House of Commons Hansard #199 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was grain.


An Act To Amend The Act Of Incorporation Of The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation Of MackenziePrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Some hon. members


(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time, considered in committee, reported, concurred in, read the third time and passed)

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

An Act To Amend The Act Of Incorporation Of The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation Of MackenzieAdjournment Proceedings

5:35 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, on February 3, 1999, I asked a question to the House. I said that the employment insurance system is an insurance scheme and I asked the following:

Why is the government trying to cut more people off EI benefits and treat them like criminals?

When I toured around the country, I saw this is the way people feel. It is important that the minister be aware of that. People contribute to the employment insurance fund but each time they ask for benefits, they are treated like criminals, like people who are abusing the system. That is the way people feel all around the country.

As I went across the country and met with people they told me that when they apply for employment insurance the human resource people are looking at them as though they are criminals. Surely we do not want the government to treat Canadians that way. That is why I raised the question at that time.

What will the government do about this? It is not right that people across the country should be treated like this at the human resources offices.

I asked a question. But what answers we do get. This is what the minister answered:

The member treats EI as if it were an industry creating employment in the regions.

This is not so. An employment insurance system is not an industry to create employment, it is a system which pays benefits to people who are out of work.

I do not want to go back to the 1970s. What I am saying is that there is a program for which workers and employers are paying. People all around the country tell us that this program belongs to them, to the workers who lose their jobs.

It is unacceptable for the minister to rise in the House and say to me that I am going back to the 1970s. That is not true. I want to live in 1999, with a program built in such a way that when people lose their job, they can receive benefits to support their families, their children, get them something to eat and send them to school.

Canadians are not pleased to get such answers. On need only look at the report by the Minister of Human Resources Development which indicates that the percentage of women in Canada who no longer qualify for employment insurance has risen by 20%.

We must face up to reality. The program is no longer up to doing what it was intended for in the beginning. This is the reason I would like the minister to give us some answers in the coming days, about what he is going to do with the employment insurance program, because the people of Canada, the workers of Canada, are not satisfied.

The people of Windsor are not satisfied when they fill out their income tax returns and find that they have to again pay into employment insurance. They phone us and write us to say so. The situation is the same everywhere, not just in the Atlantic provinces, but in Regina and in Edmonton, Alberta, as well. I have said so on numerous occasions here in this House.

So, I hope the minister can tell us exactly what he is going to do with the employment insurance program.

An Act To Amend The Act Of Incorporation Of The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation Of MackenzieAdjournment Proceedings

5:40 p.m.

Oakville Ontario


Bonnie Brown LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Human Resources Development

Mr. Speaker, let me assure the hon. member that the department tries to treat all clients with fairness, understanding and compassion. Each case is assessed individually and all circumstances brought to light are examined and considered in a compassionate manner.

The opposition member says that the people he met felt like they were being treated as criminals. Perhaps this is attributable to the fact that some people put in a claim for employment insurance four or five years ago when the rules were different and received benefits. It is possible they put in one recently with the new rules and found they did not qualify.

Sometimes when people are told no, they take it very personally. No one is trying to treat anyone like a criminal. However, the employees of the Department of Human Resources Development in the various Canada employment centres are obligated to implement the law as it stands. It is unfortunate if some people are feeling very sensitive and taking it personally.

The member also said that the rate of women who do not qualify has risen by 20%. He is reversing a figure that is in today's monitoring and assessment report. In fact it is not women who do not qualify. It is that the rate of women who have applied for employment insurance has dropped by 20%. That could mean that many more women have jobs.

There are 300,000 more women working in the past year than were working prior to that. That might account for the reason fewer are putting in claims.

An Act To Amend The Act Of Incorporation Of The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation Of MackenzieAdjournment Proceedings

5:40 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Pursuant to order made earlier today, the motion to adjourn the House is now deemed withdrawn.

Pursuant to order made earlier this day, the House will now proceed to the consideration of a motion to adjourn the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration, namely the effect of a labour dispute on the movement of grain in the port of Vancouver.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

5:40 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Pursuant to Standing Order 52, the hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake has obtained leave to move a motion.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

5:40 p.m.


Howard Hilstrom Reform Selkirk—Interlake, MB


That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Speaker, the motion being debated tonight is outlined in my request under Standing Order 52. It involves the emergency situation created by the Liberal government's inability to reach a fair negotiated settlement with the Public Service Alliance of Canada union, thereby causing immense financial harm to the Canadian economy and to farmers specifically.

We gather tonight to engage in one of those historic debates that arise in the life of a nation from time to time. The emergency debate tonight will deal with the economic well-being of a nation as judged by our collective productivity and individual standard of living.

It would be so simple to say this debate is directed solely to the strike action being taken by members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. It would be simple to say this debate is only about farm incomes hurt by the halted movement of grain to our overseas customers. It is about these two issues, but they are only the symptoms of a malaise in this country, a malaise that includes the following diseases which, while not fatal, seriously weaken every Canadian's physical, mental, spiritual and cultural well-being.

I speak of high taxes, low farm commodity prices, high farm input costs resulting in low net income, and an agriculture sector asking what is the future for their farms, for their children in agriculture. I speak of the thousands of Public Service Alliance of Canada union members who have not had a wage increase in the last six years.

Before being elected to parliament I was a member of the RCMP. I had the same wage freeze these union members are currently undergoing. These union members, farmers, many other workers in both the public and private sector and I have made immense sacrifices to eliminate our national budget deficit. I currently own and operate a cattle ranch. Combined with my other life experiences, I can say that I feel the pain of the farmer, the rancher and the union worker in this matter.

The other diseases that make up this national malaise include a monopoly government organization called the Canadian Wheat Board and a highly regulated grain transportation system that stifles innovation and investment. There are also world trade problems including those with our closest neighbours and friends in the United States.

My request for this emergency debate was granted by the Speaker of the House and I appreciate his wisdom in doing so. I requested the debate because the ministers responsible for solving these national problems have failed in their tasks.

Recent statements by the Treasury Board minister indicate that negotiations have reached an impasse. He has not divulged all of the reasons that this situation has arisen, nor the options that are available to him and his government to resolve the stalemate. The various government ministers have not even explained to the Canadian public, to union members, farmers or ranchers the extent of the financial harm that is befalling this country and its citizens.

I believe a full public hearing of the issues I have mentioned along with many others I have not touched on will help us as a nation to find our way out of this economic and social mess we find ourselves in today.

I will speak on some of the details, the nuts and bolts, of this emergency debate. I sent a letter to parliament dated March 17, 1999 requesting that an emergency debate pursuant to Standing Order 52 be held to address the current labour dispute that has terminated grain movement through the port of Vancouver.

As the House is well aware, the Public Service Alliance of Canada is currently involved in a labour dispute with the Government of Canada. Included in this dispute are approximately 70 grain weighers employed by the Canadian Grain Commission.

The functions performed by these 70 workers are mandated under the Canada Grains Act and cannot be performed by non Canadian Grain Commission personnel. Therefore, the withdrawal of these services will prevent the unloading of grain hopper cars and the loading of vessels for overseas customers.

Until March 14, 1999 the Public Service Alliance of Canada had structured its rotating strikes in such a way that grain movement, while being inconvenienced, had continued near targeted levels. However, this changed when the Public Service Alliance of Canada grain weighers set up pickets at all five grain terminals in Vancouver on March 15. Not only has this action removed the legislated mandated service, other workers such as grain handlers and longshoremen have refused to cross the picket lines.

Grain movement has been halted for the past three days. When I speak of halted grain movement, I am talking about on the prairies with the railways and off the ships that are heading across the seas to our customers in Asia and other countries.

The escalation of action by the grain weighers follows a March 10 interview by the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada in which he stated that grain will become a primary target. At this point, March 10, it would have seemed that the urgency would have come home to the government to take the action necessary at least to prevent that threat from happening and/or to negotiate in good faith and come to a settlement. As we know, this did not happen.

While we all hope this dispute will be resolved in a timely fashion, we cannot allow an ongoing disruption of Canada's grain flow as that would constitute a further attack on producers' falling incomes.

I would like to mention a few of the dollar figures surrounding this strike. Of course there are the union workers and their wages which affects not only the workers themselves but their families who are trying to meet mortgages and make payments to their creditors. It would be easy to tell them to go back to work and trust the government, but this government has demonstrated through actions and words that it cannot be trusted to work out satisfactory solutions.

I recall about a year and a half ago when this very House dealt with the postal union workers. It is my understanding that after having legislated them back to work with the promise of a negotiated settlement, in fact that settlement has not been achieved to this date. I imagine the grain workers and the other public service alliance workers are saying to themselves, “If this government simply legislates us back to work or if I simply agree to go back to work with no settlement, will I be treated the same as the postal workers?” From what we have seen so far, they have a justified reason to be concerned and wary of the government.

The Canadian Wheat Board announced today that it has lost one sale of $9 million. It has also lost several smaller ones to Asia and Latin America, in the neighbourhood of $2 million to $10 million. To a lot of people $2 million is not much of a sale, but the world grain trade has changed. We no longer have the $1 billion sales to Russia and China. We have a grain industry with small sales of $1 million to $2 million. While these dollar figures may seem small, their cumulative effect is very large.

On grain leaving the port, I will only talk about wheat at this time even though many other crops are being exported. In the neighbourhood of $6 million a day in wheat exports are not leaving the port. This is the capability of the port and that represents actual losses.

Spring is coming. We have to take note that this stoppage of grain movement on the west coast will soon spread across the country if this dispute is not resolved. We received information today that it is expected that the seaway will open up around March 22, 1999. The western grain elevators expect to begin operations at that time with one terminal facility in Thunder Bay.

Mr. Speaker, we considered and you agreed that this is a national emergency that needs a debate in the House of Commons. The fact is that it does affect more than western Canadians and it does affect more than dock workers and grain handlers on the west coast.

There is another item that the Canadian Wheat Board brought forth in its press release today. The spokesman said that the sales director for the wheat board said that we are forgoing sales every day. What are these sales? Are they simply wheat and canola leaving the ports and going to our customers?

What we get back is foreign currency, hard foreign currency that goes to the wealth of this nation. It is not money we are circulating within the country, passing from one to the other, all of it eventually being taxed back by the government. It is new money that we are earning from customers and people in other lands which goes to make our country a wealthier nation. These are very important considerations when we talk about grain and its effect on the well-being of Canada.

The cumulative effect of this dispute has to be taken in the context of other disputes and stoppages to the grain handling and grain transportation business over the years. Since 1993 there have been inland strikes involving grain terminal companies, railway strikes and longshoremen strikes. There were the terrible snowstorms that stopped grain transportation through the Rocky Mountains.

This cumulative effect on the reliability of our exports is hurting this country. It is hurting the western provinces in particular. It is hurting the very families who live in those provinces who eke out a very modest living from their toiling on the land.

These are all issues that translate into dollar losses for the economy of B.C. and for the farmers across the country. As of March 18 there were 21 vessels at the Vancouver port. For the weeks prior to the strike, there were about six vessels in port which is a normal coming and going of ships at the port. We can see that the vessels waiting to load are increasing in numbers on a daily basis.

One of our customers was quoted in this recent dispute. I believe the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food referred to this customer. The Japanese food agency has raised concerns with the minister over the reliability of Canadian grain shipments out of Vancouver. Eleven per cent of Canadian agriculture exports go to Japan.

It is this very issue of reliability that is of such importance to this debate tonight. I am sure it will be expanded on by other speakers from all parties after I am finished.

The other portion of the grain transportation system that needs some mention is the railways.

On March 18 the railways indicated that the allocation of cars for the week of March 28 through April 3 is on hold. Let me describe that. There are hopper cars sitting full of grain out in Vancouver or at points in between. There is grain sitting in the elevators and there is grain sitting on the farms.

The grain system also operates on a just in time type scenario where the customer's ships arrive, the grain is put in and the order from the farmer is placed. This all has to move in a very time sensitive situation.

After this strike and this action stops it will take at least three weeks to get the system up and rolling again. That is because the grain handling system operates on a cycle. It will take at least three weeks after the end of the strike to return to normal operation. During this whole time vessels that have been ordered by the Canadian Wheat Board and other exporters will continue to arrive with no grain to pick up.

What happens when they arrive? If shippers do not load the vessels within the specified times, usually a three to five day window, companies are charged what is called demurrage fees. These fees are for each extra day the vessel is in port without being loaded. These charges are substantial and can range from about $10,000 to $15,000 a day. Simply multiplying that out, $15,000 per day times 21, it can be seen that over the course of a week or two weeks, God forbid this should go on that long, we are talking of hundreds of millions of dollars in total.

The other financial aspect to look at is late contract penalties. In addition to vessel demurrage, exporters are charged late fees by importing companies. In some cases, Japan for example, importing companies have moved to a just in time inventory management system and have paid a premium for reliability. Built into these premium contracts are severe penalties for unreliability.

I have already mentioned it but I would like to re-emphasize that all this translates into a loss of confidence. Countries that rely on Canada for a steady supply of grain may choose to go elsewhere if this supply is interrupted.

From what the Canadian Wheat Board has indicated to the government today and to the Canadian people, may is not an accurate word to use. It will cause this financial damage.

The government is responsible for the solutions. The government is responsible for the negotiations with the labour union. It has more complete information than anyone else in the House, me included. As a result it is difficult to stand here and say exactly what the solutions are. Certainly the President of the Treasury Board should declare that the work performed by these 70 grain weighers is an essential service and he should allow them final offer arbitration.

I clearly point out that this issue is not a farmer and rancher versus a union member, it is not even opposition parties versus the government. It is about public discussion of the facts and public discussion of the solutions. The government is in need of our help and in that spirit I pray that our deliberations here tonight will be fruitful and let all Canadians wake up to a brighter future as the sun rises tomorrow morning.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:05 p.m.

Hull—Aylmer Québec


Marcel Massé LiberalPresident of the Treasury Board and Minister responsible for Infrastructure

Mr. Speaker, this evening, we are holding an important debate, and I would like to take this opportunity to review the negotiations between the Government of Canada and its employees.

This House will recall that the Government of Canada has already bargained in good faith and signed collective agreements with over 87% of its employees. And, in this group, I include over 100,000 members affiliated with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Furthermore, last week, some 10,000 technical employees, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the government reached and ratified a new collective agreement.

I have always held that it is by bargaining that two parties can reach an agreement. Confrontation of any sort leads nowhere but to frustration of both sides.

I agree we had a long salary freeze. It began with the Conservative government. We continued it for a number of years because it was essential to eliminate the deficit, which was undermining our national fiscal and financial health. We did that, and two years ago we reintroduced the right to negotiate collective agreements. That is what we have done in the past two years.

Again, we reached agreements with 26 of the 29 groups. We are now at the point where over 85% of our unionized employees have signed collective agreements with us, thus allowing both sides, as employer and employees, to continue to provide necessary services to Canadians, in a manner that reflects the agreements reached by unionized employees and the government. We hope to be able to continue to do that.

In the course of the negotiations with all these groups, we were able to offer, on average, a basic salary increase of about 4.5% over a two-year period. It is on that basis that we negotiated and that we arrived at agreements with such a large proportion of our unionized employees.

There are two groups left, including the blue collar workers, with whom we have been trying in vain for two years to arrive at a solution. At one point, we thought we were very close to an agreement with one group, the correctional services people. In fact, we did reach an agreement with the union leaders. We arrived at an agreement with those who negotiate on behalf of correctional services employees.

It is only when the time came to ratify the agreement that, unfortunately, a small majority of employees refused to ratify the agreement that had been reached with their negotiators and that had been approved by their union leaders.

Despite all our goodwill and our desire to reach a conclusion, we now find ourselves with two cases where the demands of unionized workers do not correspond to the percentages offered to and accepted by almost 90% of the public service in other cases.

Instead of having basic demands of approximately 2.5% for the first year and 2% in the second year, the basic demands are two, three and, in one case, four times higher than what was approved for the very great majority of other unionized workers.

It is clear that, if we said we were ready to accept this kind of demand, not only would we be creating an untenable situation for the almost 90% of our employees who have already signed contracts, but we would also be causing insurmountable problems in future contract negotiations due to start up again in a few months.

We would have established a percentage increase that was out of line with what we gave most of our other employees and with what the private sector got. Right now, private sector increases in the last 18 months have been approximately 2.1% a year. And this would also be out of line with what Canadians can afford to pay, a salary that is current in the market and fair to our employees.

That is why we find ourselves unable to reach agreement with a very small number of our bargaining tables, particularly blue collar workers, because of their excessive demands.

When the government negotiates, it has a basic goal in mind. That goal is to try to find a balance between the interests and priorities of Canadians and those of government workers.

All Canadians have made important sacrifices in recent years. They recognized the need to put our financial house in order to continue moving forward. Poll after poll, Canadians are telling us they are proud of their federal government, which is making the right decisions, although they are often very difficult ones.

Throughout this process, we have had to compromise. We have made offers the government could afford because we have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of this country.

For example, in group 2, blue collar workers, the government made all kinds of compromises. For instance, on the issue of regional rates, we have accepted to reduce the number of regions from ten to seven in spite of the fact that, in the interest of fairness, the rate should not be national, but such that it meets the needs of the local market and does not create distortion on the local markets.

Specifically, when the cost of living is much higher in Vancouver than in Fredericton, it is only fair that workers in Vancouver be paid salaries taking into account the cost of living there.

However, if, given local market conditions, we offer pay rates significantly higher than local rates, we create an upward pressure on the salaries of workers in the area.

Clearly this has been justified for years and condoned by all kinds of commissions on public finances. Fairness demands regional rates. In spite of this we have agreed with the union to reduce the number of regions.

At the same table, with regard to salary increases, the offer we made was higher than what we had offered most public servants.

We raised our offer to a 4.75% base rate increase because we wanted to try to solve any problems with this group so we could get on with the negotiations, reach a negotiated settlement and keep the peace with the union and the employees. To achieve that goal, we were convinced Canadians were willing to accept a rate of increase that was slightly higher than what we had offered most public servants.

But, unfortunately, not only were our employees not satisfied with that, they are now asking twice the salary increase we gave our other employees. These demands are excessive, therefore, and we are convinced Canadians are not willing to accept that.

I still have hope that we will be able to reach a negotiated settlement because, even though the right to strike is recognized by all at this time, strikes have the effect of taking Canadians hostage and cause considerable damage, for example to the grain trade. There are also millions of Canadians who may have to wait a long time before receiving their tax refund.

Unfortunately, our employees, our blue collar workers, have started using tactics that create problems for many Canadians. They have taken Canadians hostage.

For example, I remind members that they stopped traffic at Dorval airport, which is not even under federal jurisdiction anymore. They forced many travellers, some of whom were not even Canadians, to walk more than one kilometre to get to the airport. Many of them missed their flight and were left wondering, and rightly so, what the dispute was all about.

The right to strike exists because when employees withdraw the offer of work they do, the services are not provided. But what right have the employees to hold farmers hostage in the western provinces, taxpayers hostage in the case of Revenue Canada or travellers hostage at Dorval airport? What right have they to hold them hostage and thus create such monumental inconvenience for third parties that they create an atmosphere they think will lead more easily to the conclusion of negotiations?

On the contrary, Canadians are reacting like the farmers in the west, saying “Why are our means of livelihood being affected by the union's taking third parties hostage, in this case the western farmers?”

A strike is never easy, but it is even less so when it involves the security and the health of Canadians.

We want to bargain in good faith and sign agreements with our blue collar workers. We especially want Canadians to receive the Government of Canada services they are entitled to and they pay for.

However, in this strike, we can only conclude that our employees at the two tables remaining, which I mentioned—specifically the blue collar workers—are making excessive demands. Their demands are not in keeping with the balance we must maintain, as a government, between taxpayers and the salaries we pay our employees.

At the moment, we have to consider that our employees, unfortunately, in the case of these two tables, are taking Canadians hostage and forcing us to consider the various options at our disposal to protect Canadians' right to services they elected a government for and they have paid for.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:15 p.m.


Yves Rocheleau Bloc Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased, on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois and as critic for labour issues, to take part in this emergency debate requested by the hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake.

The issue is the current labour conflict in Vancouver, which opposes the Public Service Alliance and 70 of its members who work for the Canadian Wheat Board. These people work in the elevators that handle grain exports.

The employees have been on strike since March 15, which means for the past two or three working days. Based on our information, this work stoppage has a major impact on the region's economy.

Still, we must put the decision of these 70 employees to go on a general strike in its proper context. It seems that, on March 10, a Public Service Alliance official did warn the employer, that is the government and the Canadian Wheat Board, that if there were no progress in negotiations, the union's strategy would be to target wheat to put pressure on the employer. Therefore, the message was rather clear.

On March 14, the union began a rotating strike which had the merit of continuing wheat operations. It was not until the following day that the unions put up a picket line, which was respected by the other unions working near the export elevators. Undoubtedly, therefore, the strike had a considerable impact and achieved its goal, which was to establish a balance of power between the two parties.

We have a strong suspicion that the Reform Party's strategy in pushing for this emergency debate today is to set the stage for the employer—in this case, the government—to introduce special back-to-work legislation.

This is not the position of the Bloc Quebecois. This is not our approach, because we think that, if there is a right to strike, it should be respected. It has to go on for a while at least, there has to be a deadline after which, if negotiations have failed to resolve the situation, public interest must be taken into account and a decision can be made to settle the issue and move to other things.

It is unthinkable that, because negotiations have gone nowhere after three days, drastic action is in order. In the context of the public service, it is too easy for the government, as both employer and lawmaker, to find the situation too complicated and the repercussions too serious and to turn around and use its legislative authority to thwart the effects of the strike and the strike itself. We find this excessive.

While we hope that negotiations will go on, there must be a true power relationship and we must feel that there is no other way to ensure the continuation of operations before bringing in special back to work legislation. It must be a measure of last resort.

We can see here the philosophy of the Reform Party, which does not have much respect for labour legislation and for workers. As the President of the Treasury Board said, it is not fun to suffer the impacts of a strike. But it is not fun either—and we tend to forget that—for those on strike or for their families. It is not fun for those who are on the picket lines. These people go through a period of serious insecurity and discomfort and, may I add, strike action is legal in that industry.

The President of the Treasury Board spoke earlier about security and health, two issues that are being ignored here. There is some sort of an essential service in Canada, which has been provided for in order to protect public health and security. We are talking about economic impacts, which are very difficult to assess. We should be careful not to go too far in that regard.

Instead of hinting at the quick passage of a special act to put an end to that kind of labour dispute, we would prefer to see the parties negotiate in good faith, accept negotiation and reach an agreement that will be well accepted and honoured.

The right to strike, the legal right to strike is a clear sign of civilization. Why should a society invent such means to provide working conditions? The right to strike was not given by the employers, either in the public or private sectors. The right to strike is a hard won right in the history of western societies.

A strike always causes inconvenience. The fate of farmers is of great concern to us. In Quebec also farmers are hurting a lot because of the international economic conditions, globalization and its harmful effects. Institutions and individuals are paying the price. Western farmers are feeling the pinch too, and we sympathize with them.

It would be too easy to say, as soon as we are slightly inconvenienced, that we are going to pass special back-to-work legislation to solve the problem. We are not ready to go along with it.

We want the obviously difficult situation the parties have arrived at to be settled through negotiations, negotiations conducted in good faith recognizing what it means for the regional economy. One should not fall into the trap nor be tricked into using this all too easy approach called back to work legislation.

I will sum up my thoughts and those of the Bloc on the matter: our position is very clear. Freedom of association exists in principle in Canada, and workers, when they have good reason to do so, go on strike.

This is part of a fair balance of power, except when the employer, which happens to be the government, abuses its legislative power. Again, back to work legislation should only be a last resort, until the government gets back to the negotiating table with an offer acceptable to workers and settles the dispute in a democratic and civilized manner through negotiations.

When one speaks of good faith, when one speaks of the federal government as employer, one is entitled to a few concerns. Contrary to rumour, the federal government is a tough employer. We know that it recently rejected a court decision on pay equity. Really now, a judgment is a judgment. In its wisdom, the government in its power and arrogance, has decided to appeal the judgment rather than comply with it.

This is a government that has already obtained orphan clauses, at Canada Post in particular, where working conditions vary greatly depending on seniority. I know some postal workers personally and I know that their conditions are truly precarious.

When a person works a few hours a week, and cannot be guaranteed more than 15 hours of work a month—if memory serves me right—working conditions at Canada Post are far from enviable. In the past, jobs at Canada Post were highly coveted, but now, thanks to the interventionist attitude of this government as employer, this is no longer the case.

This is a government which, in the latest revision of the Canada Labour Code, refused to include an anti-scab provision. In Quebec, this matter was settled a long time ago, to everyone's satisfaction. The use of replacement workers during a strike is forbidden. The Canada Labour Code does not contain any such provision for Canada.

This government has refused to pass Part III of the Canada Labour Code, which would give pregnant women better treatment, through preventive leave to safeguard the health of women who are soon to give birth by allowing them to stop working.

The federal government will not allow it. It is not the highly progressive and generous one people think. For example, we know that it will not allow RCMP employees to unionize.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:30 p.m.


Larry McCormick Liberal Hastings—Frontenac—Lennox And Addington, ON

You are stretching that a little bit.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:30 p.m.


Yves Rocheleau Bloc Trois-Rivières, QC

I like the remark by my colleague. When we speak of bargaining in good faith, there is an element of doubt, because we know whom we are dealing with. This is a nitpicking government, that denies, for example, its employees in the RCMP—

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:30 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:30 p.m.


Yves Rocheleau Bloc Trois-Rivières, QC

—the right to bargain, to have a union. It is a company union we regularly get information from. Arbitrariness reigns in management. That is what is promoted: people are at the mercy of their immediate supervisors.

So, you have understood that the government does not want special legislation in a labour dispute at this point at least. It wants the rules of standard procedure to take the upper hand, bargaining in good faith and agreement by the parties in order to put a quick end to this labour dispute, with its unfortunately rather significant consequences.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:30 p.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is a good thing that we are having this debate tonight. The hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake has done the House a service by requesting and receiving the opportunity to have an emergency debate on this subject.

No matter what our views are, and we may differ on how things should be handled or what the origins of the problem are, it certainly is a matter of great concern to Canadian farmers and producers and is something that the House should be giving its attention to.

I would like to go over some of the history of the dispute which has led us to this debate. The Public Service Alliance of Canada has been engaged in rotating strikes across the country for eight weeks. It has been doing this as a result of what it sees and what we see and what many other Canadians see as intransigence on the part of the government in respect of the bargaining that the government has been engaged in with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Last Friday the government walked away from the table and therefore the government has to take responsibility for what has happened. If it had the will, the government could find a way out of this impasse by going back to the table, by bargaining in good faith and by showing respect for the collective bargaining process instead of engaging in the sort of coded threats the President of the Treasury Board was engaging in earlier when he talked about examining all his options.

We know what that means. It is a code for back to work legislation. Echoing what my colleague from the Bloc said about the need to balance the very difficulty won right to strike, in this case the right to strike of public servants against what may or may not be in the public interest, this is a balance that always has to be delicately sought.

I do not think that we have arrived at any situation which would create any kind of moral imperative on the part of the government to engage in this kind of threat at this time or to engage in more concrete actions such as back to work legislation. However, if it does, we will have to deal with that when it comes and in the form in which it comes, because we know that back to work legislation can come in many forms.

I listened carefully to what the President of the Treasury Board said. He kept talking about the people who are on strike taking Canadians hostage. I think this is very strong language. It begs a larger debate about who is taking whom hostage and why we reserve this kind of language. The President of the Treasury Board used the word hostage three, four or perhaps half a dozen time in his speech, so I hope he is not taking umbrage at my reminding people what he said when he spoke.

It is interesting that he should characterize what the striking workers are doing in that way. He may want to disapprove of what the striking workers are doing. That is fine. However I take some exception to using the idea of taking hostages in this very selective way.

I take objection to using the concept of taking hostages only when workers are withdrawing their labour because in their judgment they are not receiving the remuneration for their labour that they feel is their just due. When workers do that, people like the President of the Treasury Board say “This is hostage taking. This is not serving the common good. This is hurting the transportation and the delivery of grain”. All these factors which have to do with the common good and the public interest are immediately brought in, and perhaps appropriately so when we are talking about the effect of a strike.

Do we hear this same kind of language when capital withdraws its services, when it withdraws from whatever economic activity it was in, in order to make a profit, because it is no longer making the profit it used to make or because it is not able to make as much profit as it would like to make or have the increase in profit that it would like to have. When companies act in this way, when corporations act in this way, when capital acts in this way, we say they are just being good businessmen. They are just saying “Either we get this or we don't deliver. We don't do what we normally do”. We say they are being hardnosed, that these are people who know how to stick up for themselves, that these are people we have to reckon with.

However, when workers do it they are hostage takers. They are people who have no concern for the Canadian economy. If I had a dime for every time there was a corporate decision taken that was not in the interest of the Canadian economy but was in the interest of a particular corporation, I would be a very rich person.

When that is done I do not hear people, with the possible exception of New Democrats, saying in the House of Commons that these people are terrible, that they put their own economic interest ahead of the country. It is just regarded as the marketplace taking its effect, as people acting like good little Adam Smith disciples, acting according to the Zeitgeist, acting according to the market ethic. They are not reprimanded.

Certainly the President of the Treasury Board does not get up and call them hostage takers. He does not go after the railway for taking farmers hostage by abandoning rail lines and leaving them at the mercy of Cargill, truckers or whatever it is they are left to the mercy of.

When the railway says “We are going to pull that line out of there because we are not making enough money on it”, regardless of what the consequences are for the local community or farmers I do not hear the President of the Treasury Board saying that the CNR are hostage takers, that they have no regard for the welfare of the Canadian economy or western Canada or farmers. I do not hear that kind of talk from the government when corporations act in this way. Perhaps we should hear that kind of talk but we do not.

What I am counselling here is if we are to be preached at by the President of the Treasury Board with respect to the common good, with respect to the well-being of the Canadian economy, with respect to the well-being of Canadian farmers and their communities, I would like to see a little more even-handedness on the part of the government.

I would like to see a government that was active in resisting the ways in which the railways are hurting farmers. I would like to see a government that was active in resisting the way that some of the agribusiness corporations are impinging upon the interests of farmers. I do not hear that.

I think it is a point that needs to be made because if through back to work legislation, if that is what the government has in mind, we can conscript labour, why is it still a sin to conscript capital? Why do we live with the very idea, which was not always regarded as quite as radical as it is today, that capital should somehow be answerable to the common good, should be answerable to the needs of the national economy, should be answerable to the needs of communities? That idea is completely out of fashion. It is not out of fashion as far as I am concerned but it is out of fashion. Let us face it, that is not the prevailing wisdom, that is not the conventional wisdom.

All I am saying to my colleagues is: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I object to an ethic which says ordinary working people have to be responsible for or take into account the effects of their actions on the Canadian economy and in this case, with respect to what is happening in Vancouver, their effect on farmers on their families. It is a very serious concern. I am not trying to downplay that at all.

I am asking why we lay this moral imperative on them and yet we do not do it when it comes to others, particularly much more powerful actors in the Canadian economy than, let us face it, the blue collar workers at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

I make a plea for some moral symmetry which I do not often see in this place. I see a tremendous moral imperative being laid on workers when their actions or their withdrawal of their services imperils in some way or another a part or the whole of the Canadian economy. However, when this is done in the name of corporate profit, corporate profit strategies, a good investment climate or whatever we want to call it, it is just regarded as business. It is just regarded as the way things are.

I do not think we can have it both ways. I encourage the President of the Treasury Board to go back to the table, to stop talking about hostage takers, unless he is interested in a little Stockholm syndrome, and get down to business with the strikers. I am sure that they are not anxious to be on strike.

I have been on many picket lines in my time as an MP and even before that when members of my family were on strike. I can tell the House that people who are on strike do not want to be on strike. People who are on strike, especially if they have been on strike for any length of time, are always looking for an honourable way back to their jobs because they do not like being without work. They do not like being without a regular pay cheque. They do not enjoy being on the picket line. Whatever excitement there is fades very quickly. To imagine that somehow the alleged intransigence of the union comes from any desire to have the strike prolonged in any way is very mistaken.

The President of the Treasury Board was listening to me at the beginning, but I guess I must have either bothered him or something because he is really involved now in talking to his Liberal seatmate over there. Over here, President of the Treasury Board; earth to the President of the Treasury Board. There he is.

I was saying to the President of the Treasury Board through the Chair, as I always do, that it is time for the President of the Treasury Board to go back to the table. He knows what he has to do to arrive at a settlement. He should stop using this inappropriate language and do what he has to do, not just for the sake of the strikers but for the sake of the country.

He has a responsibility, not just to the people who are on the picket lines, to show leadership in this regard. I am sure he could apply himself. He is no dummy. He is no slouch. He knows how to get out of the mess he got himself and the rest of the country into, if he wants to get out of it, and I encourage him to do so.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:45 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Gerald Keddy Progressive Conservative South Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I would like to preface my comments on a few remarks on the comments by the member for Winnipeg Transcona. As always, his comments are enlightening and intelligent.

I would maybe beg to differ that there is a slightly different angle we should be looking at here and it is not questioning whether PSAC members have a right to vote. I would put the emphasis on the shoulders of the government where it rightly belongs because it has not settled this prolonged strike and has allowed it to fester to the point where they are using and threatening the livelihoods of other Canadians because they are desperate and there has been no chance to arbitrate this dispute. That blame lies solely on the shoulders of the government.

It is my pleasure to rise today on behalf of my hon. colleague, the member for Brandon—Souris, to speak on the very important issue facing Canadian grain farmers as a result of the current public service strike. The both of us would like to congratulate the member for Selkirk—Interlake for bringing this issue forward in tonight's debate.

This is an issue that all parties in the House of Commons should be concerned about, not only those from western Canada because it has implications on Canada's reputation as an exporter of grain and surely that would have implications on all Canadians.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is currently involved in a labour dispute with the Government of Canada. Included in this dispute are approximately 70 grain weighers employed by the Canadian Grain Commission. The functions performed by these 70 workers are mandated under the Canadian Grains Act and cannot be performed by non-Canadian grain corporation staff. The withdrawal of these services has prevented the unloading of grain hopper cars and the loading of vessels.

On March 15, when PSAC grain weighers set up picket lines at five grain terminals in Vancouver, it halted grain movement, preventing 700 unionized grain handlers from going to work, costing not only our producers but our international reputation as a supplier of high quality grain capable of meeting important and time sensitive delivery dates.

First and most important, this work stoppage has also hurt Canadians through delays in income tax refunds. Almost one million income tax returns are stuck in the system. Because of grain delays, Canadian farmers and Canada's reputation as one of the world's best suppliers of high quality grain are being hurt. It needs to be mentioned that Canada exports around $18 billion to $20 billion worth of food products every year and about one-half of these grain exports are grains, oilseeds and related products. These stoppages cause serious damage to the Canadian grain export industry and the prairie economy they are based out of.

I will illustrate how the failure of leadership on this issue is part of a pattern of this government that is failing to serve Canadians.

I want to contrast the government's lack of effectiveness on this issue and how an earlier Conservative government dealt competently with a potential strike situation back in 1991.

There can be no doubt by anyone who has read a newspaper, listened to the radio or watched television in the last few weeks that the public service strike has hurt not just the public service but other sectors of the Canadian economy and, in the area of concern tonight, Canadian grain transportation.

This is not the first time Canadian farmers have been affected by grain delays. Delayed 1997 shipments to contracted international customers, primarily in wheat, have resulted in demurrage charges of $65 million paid for primarily by producers. It has been estimated that an additional $35 million was lost in potential sales because of Canada's inability to deliver. This reflected poorly not only on western Canadian farmers but Canadians as a whole in the international marketplace.

Again Canadian farmers are faced with these disruptions, this time as a result of PSAC strike. Fortunately, farmers will not face huge demurrage charges as they did back in 1997 because the Vancouver Grain Exchange has declared the shutdown an event of delay. This move by the industry body gives exporters 14 days after the situation is cleared up before they face charges.

It is a very time sensitive issue and it is timely to bring it up in an emergency debate.

Another issue is indirect costs to farmers. That could cost millions and the damage to Canada's reputation is immeasurable. In the last 48 hours alone the Canadian Wheat Board stated that it has lost $9 million in sales because of the reliability of our delivery system. The government has dragged its feet on this issue for over two years. It has failed to reach a settlement with table two PSAC workers. I question what the government has done over the past two years. Obviously very little.

Now the federal government has put our farmers in this situation where they are being held hostage. I will use those words. Our farmers are being held hostage because the strike has dragged on, without resolution, at the negotiating table. Our farmers are not being held hostage by PSAC workers, they are being held hostage by the government. This could not have come at a worse time with Canadian farmers suffering one of the most financial crunches since the Great Depression.

On February 10 my hon. colleague, the member for Brandon—Souris who is unfortunately unable to participate in tonight's debate, wrote the President of the Treasury Board urging this government to quickly resolve negotiations with PSAC members. He has yet to hear a reply. The member for Brandon—Souris got up in the House on February 17 and again urged the government to resolve the dispute with the PSAC workers. Still no word from the minister other than “do not worry, we are working on it”.

We must ask ourselves why this government chooses through its own neglect to allow this strike to cause so much damage to the Canadian economy, to agri-businesses and Canada's international reputation. This is not an isolated incident but a pattern within this government that shows a leadership vacuum beginning at the top and a contempt for the legislative and democratic process.

Whether it be the federal government dragging its heels on the farm income crisis, Canada's delayed position on the Kyoto environmental conference or the defence department's decision to purchase EH-101 helicopters only after years delays and after cancelling a previous which cost taxpayers $.5 billion, and the list goes on, everywhere we turn the government chooses to procrastination over leadership, the same kind of failed policy that hurt so many Canadians with the PSAC strike.

Where can we look to for an example of real leadership? In October 1991 there was a Progressive Conservative government in power faced with a labour situation not much different from that faced by the current government. Back then Canada Post was negotiating to bring a number of unions, each with its own collective agreements with CUPW, under one agreement. A series of rotating strikes in August urged the government to do whatever necessary to allow the two parties to come to successful negotiation.

I urge the President of the Treasury Board to seek a quick and speedy resolution to this strike. In the event that it appears to be futile the Progressive Conservative Party would urge, but only as a last resort, to legislate public service employees back to work. If this is not resolved soon all Canadians stand to lose, both PSAC members and farmers. It is time for the government to stand up and show leadership which has obviously been lacking for some time.

The government has a double responsibility here. It has a responsibility with PSAC to settle this in an equitable and timely manner. The government has a timely and important responsibility to western Canadian farmers to enable them to meet export commitments.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

6:50 p.m.


Dale Johnston Reform Wetaskiwin, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate. I thank my colleague from Selkirk—Interlake for asking for this emergency debate. I really believe this is an item that is emergent.

To dispel a few myths before I really get into the text of what I have to say tonight, I would like to reply to some accusations by my friend from Trois-Rivières who said this is a veiled threat for the Reform Party to try to get the government to bring in back to work legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back to work legislation does not do anything. All it does is get the parties back on the job. It still does not do anything to settle the labour dispute. The labour dispute will still be there. That animosity will still be there. That intransigence will still be there.

I do not believe for a minute that any union will strike on a whim. It needs a pretty good reason. I am quite sure those people on strike at the moment are wishing they could be at work.

There is a loss of pay. Everybody knows that when there is a strike for any duration, they will never work long enough to make up for the money they have lost. Those people have made that decision and it has not been taken lightly, rest assured.

My friend from Trois-Rivières' allegations are absolutely false. We do not advocate back to work legislation.

A year or so ago we had part I of the Canada Labour Code opened, the industrial relations part. We made some changes in that code. One of the things the government kept telling us was that it wanted to put in a clause that applies to grain, clause 87.7.

Even some of my friends from the Liberal Party thought this would be an excellent clause because it would ensure the flow of grain from the farm gate to the port. Why is that so important?

It is important certainly for farm families. It is also important to the Canadian economy. Every person in this place, regardless of their party, would like to have close to complete employment in this country. They would like to see the unemployment rate near zero.

This is no way to go about it. This is no way to attain those goals. The very fact that we have the spinoff effect from grain sales, from agriculture, is a huge item.

This is an excellent thing. It is a very good thing that I am not the kind of guy who would say I told you this would not work, I told you so. If I were, right now I would be saying I told you so.

Even my friends including some in the Liberal caucus thought clause 87.7 would move grain right through to port. It will not and the reason it will not is that there are still unions the government refuses to come to agreement with that go on strike out of frustration or out of necessity or for some reason.

Then the other unions will respect their picket lines and not cross them. What happens then? There are granaries full of grain on the farm. There are elevators full of grain in the towns. There are trains loaded, sitting on the sidings at ports and not moving. Instant constipation. Nothing moves. This is certainly not a good picture. This has great detrimental spinoff to the Canadian economy and this simply cannot be tolerated.

I listened with great interest to some of the strong language the President of the Treasury Board used when he spoke about the problem. He talked a lot about the history. What was missing was talk about the solution. I also listened to my friend from Winnipeg—Transcona talk about the strong language used by the President of the Treasury Board. Like the President of the Treasury Board, my friend from Winnipeg—Transcona did not talk about the solution.

We have pretty well covered the problem. We know the farmers have the grain in the bins. We know they cannot move this grain after breakup starts. After the frost starts to come out of the ground, the municipalities put bans or load restrictions on their roads. It is very important that this grain gets to port. The people at the ports and the unions know this. The government knows this.

It is not as though this were the first time this has happened. This happens over and over again, and the government out of desperation and political pressure brought to bear by the farming community and others brings in back to work legislation, which does not serve Canada well at all.

What kind of scale are we talking about here? My colleague said about the movement of grain at the west coast port that there are approximately 20 to 21 ships waiting out there. That represents an awful lot of grain. It represents a lot of jobs and a lot of transfer payments for this country.

It also represents an erosion of our reliable good name when it comes to supplying grain. As everybody in this place knows, a good reputation takes a long time to build but it can be lost in a very short time. That is the danger we run every time we go through what I call these futile exercises.

Unlike some of the previous speeches, I am going to talk about what I think the solutions are. My friend from Selkirk—Interlake spoke about what he thought was the solution. By some strange coincidence I have the same feelings about the possibility of a solution.

Stable labour relations are absolutely vital to the country. If we have stable labour relations and we can be a reliable shipper of goods, then we have a leg up on our competitors. That is very important. Agriculture is still a very important and significant employer of people in this country. This is not from the more or less narrow viewpoint of strictly the farm community. We are talking about a much broader spinoff area.

Final offer selection arbitration is a tool that can be used by labour and by management equally well. I say that because I think the very fact of making final offer selection arbitration available to these parties will make them bargain very earnestly. It is an incentive for them to come to an agreement.

We could even say that used to its ultimate, final offer selection arbitration would not be used at all. In case that is too much of a leap for some people to follow, the reason I say that is that final offer selection arbitration does not meld the final positions.

Labour presents its position and management presents its position. The arbitrator takes all of one position or all of the other position. It is not a negotiated in between settlement at all. It is all of one or all of the other. Both parties know that when they go in, and therefore both parties come to their absolute bottom line.

Oftentimes when bottom lines are compared, there is no decision for the arbitrator to make because they have come to a conclusion. Oftentimes it never comes to presenting a final position to the arbitrator because lo and beyond the sides sat down, hammered things out and negotiated.

I would like to say this again lest there still be somebody in this House who would like to accuse us of supporting back to work legislation and removing the right to strike. Absolutely false on both counts. We support the right to strike and the right to organize. We also think the very best solution is a negotiated solution.

We saw it in this House in the not too distant past when we had a postal disruption. The government saw fit to legislate them back to work. Lo and behold that was 16 months ago and still there is no agreement in the post office. What is the point? Why legislate them back to work if we are not going to come to an agreement?

We should use final offer selection arbitration, get an agreement, get everybody back to work on an amicable footing and we will not have to face these situations again and again. Until we do that, we are going to be back here in an emergency debate again and again because of a situation where the national economy is suffering or there is some kind of crisis.

The fact that we are here is that all parties have agreed that this is an emergency. It is testament to the fact that this is an emergency situation.

Some people will say that we Reform guys want to have final offer selection for everything. That too is rubbish. Anybody that would care to read the things I have said about final offer selection need only go back to the debates on Bill C-19. We explained it time and time again. As a matter of fact, I reached the point where I thought I might be boring some people in the House with my explanations of final offer selection. I know Mr. Speaker would not be one of them because he listens intently to virtually every word I say.

We think final offer selection is one of the tools that should be used in cases where there is a monopoly situation, where there is no alternative to the services provided or withdrawn and in a situation where the national economy is going to suffer directly and significantly.

I certainly do hope that clarifies the situation. I really hope my friend from Trois-Rivières is listening. I am sure he is.

We want a fair and permanent resolution process. We think it must be in place and it must be removed from the whims of government. Back to work legislation is becoming so predictable that the unions and management have come to rely on it. I do not know why they would do that. It is a painful exercise for everybody.

Some kind of permanent legislation that would provide for final offer selection would provide both sides with something predictable that has rules and a timetable for which to negotiate. It would give a lot of incentive to negotiate and to do so in earnest.

I do not think we should minimize the importance of the effect on Canadian jobs and keeping Canadians employed.

Our reputation as a reliable supplier of products is worth defending and maintaining. As I said, it takes a long time to develop a good reputation and a very short time to lose it.

Another aspect we have to be very aware of is that there are ports in the United States that are not all that far from Vancouver. They are probably just as good, ice free and accessible to western Canada. Western Canada cannot afford to lose any business to U.S. west coast ports. The jobs in British Columbia as a result of that port and the vessel traffic coming in from the sea are definitely worth defending.

This is also about individual farmers, about their towns and their families. At this time of year their bins are full of grain and they have to move it. They are already suffering from low commodity prices. My friend from Selkirk—Interlake touched on the fact that they have no control over their input costs. Their costs for fuel, fertilizer, machinery, land rent, land taxes and purchase price of land are escalating. It is getting more and more difficult to get into the farming business. Indeed it is getting more and more difficult to stay in the farming business.

In case I had not mentioned it before, I have some knowledge whereof I speak because I have spent the last 31 years in the farming business. I still live in a farming community. I have many neighbours who although they are primarily in the livestock business, they still do ship canola, wheat, malting barley and feed barley.

In the area where I live the vast majority of the grain is fed to livestock. Having stated that, I am in no way trying to minimize the importance of the grain shipment because we certainly do have farmers in our area who grow grain and oilseeds for export. It is absolutely vital to them in order to keep their operations going that they have a reliable and affordable transportation system that will get their product to the port and out on to the high seas.

Whenever there is a work stoppage that has occurred in as far as the national transportation of grain is concerned the government of the day, and it does not seem to matter which government it is, begins to wring its hands and worry. The first thing it seems to think is the solution is to bring in back to work legislation. That is no solution at all.

We have to look at innovative ways to come up with a solution that will bring us a negotiated resolution to this problem. We have to make sure that our grain travels to the port, on to the seas and to our customers in a timely fashion.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:10 p.m.

Malpeque P.E.I.


Wayne Easter LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans

Mr. Speaker, I too welcome the opportunity to enter into this debate and outline the seriousness of this situation, in particular for western Canadian farmers.

I will be splitting my time with my colleague.

At the outset I would like to outline a bit of my own background because I have had some involvement in this area. In fact I was a farm leader for a decade and a half in the west. I have marched in the streets with the Public Service Alliance of Canada because I believe so strenuously in collective bargaining.

I will use the word “hostage”. Farmers on the prairies are third party victims and have been held hostage by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the leadership of the Public Service Alliance of Canada knows that. There were other options open to them which they did not choose.

As far as the member for Winnipeg—Transcona talking about using the word “hostage”, I would use the same word against a capitalist or a corporation if they were using these kinds of tactics.

Given the cash flow and the kind of year that farmers have had in western Canada, and in northwestern Saskatchewan for four years, they do not need this kind of problem, which is caused by events beyond their control. With the cash crunch and the disaster relief program we have had to put in place, it will be difficult to attain the targets to actually get the amount of money required to the farm community, which they do indeed need.

The actions of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, causing disruptions to delivery times, can and will affect future sales. I will quote what the minister of agriculture had to say today. He said “Grain prices are low enough that Canadian farmers do not need anything else reducing their incomes. Unfortunately, the Canadian Wheat Board has informed us that in the last 48 hours it has lost a $9 million sale because the reliability of our delivery system is in question”.

I say again, the leadership of the Public Service Alliance of Canada knows that. They knew it before they took these actions.

As well, there was a press release from the Canadian Wheat Board itself, which stated: “The CWB lost a CDN $9 million sale to an Asian buyer in the past 48 hours. It has also had to forgo sales to several customers in other areas because timely delivery for nearby shipment positions could not be guaranteed”.

This indeed is a serious matter.

How do we balance this with the collective bargaining process? Were there other options available to the Public Service Alliance of Canada? In fact the kind of action they took previously, which we were able to work around, was putting pressure on the government and was putting pressure on industry to come to a negotiated settlement. There certainly were options.

I question the leadership. In fact I believe members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada should be questioning the leadership of that organization as a result of these actions because they have put the government, which has a desire to believe strongly in collective bargaining, in the position of perhaps having to implement back to work legislation. I think the leadership of that organization should be questioned for these kinds of tactics which hold Canadian farmers hostage.

I am saying that the actions that were taken by PSAC in Vancouver were unnecessary. They hurt the farm community and they hurt the ability of the membership of PSAC to achieve a settlement through negotiation. They have erred. They have erred in targeting Vancouver as the pressure point for a complete shutdown and have caused serious damage to our ability and our reputation as a country to serve and supply grains to international markets.

As it stands, there are 17 ships idle or waiting to load grain and that number will grow. If these pickets continue for three weeks or so there could be 35 ships in port waiting for grain, grain worth $230 million. That is a large sum of money in any context, but to Canadian grain farmers it is more than a figure, it is their livelihood.

I understand what some members have said in terms of income tax returns being slowed down and, yes, that is serious. Those kinds of actions are taking place in my own riding. However, that is a slowdown in which income will eventually come. The situation in Vancouver is specifically targeted at terminal elevators and is jeopardizing livelihoods. It is not a delay in terms of income.

In ordinary times the work of the Canadian Grain Commission in keeping the safe and orderly movement of grain across Canada is easily recognized as important. The commission plays a very vital role in support of the grain industry, in setting grain standards, performing grain quality research, serving as official inspectors and weighers, and regulating the system to ensure safe and dependable grain delivery.

Under the current difficult conditions we have to congratulate these people. The efforts of the commission to keep grain moving despite the PSAC strike and other job actions are even more important. The grain commission has monitored the situation and responded with direct action to keep the grain moving as best it can. That effort continues and I think all hon. members should appreciate the work being done to make sure that Canadian farmers will see their grain reach the markets that the markets so clearly want to buy.

There have been rotating strikes affecting the movement of grain since January 18. The first in the port of Vancouver occurred on January 25. I think it is worth noting that the system was never entirely shut down and, indeed, was operating thanks to grain commission management which kept grain shipments moving as best they could.

We are talking about a cross-country effort because some of these Canadian Grain Commission managers are experienced weighers. There are only seven of them in the country and they manoeuvre to try to keep the flow of grain moving as best they can under very difficult circumstances.

The pressure was on by the Public Service Alliance of Canada. The grain was moving. Livelihoods were not seriously jeopardized. That was a tactic that could have moved to settlement by negotiation instead of, potentially down the road, settlement by back to work legislation because of this action by the leadership of PSAC.

Today my office in Prince Edward Island was occupied by about 25 PSAC workers who are on a rotating strike action. They outlined their concerns in a very serious, deliberate and I think very legitimate way. They brought their concerns forward.

One of their big concerns is regional rates of pay. I can understand that. I speak to the President of the Treasury Board when I say this. I believe the government, in and of itself, has to seriously get back to the bargaining table and seriously consider the regional rates of pay issue. I think it has been doing a reasonable job in terms of those issues, but it takes two to tango, and the government also might have to make a little stronger effort in terms of settling this issue on the basis of fairness and equity.

In the near future I will be raising with the President of the Treasury Board the fact that PSAC workers have said to me in my riding that 97% do have regional pay rates. I am not sure if that is correct or not. If we are only dealing with 3%, why deny those three? I will be raising that with the President of the Treasury Board in a letter at a later date.

The issue indeed has to be solved. The bottom line is that the actions which have led to this emergency debate tonight were actions taken by the Public Service Alliance of Canada in targeting and shutting down grain movement in the port of Vancouver. There were other options available. The leadership has jeopardized the ability to get a settlement at the negotiating table. I encourage the membership of the Public Service Alliance of Canada to tell its leadership that we have to go back to the table, that we have to negotiate in good faith and that we should not take action that will jeopardize the livelihood of third party victims.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:25 p.m.


Larry McCormick Liberal Hastings—Frontenac—Lennox And Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to participate this evening in this important debate on grain movements and current disruptions at the port of Vancouver.

Like the members opposite, government members too recognize the importance of bringing a speedy resolution to the labour dispute because of the impact it is having on the grain movement.

Our country is a trading nation. This is particularly true of the grain sector. Buyers around the world prefer Canadian grains over those from most other countries because of the quality of the product we have to offer. Those buyers trust us to provide a quality product and they want assurance of supply.

In recent years this government has worked closely with the entire Canadian grain industry to improve export performance and to institute measures to limit disruptions in the export of grains. We made amendments to the Canada Labour Code to ensure that longshoremen continue to provide services during a strike or lockout. More recently we received the Estey Report on grain handling and transportation. Working with former Justice Estey's report the government will continue to take steps to improve the grain handling and transportation systems.

We take these initiatives to ensure that we can provide buyers with a reliable source and supply of Canadian grain. We do not want to jeopardize the gains that we have made. That is why, as a government, we are deeply committed to bringing about an end to the current disruptions.

We also recognize that our grain producers and others in the grain industry are innocent third parties who are caught in this dispute. We recognize the financial implications of lost sales both now and in the long term. We previously heard about a contract that we have already lost in the last 48 hours.

What Canadians as a whole may not recognize is the incredible importance of the grains and the oilseed industry to the Canadian economy. The sale of grains and oilseeds and related products injects about $12 billion a year into our national finances. The impact of this strike will be felt from sea to sea to sea.

In terms of exports, the value of Canada's sales in those products was estimated at more than $6 billion in 1998. These products are shipped around the world. The United Kingdom was once our chief customer for exporting grain, but today it is Asia. At the same time, we have developed products for very specialized markets in countries such as France and Brazil.

I can assure members of this House that as we work our way through this disruption and beyond we will be there working hand in hand with the industry to maintain the confidence of grain buyers. We will be reminding buyers that Canada's agriculture and agri-food sector is a reliable supplier of safe and quality products.

As our Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has often said, our red maple leaf is recognized around the world as a symbol of quality. I am sure we are all proud of that maple leaf and we want to do everything we can to support it.

Our annual exports of all agriculture and agri-food products have been at $20 billion plus for the past two years. The industry is keen to see this figure grow year after year. We have set a goal of capturing 4% of the world's agriculture and agri-food trade by the year 2005. This would be great for all Canadians. This government is committed to helping industry meet that goal. We are working hard to improve our export market access and to help industry promote its products around the world.

Going into the next round of World Trade Organization negotiations at the end of this year, we will be pursuing a more open, fair and market oriented agricultural trading system. A successful outcome at the WTO is a prime goal of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. As recently as last week the minister was in Japan and made that point to industry organizations, governments and representatives alike. I know my hon. colleagues from the PC Party and the Bloc will concur in the efforts made by our minister last week because they were there to accompany the minister and to see the great work that Canada is doing.

Our minister also met with several grain and oilseed buyers. These buyers were aware of the current situation in Canada and they sought our assurance with respect to reliability of supply.

Since the minister's return to Canada he has been in contact with the grain industry and his provincial counterparts. The minister is fully aware of the impact of disruptions at the port of Vancouver and no one is more anxious than he that this situation be resolved quickly.

As a member of parliament I urge a speedy end to this picketing and the disruptions affecting grain shipments through the port of Vancouver.

We recognize there is a lot at stake not only for the grains and oilseed industries but for the Canadian economy as a whole.

Tonight we are talking about one of the world's two most important commodities. I am sure that someone would say water is our most important commodity, and we are blessed with an ample supply, but certainly number two in importance is food. What we are discussing here tonight is the shipment of food. There are people around the world waiting and counting on this food so they can survive.

I know the hon. member for Winnipeg Transcona would concur, I believe, that grain movement is for the common good of all people.

The HRD committee heard many witnesses when we were changing the labour code so that grain would move on the prairies across this great country and through the Rockies to the west coast. Many of the witnesses said we could not treat grain any different from any other commodity. However, grain is food and we have to treat it a bit different than we do coal or sulphur or potash. It is food and there is nothing more important.

I am glad, as I am sure the opposition is, to see our government supporting our western farmers because no one works harder than the producers of grain. On a daily basis our farmers are confronted with various risks such as weather, pests, disease, market fluctuations and cut throat competition.

I am ashamed when I see the prices our farmers are receiving for this wonderful product, the best grain in the world. However, this is not a local situation. It is a Canadian challenge but it is not just here. Around the world grain prices are lower than at any time during the dirty thirties and we have to work together.

I am glad the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food announced last month the details of the agricultural income disaster assistance program. Our government is proud to support our producers. We are proud to have the support of the other parties here this evening. I know they have made a few comments about what we have to do with the labour code in the future, but tonight and tomorrow we have to work together to ensure this grain gets moving so we can help feed the world.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:30 p.m.


Hélène Alarie Bloc Louis-Hébert, QC

Mr. Speaker, the purpose of the emergency debate requested by the hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake is to put pressure on the government to force a return to work by the federal government blue collar workers responsible for loading grain at the port of Vancouver.

The 70 employees in question are members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which is currently in conflict with the federal government in connection with the renewal of collective agreements.

The duties of these employees are performed within the framework of the Canada Grain Act, and the use of replacement workers is banned in such cases.

Up until March 14, the PSAC members were striking on a rotating basis and so the grain was still able to move.

This situation changed, however, when the grain export silo workers set up picket lines around the five Vancouver grain terminals on March 15. This led to the other terminal workers refusing to cross the picket line, so now the grain can no longer be loaded onto the ships. In other words, it can no longer be moved, hence the crisis we are faced with at the present time.

Quebec is involved little if at all in this local conflict between the Canadian Wheat Board and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. But we cannot be insensitive to the situation.

This strike results in major costs to western farmers who, like their Quebec and eastern counterparts, are going through a serious income crisis.

I could repeat what the previous speaker said, namely that it is a shame, given the quality of the grain and products that we market in this country, to have such low prices right now.

This strike results in huge financial losses to the Canadian Wheat Board, which said yesterday that it lost a $9 million contract and had to cancel several other ones, because it could not guarantee that the product would be available at the specified location and in the required amounts.

The reputation of the Canadian Wheat Board and, indirectly, that of western farmers suffer from that situation. In the case of export sales, grain quality is not questioned, but our ability to deliver the product with consistency is. The delivery date of our sales contracts must be respected; our customers demand reliability with regard to shipments.

During the recent trip made to Japan by the Minister of Agriculture, one of the primary requirements mentioned by the Japanese was the reliability of the shipments of wheat, barley and any other product exported to their country.

The situation of western farmers is so tragic that the Minister of Agriculture is introducing a special program to help them. Could it be that his Treasury Board colleague is less sensitive?

The current crisis in Vancouver and in western Canada in general might be less serious if Quebec, Ontario and the maritimes had their fair share in the grain transportation sector. Indeed, in his recent report based on a thorough review of the grain industry, justice Estey shows that Quebec, Ontario and the maritimes are discriminated against by the commission.

In this regard, the Estey report states, and I quote:

It is recommended that the federal government, in conjunction with the Seaway authority, work to encourage the utilization of the Seaway by two-way freight traffic into the North and South Atlantic region and the central regions of Canada and the United States. It is further recommended that the Board continue to make every effort to promote sales of Board grains to markets which can be economically served by the Seaway.

Diversifying means of transportation and routes lessens the risks of tension and crisis. People in Quebec, Ontario and eastern Canada would be more concerned about the grain issue if they had their share of the transportation market.

Back to work legislation should only be a last recourse. Have all the other options been exhausted? We believe they have not. Striking is a worker's fundamental right and back to work legislation would abolish this right.

Rather than demanding back to work legislation we must demand that the government negotiate in good faith. Freedom of association exists in principle in Canada and workers, when they have good reason to do so, may go on strike. This is part of a fair balance of power, except when the employer, which happens to be the government, abuses its legislative power. Again, back to work legislation should only be a last resort.

I was pleased to hear today that this was not necessarily the purpose of the debate which was rather aimed at highlighting the economic impact of the crisis, I would even say psychological impact since both workers and farmers are feeling the consequences.

In the opinion of our party, it is unacceptable for these workers to be deprived of their right to express dissent by this last resort solution of special legislation.

We are, therefore, opposed to special legislation and call upon the government to negotiate in good faith and as promptly as possible with its blue collar workers, who are on legal strike, taking into account the negative impact of the present situation, in which the farmers are once again the fall guys, the hostages of a lethargic government with little concern for the rights and interests of its citizens.

The negotiations must be carried to a conclusion, they must be continued, before any use of the last resort solution of special legislation. We all acknowledge that there is a crisis, and we therefore want to see an agreement to end this strike reached as quickly as possible.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:40 p.m.


Garry Breitkreuz Reform Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Speaker, we are back on your favourite topic again, agriculture. It is very important to me as well. It is very good to see you hanging on every word being said tonight.

We as Reformers are raising this issue in this emergency debate. The whole point of my speech is that innocent third parties such as the farmers are being hurt by the strike that they have no control over.

Farmers on the prairies are hurting already. Now they are being hurt terribly by this. The government must accept responsibility for allowing this situation to develop time after time. We have done this before, déjà vu.

This situation must not continue. We have proposed solutions for several years such as final offer arbitration. We cannot blame any one party or person for all the problems. Some blame the problems farmers are experiencing on the railways, the Canadian Wheat Board, the grain companies or the unions.

The buck stops with government. It could have put in place a solution. It did not do this. Government has the power to bring all the players in the game together to solve our grain handling and transportation problems.

It may not look like it on the outside but on the inside I am jumping up and down and screaming. We have done this over and over. There is a solution and we are not solving the problem. Something must be done to solve the grain handling and transportation problems we are experiencing on the prairies.

People have trouble hearing me when I get too excited therefore I will remain calm in my speech. Really I cannot emphasize enough how important this is to my constituents.

I will be dropping a bombshell a little later in my speech, so members can be waiting for that. The minister responsible for the Treasury Board said that this strike will begin to cause problems for the grain trade on the prairies. I could hardly believe my ears. They have been feeling the impact for a month. I made some phone calls in my constituency today. My staff in Yorkton contacted various people.

Here is what is happening today. In Foam Lake, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool says the calls for the Canadian Wheat Board grains have been completely stopped. For the last two weeks they have not accepted any board grains. Their elevator is full. The result is that producers are taking their grain to other elevators like the ConAgra in Yorkton. He estimates this west coast strike is costing his elevator 100 tonnes a day. They cannot move it. That is happening already.

The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in Sturgis has not loaded a single rail car since the start of January. He says the strike means there is no way this elevator will be able to receive any grain cars.

They move most of their grain out of the elevator by truck now. However, with the road restrictions coming up very shortly they will not have this option. The big trucks will not be able to haul grain on the grid roads. This means a complete shutdown of the operation unless they can get some rail cars.

In Kelvington the United Grain Growers said its contract calls and car allocations slowly declined over the last couple of weeks. Canadian Wheat Board grains have basically ground to a halt.

They are not moving any canola. It goes to the west coast and the strike has stopped sales altogether. He adds that they have only 19 rail cars filled from their elevator since January. They have moved 6,000 tonnes less grain than they did at this time last year. This is all in relation to the slowdown in the movement of grain and the strike that is occurring right now.

Many people listening across Canada do not realize the ramifications of this strike, how far down the line the impact goes when this occurs at the west coast.

Here is a story of a trucker from Invermay in my riding who had a week's worth of hauling grain lined up. Everything from oats, barley, wheat and canola were all picked up at farmers' yards and shipped to local elevators. The elevators have now called the farmers and this trucker has been told to cancel his week's worth of work.

The elevators do not have the room to take all the grain he has to haul. This, however, has more than just the implication of a lost work week. This trucker uses a large Super-Bee truck and will soon not be able to haul this unit on secondary and grid roads as a result of the road restrictions which come on every spring. This means the farmers who want to get rid of their grain will have to do so through smaller tandem trucks and probably with half loads. It costs producers a fortune to truck small amounts of grain back and forth from the farm to the elevator. The large trucking companies have lost more than a week's worth of work because they will be off the road soon and will have no income for the next couple of weeks.

This grain strike is not just affecting farmers. It is affecting transportation and many other people. I hope the government is listening and will act immediately. I am very upset the government does not resolve the problem of grain movement stoppages. There are no ministers here right now—

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:45 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Order, please.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:45 p.m.


Garry Breitkreuz Reform Yorkton—Melville, SK

I am sorry, Madam Speaker. I listened to the minister's speech and there were no solutions offered in that speech.

The government is perfectly aware. It quoted from a Canadian Wheat Board news release that said the wheat board had lost $9 million in sales to Asian buyers in the last 48 hours. It has to forgo sales to several more customers in other areas because timely delivery for nearby shipment positions could not be guaranteed.

The wheat board goes on to say either the two direct parties in this dispute must find a solution or the government needs to take action immediately. The strike action is affecting Canada's reputation as a reliable supplier. As of today there are 11 ships waiting at the port for wheat from the Canadian Wheat Board. That is a lot of grain, just for the wheat board.

The head of the wheat board also says the loss of customers is costing not only western farmers but the Canadian economy as a whole through direct revenue losses, uncertainty in the ocean freight market, loss of shipping capacity and loss of customer confidence. These things cannot be recovered easily. This is serious. This affects all Canadians and they may not even be aware of it.

I have some confidential sources. I will reveal some of the things they have said regarding this matter. The first withdrawal of services commenced at 11 p.m. on Sunday, January 24. I remind members that today is March 18. On January 24 there was already a withdrawal of services. On January 28, 1999, the grain companies appeared before a Canada Industrial Relations Board with Paul Lordon in the chair for a ruling on subclause 87(7) of part I of the Canada Labour Code.

We have been given the impression that this is just happening now. The government had lots of notice about this a month and a half ago. Also this source says that the Canadian Grain Commission weighmen are on strike and picketing all five terminals. These are just some facts. There are five vessels at berth and eleven are waiting. The 16 vessels represent some 370,000 tonnes of grain that could be shipped. Of these boats, two are at berth belonging to the wheat board and five are waiting, belonging to the wheat board, and seven additional vessels are due this week.

CP Rail will not spot empties in the country as of today and I have given some examples already. It has cancelled all car allocations for the next week. CN advises that it is only spotting empties today in locations that do not already have cars and CN will not be spotting empty cars next week.

CN has 19 trains built and staged in Vancouver that cannot be moved forward. CN also has 3,400 cars under load near Vancouver while CP has 2,300 cars waiting with grain. In Vancouver CN has 700 cars. CP has 850 loaded rail cars sitting in Vancouver at the moment.

Neither railway is lifting cars for Vancouver. To date 2,935 rail car unloads have been lost at Vancouver. The industry expects to lose 4,200 rail car loadings this week and next if the strike and picketing continue. Each week after that 2,750 cars per week will be lost.

The losses are in the millions and most Canadians cannot comprehend how much this affects prairie farmers. The accumulated lost tonnes at this time equal some 642,150.

What are the ramifications? Canada's reputation as a reliable supplier of grain will suffer immensely. The results of such reputation loss may be lost sales in the future. That is very serious. We will not just be affected for the short term. This will affect us well into the future. This statement is made as a result of conclusions drawn in a number of government reviews and statistics. It is not just us or this source saying so. The Sims task force, the Industrial Inquiry Commission and the Western Grain Marketing Panel all made that very clear.

Currently grain companies are experiencing operational costs considerably above normal in order to handle less tonnes. Some 50% of productivity was lost during rotating strikes. Some 700 third party employees, that is grain workers, stevedores and ship pilots, are unable to earn a living at this time. This backup in the rail system will plug primary elevators costing producers the opportunity to deliver grain, which will adversely affect their cash flows at a time of year when they need it to prepare for spring seeding.

It is unreasonable for 70 employees as part of a much larger group to be allowed to provide such a large negative impact on 100,000 grain producers, in excess of 700 company employees and hundreds of rail employees. Seventy grain commission employees should not be allowed to put third party grain producers, farmers, sales contracts at risk well into the future.

The President of the Treasury Board has to be asked to consider options that would allow or direct these employees to continue working. The minister also needs to consider amending the Public Service Act with regard to part 1, subclause 87(7).

I said I would drop a bombshell and here it is. Back in January the minister knew in advance the result of these work stoppages, that they would happen, and he could have done something six weeks ago. In a letter dated January 27, 1999, he was informed, as was the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, the Minister of Transport, the Minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board and the Minister of International Trade. They were given in a letter clear indications of this problem, and they did nothing.

The Canadian Grain Commission has provided six supervisory personnel who are doing their best to cover a regular contingent in excess of 70 weighmen. Even if no picketing action is taken by weighmen, numbers this small have effectively closed port operations. That was told to the ministers. The results of such work stoppages have stopped the unloading of over 700 rail cars per day, eliminating the loading of approximately 275,000 tonnes of grain. The backup caused by not unloading rail cars will cost Canadian grain producers millions of dollars and impact our critical trading relationships with foreign buyers. This is all from a letter that was sent on January 27.

The Canadian grain industry and in particular western farmers are at the mercy of the weighmen. The minister was told this. We are not suggesting that back to work legislation is the only alternative. We are asking for the co-operation of all parties, including the federal government, in ensuring that the impact on western farmers is minimized during this time. To this end members are committed to finding solutions to the present situation. The government knew well in advance and could have acted, and it did nothing for six weeks.

Indirect costs to farmers could mount to millions of dollars, while the cost of the damage to Canada's competitive position is really hard to determine. AgriCorp agreed several months ago to send canola to China at prices that are $60 per tonne higher than current values. The buyer might use this stoppage to break the contract. Who will suffer? It will be farmers. Sixty dollars a tonne is big bucks.

We may see a couple of million dollars loss on just one vessel. One ship means several hundred million dollars. The customer would be happy to break the contract that he had made.

Deanna Allen, spokeswoman for the Canadian Wheat Board, says:

If the dispute prevents the board from filling an order for high protein wheat that fetches a premium, the cereal will go to lower price contracts and reduce the netbacks to growers. We could be looking at a direct revenue loss because of our inability to execute our sales program.

Amendments to the labour code last year designated grain shipments as an essential service, preventing most dock workers from going on strike or being locked out. However, the changes did not apply to the PSAC members who are in a legal strike position and the 700 unionized employees who work at Vancouver's five terminals refused to cross the picket lines.

If members need more examples and more facts to back up the extent of this problem, Japanese buyers of canola have already expressed concern about the build-up of ships in Vancouver. Deanna Allen from the wheat board said that nine million sales was only part of the picture. They are regularly losing sales in the $2 million to $10 million range in Latin America and Asia. These are very real dollars which are not making it to western Canada or Canada as a whole.

There is obviously something wrong with our negotiating system. “We are not part of that system but we pay the price. If the people who do the negotiating were affected in their pockets they would feel it differently”. Those are the words of a farmer from Manitoba. He goes on to say: “The shutdown definitely affects our reliability as suppliers. We could lose customers forever”.

Deanna Allen from the Wheat Board said that there would not be late shipment penalties known as demurrage. That will not apply because the Vancouver Grain Exchange issued a declaration that freezes the whole process because of the strike. “This means demurrage cannot be levied until 14 days after a strike has ended and no customer can cancel a contract”, she said, adding that many people assume automatically it will be levied because that happened a couple of years ago when there was a cause for delay and it was not identified immediately. Just because demurrage cannot be charged does not mean our customers will come back. We will be losing grain sales and it will affect us greatly.

As Reformers we have proposed final offer selection arbitration as a mechanism for settling outstanding issues in sectors where continued service is essential to the national economy. We would like to ensure that there is a continuous flow of grain to market. There have been estimates that the grain handling and transportation system in western Canada is at a disadvantage of about $500 million in my province alone. This is one of the problems which illustrates that something must be done.

I am very appreciative of the fact that I was able to address this problem this evening. I am speaking on behalf of the farmers in my area. We would like the government to do something, not just solve this in the short term, not just do something to get these workers back to work. We have to address this in the long term so that we are not back here every few months dealing with another aspect of the problem. We need to solve the grain handling and transportation problems in the long term. I urge the government to do that immediately.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

7:55 p.m.


Lee Morrison Reform Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is very unfortunate. It certainly would be nice if there were some ministers here to hear this important debate.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

8 p.m.


Sophia Leung Liberal Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Madam Speaker, I am delighted to join the debate. I will share my time with my colleague, the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington.

I wish to discuss the impact of the strike on grain shipment. It is very unfortunate that a very small number of PSAC members can hold the Canadian grain industry hostage and cause economic hardship to Canadian grain producers who are already feeling the effects of reduced grain prices on the world market. We are nearing the end of the ninth week of the strike by the federal blue collar workers.

For the first few weeks the grain weighers in British Columbia and the lower St. Lawrence River in Quebec exercised their right to strike by withdrawing their services. They have from time to time stopped grain shipments out of Vancouver, but this was on a rotational basis and they did not prevent longshoremen and private grain elevator employees from reporting for work. This caused some delays but allowed the loading of ships.

It has only been in the last week that they have escalated their activities by resorting to around the clock picketing. Because of union solidarity, longshoremen and grain elevator employees have refused to cross the picket lines and have paralyzed grain shipments out of Vancouver. I am from Vancouver and it has caused a lot of concern for us.

The impact of the strike by about 70 grain weighers is being felt throughout the whole system. An increasing number of ships are anchored in Vancouver. This weekend we will have over 20 ships waiting to load grain to transport to Asia. Thousands of loaded grain cars are backed up on the railway all the way to Manitoba.

Farmers are not getting paid for grain that cannot be delivered. Our clients are starting to express concerns about the reputation of Canadian grain exports. Grain shipments out of the port of Vancouver are worth about $60 million per week. The cost keeps mounting for every day the system is shut down.

We are having this emergency debate tonight because of the action of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and its members. They have turned down all the offers made to them by the government. Just this morning it was announced that Ontario public servants have accepted a deal that provides for a salary increase of 4.2% over three years. In comparison, the last offer made by the federal government when the talks ended Friday, March 12 was for salary increases of just less than 5% over two years.

It might not be appropriate to compare the salary offer made last week to federal blue collar workers to that of the Ontario government because the working conditions and other benefits might not be the same. On the other hand, the offer turned down by the PSAC bargaining team was very similar to what has already been offered and accepted by 87% of unionized federal public servants, but the bargaining team for blue collar workers maintains that it is not enough. I find it very difficult to understand why the union would turn down a fair wage offer.

For the sake of the future of the grain industry, Canadian exports, Canadian farmers and all Canadians, we must reach a settlement as soon as possible to avoid further job losses and financial disaster. I urge the PSAC members to reach a settlement soon.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

8:05 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, this is not the 1980s. This is not the 1970s. This is not the 1960s. This is the 1990s. In those other decades, it was expected in the labour movement to seek the highest wages possible that the company could afford to pay. Indeed, we saw in those days some very high wages in the industrial sector.

In that same period, the federal government and provincial governments negotiated very high rate with the public service unions. In those days, it was felt that rather than have a confrontation with the union, a government could dig deeply into the pocket of the taxpayer and literally pay off the union to avoid labour strife. This caused a lot of damage in the economy. We know some of the examples.

Ontario Hydro Nuclear is a classic example. Because the Ontario government was so unwilling to negotiate realistic settlements with the union, we got an organization that ultimately came to a point where it could no longer function.

Similarly, VIA Rail had the difficulty that the packages for the employees were so beautiful, so perfect that it became impossible to run passenger trains across the country.

At one time, I had a vision that we could have a cross Canada train like the Orient Express. I was told that it was impossible to do because even though we had the rolling stock, we did not have the ability to deal with a union that had the opportunity to charge double time, triple time and all kinds of things on a train that was going across the country for two or three days. What should have been a wonderful idea was impractical.

Previous governments had given away to public service unions the right to give reasonable wages. Instead, they gave very high wages to avoid labour strife. Those were the times when governments had money to burn it would seem. The previous Tory government ran up a deficit of $42 billion. Times have changed.

In the 1990s in my riding and anywhere in the country where unions are a part of businesses that are in global competition, the unions have had to face the reality that the wages they seek have to be in line with the company's ability to survive competitively.

As an example, in my immediate region there was a very lengthy strike involving meat packers. It was ultimately settled. The situation was very simple. There were changes in the global economy and changes with respect to free trade with the United States. The union could no longer enjoy the very high wages that it had. There was a choice of either taking a rollback or not having a job at all.

We have the same situation now in steel and in every sector of the competitive industry. Things have changed.

In my riding, there is very little sympathy for unions that are in a position to negotiate with a government that has unlimited money behind it, taxpayers' money. People do not have much sympathy any more for governments that would cave in to the unions, rather than stand up to the unions' demands that are no longer reasonable in the context of the 1990s.

We heard the Treasury Board president say that he wants to settle with these unions but they are asking for twice the going rate, twice the reasonable rate. I think I can speak for most people in my riding when I say that those people are behind the President of the Treasury Board. We have passed the time, thank heavens, when governments should just dig deeply in their pockets and give whatever the union demands.

I am entirely in agreement with the President of the Treasury Board. He must hold the line here because we can no longer return to the past as governments and give whatever is demanded of us. We have a responsibility to the taxpayer.

There is the other issue. The other issue is the fact that a very small portion of the Public Service Alliance of Canada union is holding at ransom the lives, the fortunes and the prospects of other Canadians. I refer especially to the grain farmers.

Members will recall two years ago we had before this parliament Bill C-66, which was to amend the Canada Labour Code. There were many provisions in that bill but one key provision was that it attempted to restrict the ability of third party unions to interfere with the transportation of grain in the context of labour strife.

I spoke to that bill way back in 1996, which eventually became law. It was given royal assent just two months ago. I spoke, though, in November 1996. I said:

I would like to add one other remark about a very positive aspect of the legislation. It addresses a past problem involving grain handling at our ports. Situations have arisen in the past where the country was literally held to ransom when our ports were shut down, not by the transportation unions alone, but by affiliated unions, some very small unions on occasion, that have set up picket lines. Of course, other union organizations respect these picket lines and on occasion it led to the paralysis of our ability to move our commodities.

The provision in the bill which limits the right to strike, to paralyze ports, to those unions directly engaged in that form of activity is a very positive one.

That is what I said. I regret those remarks because that provision was only applicable to outside unions, third party unions. We did not make it applicable to small public service unions within the industry. So we have a situation where some 70 employees are holding to ransom tens, hundreds of millions of dollars of the fortune of other Canadians, of their future, their prospects. Seventy public service alliance union members.

Times have very much changed. We have to reconsider as parliamentarians what exactly is the right to strike of union employees who are paid by the taxpayer. What exactly is the right that they have to interfere with the lives of other Canadians when they are paid by the taxpayer? The taxpayer is their employer. They are employed by the people of Canada.

The government should be considering very seriously taking immediate measures to resolve this situation. I am a little bit more direct than some of the Reform speakers are because I think that in the interests of the Canadians who are very adversely affected, we should move very quickly in this case. I see no problem with back to work legislation. But we need to take it one step further. We need to review the Canada Labour Code again and consider whether that code needs another amendment that will close the loophole that enables 70 unionized PSAC employees to hold to ransom an entire nation.

Movement Of GrainEmergency Debate

8:10 p.m.


Charlie Penson Reform Peace River, AB

Madam Speaker, I want to congratulate my colleague from Selkirk—Interlake, the Reform critic for international trade—for agriculture, I am sorry, although I know he has a keen interest in international trade—to have sponsored this debate and raised the matter of this severe emergency for western Canadian farmers.

When I rise to debate I usually say how happy I am to engage in the debate, but unfortunately I cannot say that today.

I am not happy at all. I am very disturbed. I am very frustrated because we have seen this cycle over and over again.

I think it is important that we have some historical background in order to put this into some kind of perspective. My background is agriculture. We have a farm in Alberta. I have been farming for over 30 years. In my other life I also was the chairman of a canola crushing plant that had international sales, especially to Japan. We faced this issue of labour management problems and the fact that we could not deliver our product on time on a number of occasions.

It was a matter of debate with the Chinese and Japanese buyers of our product when we were in the crushing business. It has hurt us very severely in the past. It has hurt us because Canada has not been able to get our product to port on time. It has hurt our international reputation and it hurt us financially in the canola crushing industry when I was there.

I first started farming in 1968. This issue has been with us for a long time, labour-management problems at the ports. There is something like 20 labour management units that have the ability to shut us down at any one time and we have seen all kinds of disruption in the past.

I want to tell a story about going to Vancouver with a group of farmers to tour the Alberta Wheat Pool terminal. That was back in the early 1970s. We flew to Vancouver and we were to have a look at the terminal in operation, our terminal. We owned it. It was a co-op. What happened? There was a strike.

It is the exact same situation we have today. Guess who was on strike? It was the official weighers and samplers. There were only five at the Alberta Wheat Pool terminal. They shut that terminal down.

It was raining, as it often does in Vancouver in the winter. The five people were sitting in a car with their pickets leaning up against the car. They shut down the terminal and backed up grain right back to the farm gate. The reason? Other unions would not cross that picket line.

This goes on and on. What government was in power at the time? The same government. The same problems we see today. Nothing has changed. Yet it has had a lot of opportunities to do that. Does it really care at all about what happens to farmers in Western Canada? I have to think not.

In my riding agriculture is the biggest industry. We have oil and gas industries. We have a very strong forestry sector. The bottom line is that agriculture is there day in and day out. It pays the bills. When we get disruptions in the grain handling system we pay very dearly because over 80% of what we produce is shipped out of the country.

A lot of it is shipped out of the port of Vancouver and when that goes down, we all go down and we pay very dearly. There was over $60 million last year in demurrage charges. Who pays it? It backs up to the farmers. They pay it. Ye, it is beyond their control to do anything about it.

They are looking for leadership from government. It is one of the reasons I got involved in running for parliament. We are simply not getting it. It is a problem I am very concerned about.

My role is the critic for the Reform Party for international trade. The international trade committee is doing a study now about what we should be trying to negotiate for Canada at the upcoming round of the World Trade Organization, the hearings in the so-called millennium round.

What good does it do getting market access for our products if we cannot deliver them? It is frustrating beyond belief. We are there trying to open up access into other markets, and here we are stymied time and time again.

In the 1970s we had the second worst labour record to Italy. Maybe it has improved in some areas but not in the area of grain handling.

We had this problem before us last year. We were debating Bill C-19. The Liberals told us all would be well and good. They were to put in a provision in the labour bill that would allow the terminals to keep on operating if there was a strike for 72 hours to load the ships.

We faced a great deal of pressure. I know I did in my riding from some of the grain companies and farmers who were saying why not support that bill. We said it is a half baked measure which will come back to bite us. That is exactly what has happened.

We said “Unless you address the whole issue of labour management problems and some new process for handling that, you have not solved anything. So you have loaded that one ship out on the 72 hours. Unless you address the whole 20-some labour management units that are involved with some kind of process to resolve the longstanding situation we have had in this area of strife and crisis, we really have not done anything at all”.

When we were at that port in Vancouver, the Alberta Wheat Pool terminal at the time, I talked to a couple of workers from the grain handlers who were sitting in the terminal doing nothing except for providing security. That was in the early 1970s. The same weighers and samplers were on strike at that time. The grain handlers have a union of their own.

I talked to a grain handler and said that when we got past the situation with the weighers, everything would be running smoothly and we would be able to load out the grain. He said: “I am not so sure. We have a two year contract. We were not able to settle it until just a couple of months ago. Now there is only about a year left and we will probably be going on strike again”. It is not just them. It is the railway system workers, the labour management units for the stevedores, and on and on.

We simply have to move to a better system. What is the use of trying to get market access? What is the use of trying to put $1.4 billion into emergency aid for farmers in the prairies if all we really need to do is leave some money in their pockets by lower taxes and allow for a system that is effective to get our product to market on time so we can continue to have a good reputation?

I suggest there has been a lot of distress in the farm industry in the last several years. The Asian flu was just the last part of that. We know commodity prices are off very badly. Farmers are hurting. Western Canadian farmers are hurting. We also have the severe subsidy-tariff situation, especially in the European Union which spent $72 billion on agriculture subsidies last year, effectively freezing us out of those markets.

It gets even worse. It freezes us out of the European Union markets but it overproduces because it is getting $10 a bushel for wheat. What does it do with that overproduction? It dumps it on the world market at fire sale prices. Not only can we not access the markets in the 15 countries that are members of the European Union but we are frozen out of markets in third countries because we face this unfair competition.

What is this government doing about it? What are its priorities? It does not seem to be much in the area of agriculture in terms of trade to try to open up those markets. It tells us it has to have this so-called balanced position in Canadian agriculture. We cannot ask for market access for grain, oilseed and beef, those very industries that are essentially subsidy and tariff free, because we have to be careful on the other side. We might get hit on our supply-management, the same supply-management that enjoys 300% tariffs on lots of our products, butter for example, against products coming into Canada. The so-called manage position is where the Liberals are. They want to ride the fence on everything.

Where are the Liberals' priorities? Where are their priorities these days on solving this strike? I do not see them. I see them concentrating on things like gun registration with some $200 million already in that situation, blowing it out their ears. Twenty years from now what will we have from gun registration? People will say what a useless exercise.

What are their other priorities? Subsidizing Bombardier with $1.2 billion over the last 10 years, and it goes on and on. Bill C-55 is on protecting magazine publishers. Rogers cable, one of the biggest importers of American culture into Canada, has a division called Maclean Hunter which cannot function without that protection. That is a real top priority for the Liberal government, protecting the subsidized protected industries.

However, when it comes to fighting for our farmers for market access, we cannot touch that, it is too hot. When it comes to trying to solve some labour-management problems that have been with us for over 30 years, we will leave that alone. We cannot do anything there. We would not want to put in final offer arbitration such as has been suggested by our member for Wetaskiwin. It is a very good suggestion in order to move along a process that is stagnated very badly.

I see some movement coming. The President of the Treasury Board tonight telegraphed his position, back to work legislation. Part of the reason was in what he said. There were some real difficulties at the Dorval airport the other day. PSAC workers blocked the Dorval airport. Some people had to walk a whole kilometre. They had to walk around and go a whole kilometre on the tarmac to get to their plane.

Do not worry about the farmers who are losing millions and millions of dollars in demurrage and lost sales, disrupting a $6 billion industry. That is not that important but when it comes to disrupting travel at Dorval airport, that is pretty important.

I think we see the writing on the wall. We will see back to work legislation but what has that solved? Yes, there is a band-aid that will order these people back to work but why can they not engage in some new thinking about the whole labour management process? We have to move beyond this. We cannot afford it.

I suggest that until the government is prepared to do that we will see a whole series of band-aids into the future and I do not think that is good enough.