this provision has been in place for almost 30 years and still allows the public service employees to withdraw services. As we saw during the last public service strike, employees still have the ability to exert considerable pressure on the employer.
Seeking to expand restrictions to cover economically important services, first one and then many other industries or activities, will ultimately remove the right to strike effectively.
I can envisage the time when any strike which puts any pressure on any employer or others will then be proposed for exclusion under public service staff relations and the Canada Labour Code. Legislators will slowly and painfully remove the right to strike from any employee as a means of exerting any pressure at all. Is this what our country has to offer its workers and its representatives? I think not.
The introduction of further restrictions to the right to strike will, without any doubt whatsoever, worsen labour relations in the country. As we all know, these relations are already strained. It is my personal belief that after a number of years of difficulty it is time for all parties to labour relations to bring a positive and constructive approach to them for the future.
Times are changing and everybody must change with them. I do not feel that the way to begin a positive and co-operative renewal of labour relations is by introducing legislation which begins to erode what labour considers a basic right. If we are going to give labour the right to withdraw services in order to exert pressure in collective bargaining, then we must allow this withdrawal of service to have some effect. We either fish or cut bait. To carry the analogy further, we cannot tell employees that they can fish but they cannot have worms.
I am sure the member for Lethbridge did not intend anything sinister but was simply advancing a proposal which would protect the interests of the grain industry and this is to be commended. However, I believe the results of considering this bill cannot but lead to other interested parties looking to protect another and then another and no doubt an important industry through labour legislation. While the reasons for desiring protection from strikes or lockouts are noble in themselves, we must look at how we propose to do this and the results such a proposal would bring.
In conclusion, while I agree with the member that the grain industry is important to Canada, as are many other industries and activities, I cannot accept the notion that Parliament legislates protection at the expense of the rights of other Canadian citizens. Despite what I believe are good intentions, the results would be inappropriate and I cannot support the bill.