Madam Speaker, it is with a feeling of unfinished business that I take part in this debate, at third reading, on a bill that is so important for Canadian workers. It is also a bill that will have an impact on provincial labour codes. The work remains unfinished because of the incredible speed with which the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development conducted its business, even though a parliamentary committee is supposed to be the place where issues are reviewed and discussed thoroughly.
The minister chose to rely on a working group whose decisions, we are told, were put in a bill hastily thrown together. Then, and with practically no changes made, that bill was referred to the human resource development committee. I should also point out that the government bypassed second reading, preferring to send the bill directly to committee, supposedly to provide more flexibility during the debate, something which we would have loved to see, but which definitely did not happen.
I am making these preliminary remarks because it is extremely unfortunate to have missed this opportunity for an in depth review
of the Canada Labour Code. I can only conclude that it is because here, in Parliament, we pass various types of bills.
Some of the bills we pass, such as those dealing with the budget, will never be challenged in any way. They are a means for the government to codify its decisions. However, when a bill is to become the law for parties, to be interpreted, and might be challenged in court, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, it should be carefully reviewed.
The parties should be given every opportunity to reach an agreement, to discuss and to express their views, something which was not done. I deeply regret that. Be that as it may, I wanted to make these comments for the record. I hope that Quebec will no longer be represented in this House the next time the Canada Labour Code comes under review. My remarks are valid for any opposition party in a similar situation.
Since my time is short, I will move on to the main concerns I have about this bill. This bill will radically change some of the proven mechanisms we have, for instance, the Canada Labour Relations Board will change name and become the Canada Industrial Relations Board. This indicates that the government wants to change the nature of the board, but in what sense is really not clear, since the first thing we are told about this new Canadian board is that it will be representational.
However, right from the beginning, there seemed to be some confusion about the term "representational". An board is representational when its members actually represent a group or an entity that designated delegates to the board. It represents the groups or entities that appoint delegates.
In this case, the board will be made up of representatives of the employers and workers who will be appointed by the minister, after consultation with groups chosen by the minister himself. These members will represent the workers and the employers, but they will also have to please the minister.
To say that such a board will be representational of the workers and employers is a gross overstatement. It could even have serious consequences in a crisis, because the board really has to be above suspicion.
It must be able to arbitrate this country's most important conflicts, those with the heaviest economic and social impact. First and foremost, it must not be constituted on a false premise, and this bill misuses the word "representative".
I personally was extremely astonished, yet pleased, to hear the CLC representative tell us that the CLC had not been in the least in agreement with the so-called representativeness mechanisms. She shared our point of view totally. There are no representativeness mechanisms, yet representativeness is presented as one of the cornerstones of this bill.
This bill is also intended to prevent recurrence of the problems experienced by the board, which had repercussions right up to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development, and which paralyzed the board for too long. Unfortunately, the clauses in the code would not prevent a crisis like the one experienced by the Canada Labour Relations Board from recurring.
Conflict between the chairperson and the members was what lay behind that dispute, and the contents of the code address only the behaviour of the members, not that of the chair. The minister has not equipped himself with the means to deal with a crisis like the one experienced by the Canada Labour Relations Board in its last two years of life.
This bill, which is intended to settle conflicts, by creating regulations to govern all aspects from applications for accreditation to initial collective agreements and negotiation of collective agreements when a union is already in place, is characterized by major changes to the body of the code itself.
The purpose of these changes was to update the legislation and expand the ability of the Canada Industrial Relations Board to deal with the problems experienced in the labour world today. However, instead of giving the Canada Labour Code this flexibility and giving the board an instrument it could more readily use to help finalize collective agreements under difficult circumstances, we are seeing a tendency to make the rules of the code as they apply to strikes and lockouts more rigid which, in turn-and far be it from me to call them that-could lead to illegal strikes or lockouts, considering the problems with enforcement.
I will mention the new rules very briefly to show to what extent things are changing. And I have not yet discussed essential services. Unions or companies that wish to strike or announce a lockout will have 60 days to seek and exercise a mandate.
If they fail to exercise their mandate within 60 days, they must go back and seek another mandate. It would seem that instead of promoting dispute settlement, this provision is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Unions covered by the Canada Labour Code are often national unions, and it takes time to organize a vote on a strike mandate. They are not really given much time, because although the very fact of organizing a strike vote may speed up the collective bargaining process, enough time should be allowed for the process to run its course.
So, what we see is that, if at the end of the 60 days, the union and the employer were on the verge of resolving the dispute, but needed more time, they would not succeed in doing so. The union, if it needed the employer's approval first, might well refuse to get into such a situation. Instead of continuing the negotiations, either the union or the employer-because we know that the positions are interchangeable depending on the source of the initiative or the
balance of power-could decide to not run the risk of letting its mandate expire before the end of the negotiations.
Instead of putting all its eggs in the bargaining basket, the union will stop negotiations in order to obtain a new mandate to negotiate. This is a real risk, and I hope it does not produce the effects I foresee. Rather than make things more flexible and help the parties reach a solution, the code restricts the conditions under which a strike may be held.
However, a strike may not be held without 72 hours' notice, in some cases, by the union or the employer. The representatives of the ports unions told the committee that, if the longshoremen in a port along the St. Lawrence gave their employer 72 hours' notice of a strike, no ships would unload in the port affected as they would all go elsewhere. In fact, this provision takes away the right to strike, plain and simple.
Also, this 72-hour notice provision, whereby an employer has to give advance notice of a lockout, could prove so inconvenient that employers will want to declare a lock-out on the spot instead of72 hours later.
It seems to me that anyone who knows anything about labour relations would know better than to impose rules like these, especially as they apply to the private sector as a whole. These rules cannot be enforced. An eight-day notice would at least have provided a degree of flexibility. While neither the union nor the employer has to put its cards on the table, in this case, it is quite the opposite.
Therefore, I doubt very much these provisions are relevant in fostering harmonious labour relations. I now come to the provision on essential services.
Notwithstanding what our colleagues from the third party said, I think this kind of provision on essential services was missing in the Canada Labour Code. I want to reaffirm a universally recognized principle: the right of association, whenever it is granted to workers, entails the right to strike. If there are indications that a strike may jeopardize public safety, workers are then asked to maintain a number of essential services.
Any attempt to prohibit strikes altogether has been a complete failure; the strike takes place even if it is illegal. What every country is seeking to ensure is that, even in case of a labour dispute, public health and safety remains paramount.
So, the provisions on essential services are valid, except those dealing with replacement workers. It seems to me that, even in the case of western grain, they could be an improvement, since it is recognized that workers and employers are required to ensure uninterrupted loading of grain.
As far as the west is concerned, grain movement was raised as the most urgent issue. Unfortunately, it is in the case of western grain that the government had to resort to special legislation. There are two problems with these essential services, a minor one and a major one.
The minor problem is that the board does not have to rule on an agreement reached by the workers and the employer. Other codes, including the Quebec code, provide that even when an agreement is reached, that agreement must still be submitted to the board. What is really much more serious is that, since the code does not prohibit the use of replacement workers, we could find ourselves in the absurd situation where the provisions on essential services would be used, meaning that the employer and the union would be required by the board to meet a set of conditions to ensure public health and safety, with the employer using replacement workers at the same time.
There seems to be a gap in this code and this could create huge problems, instead of settling the issue and ensuring that a conflict, while still a conflict, is kept under better control. We are creating conditions that could have the opposite effect and make the conflict more disruptive for the company, the workers and the employer.
I will conclude by saying that the major flaw in this code is that the use of replacement workers is not prohibited. Unfortunately, these workers are the source of many problems, including violence, in labour relations governed by the Canada Labour Code.