Madam Speaker, I thank all my fellow members for the opportunity to speak to them about the significant impact that rotational strikes being waged by the Public Service Alliance are having across the country.
More specifically, I will speak about how we arrived at the serious issue we have before us today. Since this government returned to the negotiating table with the public service union nearly two years ago, I am pleased to report we have reached new collective agreements with more than 87% of the unionized workforce in the public service of Canada.
This includes reaching agreements with some 100,000 employees represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada without work stoppages. Our settlements have been fair and reasonable and now thousands of our employees are seeing salary increases as a result of reaching these new agreements as well as other non-monetary benefits.
Unfortunately during these same two years and with the same Public Service Alliance of Canada we have not been able to reach a negotiated settlement for the 14,000 blue collar workers or 9% of the government employees they represent. However, this has not been for lack of effort on the government's part.
It has not been for a lack of willingness to be flexible at the bargaining table. This has not been for our lack of capacity to move from our original bargaining position. We have done all the above and yet we are still without a settlement.
I am concerned that the union's inflexibility at the bargaining table is beginning to affect many innocent, unrelated parties. After nine weeks Canadians across the country and the government that serves them continue to be subjected to disruptions, inconveniences, significant losses of revenues and in some instances acts of civil disobedience and violence.
It is the issue of regional pay rates that has led us to the bargaining table to a position of not being able to deliver important grain shipments, not being able to board airplanes, not being able to file our income taxes, not being able to receive our income tax refunds and not being able to receive a variety of other government services.
Members should know that because of the union's position on regional rates federal departments and agencies have been subjected to rotating strikes week in and week out. These strikes have closed federal buildings for periods of a day or more in cities from Vancouver to Halifax. The results have been temporary disruptions in the operations of the affected departments and agencies, an inconvenience to Canadians who want to do business with those institutions.
The picket lines are evident to all. Less clear, at least to most people, is what this strike is all about. It is in fact about regional rates of pay. To understand this strike one must understand what regional rates of pay are, why the government wants to maintain them and what would be the implications of accepting the union's demand for uniform national rates of pay.
The short answer is that the government pays different rates in different parts of the country because living costs and wages vary across Canada.
As the largest employer in Canada we have a responsibility not to act in a way that would distort the labour market, especially the local market. Among other things, this means we should not create conditions of employment so favourable for our own employees that the private sector employees are unable to fill their jobs in their enterprises. By the same token, if we want people with the necessary skill and experience we know we must pay wages high enough to be competitive in the local market. This in a nutshell is why we have regional rates of pay.
It means we must pay a dock worker in Victoria more than one in Halifax because living costs are higher on the west coast than on the east coast and labour costs in the two regions reflect this. Similar differences exist for other occupational groups, mostly trades people such as carpenters and plumbers, but also for some professionals.
If we do not pay more in the high cost areas we will not be able to compete for the skills we need. If we pay too much in the low cost areas we put pressure on the local employers to pay more for the manpower they need, thus distorting the local labour market.
As a government we believe this approach is fair to our employees, to employers and to workers in different parts of the country, and to people in Canada who ultimately pay the government's wage bill or have to pay for the professional services they need from the private sector.
On the other side of the House we just heard someone say “Who cares?” But many small business people across this country cannot afford to pay the higher labour costs that the Government of Canada might be able to afford, which at that point would create undue hardships for many of those small business people.
I see a Reform member on the other side who I know is very responsive to small business. I hope he has the opportunity to communicate with the rest of his colleagues to express how important small business is to this country.
The idea of paying wages that are determined in part by local labour market conditions goes back many years in Canada. The 1962 Glassco royal commission, whose recommendations underpin much of our modern public service, stated the issue very clearly. The commission said: “We do not see why the most important employer in the country should take no account of the local labour market. If it refuses to take account, it will find itself paying more or less than it should. This”, the commission argued, “would serve neither economic growth nor competitiveness”.
As the other side of the House, the Reform Party especially, has been talking the last couple of days about competitiveness, I am sure they understand the difference of the regional rates of pay issue that we are dealing with today.
For more than 30 years the principle has been clear. The government should pay regional rates for employee groups where the labour market varies significantly across Canada. We should pay the national rates where there is a national labour market. That is what we do and we are not alone.
Consider the United States. Like Canada it is a country with major regional economic differences. The American government pays different rates to its blue collar workers that reflect regional market conditions. The variations can run as high as 39% above local wage levels in the best paid zones to 16% below them in the lowest paid zones.
I would like to point out this evening to all members who are here because of their concern over the impact that this strike is having on Canadians, on government operations and on farmers that the system is not perfect. In any effort to define a regional labour market specific local circumstances can vary to the benefit or disadvantage of workers and/or the employer. That is why in the recent rounds of collective bargaining, which this government believes in, we have worked with the unions to try to arrive at a system that is fair and effective for both sides so that we can look at things on a long term basis and continue supporting the collective bargaining rights of workers with the employer.
We have, for example, reduced the number of pay zones, to simplify comparisons and to make pay administration easier, from 10 to 7.
Is there an alternative to regional rates of pay? The union argues that there is. They are striking today because they are seeking a single national rate for the affected occupational groups, irrespective of regional circumstances. We do not think such an approach would be fair or in the public interest.
Paying the same rate across the board would mean paying some people too much and others too little. Neither is desirable.
Let me remind members of the House that as an elected government responsible and accountable to Canadians we must balance and abide by the rules of both the national and local markets. We must pay wages high enough to attract and retain the quality of labour that we require and are proud of, and not so high that we cannot afford to maintain our operations.
However, at the end of the day the government, as the employer, is not an employer like any other. Our obligation to act in the public interest colours our approach to every issue, including matters raised at the bargaining table.
This government does not like strikes any more than Canadians who are prevented by picket lines from making a payment, collecting a benefit or searching a job board.
I believe we have been more than tolerant for the past nine weeks. We are prepared to maintain a system of pay rates for public servants that is fair to all concerned.
Let me conclude by saying that as a government we are prepared to examine all of the options. We must look at every possibility to resolve this issue in an expedient manner. We must put an end to the impasse that these rotational strikes are having on Canadians who deserve to receive responsive service at a reasonable cost.
We respect the collective bargaining process, as is shown by the 87% of workforce agreements that we have negotiated with the unions. We have offered 9%, which is even more than the other unions have received.
However, it is our ultimate commitment to the people of Canada that a solution is needed at once so that the innocent parties that continue to do trade and commerce are not affected, such as the farmers of western Canada.