Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to take part in the debate and particularly to follow the member for Winnipeg Centre who gave a very cogent and comprehensive speech about the shortcomings of this onerous and odious legislation. He did it from the point of view of working people. I will at least begin my remarks by talking about the impact on farmers and the situation they find themselves in.
The strike by table two members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada has been in effect for a couple of months. There have been rotational strikes. It is the second time the 70 grain weighers have put up picket sides at the seven grain terminals on the west coast.
The last set of pickets has been in effect for some six days and has aroused a lot of the bluster from the other side on the impact of the anti-democratic legislation we have before us. The rationale is that the government is moving to do something about grain. However, when it is behind by one million income tax files and there are crocodile tears about income taxpayers not getting their refunds, I rather suspect it is the government not being able to collect the money and get it into the government coffers as fast as it would like to.
For people who are not from the prairies or who do not have a farm background, the movement of grain from the prairies to the west coast is quite a Byzantine world that in some cases almost defies description.
I would like to take a minute to explain what I think happens in this regard. The farmer grows the grain and stores it on his farm. We would think that was okay, that he or she was still accountable for it when it is on the farm. Then it is trucked to the country elevator or more likely to the inland terminal. We would think that maybe it is the people who truck the grain or the elevator operator who would then be responsible. That is not the case. The farmer is still on the hook for any problems that arise when it is at the elevator.
Then it goes by rail to the west coast or to Thunder Bay. Again we would think it is out of the farmer's hands, that he has no control over it so it must be the responsibility of Canadian National, Canadian Pacific or Omnitrax. However it is still the farmer. If there are any problems with it at the point it is the farmer who pays any of the demurrage or any damages.
It is not until the grain is actually loaded on the ship that the farmer's responsibility for his product ends even though his accountability and his ability to correct any problems ended when the product left his farm gate perhaps a couple of months earlier. It is clearly a Byzantine system.
The Estey report that came down in December on which the government is still not showing any leadership talks about the need for accountability and for those involved in the system to be responsible for it. While my caucus and I have many problems with the Estey report this is certainly not one of them. We think that Mr. Estey's comments on accountability and responsibility are extremely important.
This is a grim time particularly for farmers on the prairies. In December the government announced its so-called AIDA program, agricultural income disaster assistance. Farmers have other acronyms to describe it. It is not helping very many farmers in our region. I have yet to speak with a farmer who thinks that there will be any pay off or any relief for his or her operation at the end of the day.
The strike of grain weighers has added insult to injury. It would be true to say that many farmers out there believe that the disruption needs to be dealt with because they are in dire straits and sinking deeper. As has been mentioned by other speakers, spring seeding is just around the corner. It is a time of very quiet desperation and perhaps not so quiet desperation for farm families.
At the same time many farmers feel that what is before us today is inherently unfair. They implicitly recognize that the government is playing off farmers and workers. That in the long run gets nobody very far down the road.
In terms of the table two negotiators, I want to read into the record some references contained in a letter addressed to me on March 19 from a table two member in the riding of Palliser in Moose Jaw. This individual is employed at 15 Wing in Moose Jaw. The letter reads in part:
I have been a loyal employee of the Federal Government of Canada for over twenty years and a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. As an employee represented at the PSAC table two-Treasury Board negotiations, I feel compelled to bring a few things to light, and hope the attached documents will shed some light on the “real issues”.
The letter references the fact that the President of the Treasury Board stated that the government has accepted a conciliation board report when under the staff relations act the conciliation board has to have agreeing parties to substantiate a report.
The letter writer says that in the case of table two negotiations there was no agreement between the three members of the board, thus the report is invalid. The letter also points out that the minister responsible for the Treasury Board has also stated: “Unfortunately, at this point the union has been asking for things that are excessive and for which Canadian taxpayers do not want to pay”. He appended some tables that approximately 80% to 85% have already settled agreements with federal government employees and the table two requests are by no means out of line.
His third and final point is that in a review of comparable market rates, public service employees in Saskatchewan make an average of 70% of the going local market rate. He wrote “Clearly, not only as public servants, but as folks from Saskatchewan, we are treated as the poor sister of Canada”.
He ends his letter by urging that we intercede to get Treasury Board back to the negotiating table. “Treasury Board has come to a reasonable agreement with other groups, why not us? We deserve to be treated fairly and equitably”. We in this caucus agree very much with the sentiments expressed by that individual from the prairies.
There is also a letter from Nova Scotia. I want to zero in on the regional rates of pay. It is brought to light in the letter that the regional rates of pay discriminate against about 1,500 blue collar workers in Atlantic Canada and about 11,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada blue collar workers across the country.
According to the letter, 97% of federal government employees are paid national rates of pay. Only 3% are not.
The letter contends that Atlantic Canadian employees are paid the lowest rates in Canada. Treasury Board officials have consistently argued in the House and in the media that regional rates of pay cannot be paid to blue collar workers. They say the policy has been in effect since 1922 and was based on market comparability with private regional rates of pay when introduced. They argue the regional rates of pay cannot be eliminated because of regional costs of living.
This may have been true seven decades ago and may have remained true for many decades after that. However, for the past 20 years regional rates of pay have been amalgamated in an attempt to eliminate them gradually and regional rates of pay really no longer reflect regional markets. The question remains, if regional rates of pay were a cost of living issue, why does the policy apply today to only 3% of federal government employees and not the other 97%?
To follow up on that, in a letter to the federal government on behalf of the province of Nova Scotia, the labour minister for that province, Mr. MacKinnon, wrote to his Liberal counterpart: “It is our view that the work Nova Scotians deliver is of equal quality and value to the work delivered by workers in other provinces. It would only seem just to consider wage parity for all Canadian government employees no matter what their classification”.
Mr. Chisholm, who many of us hope and expect will become the next premier of the province of Nova Scotia has written: “Provincial workers in similar positions already make higher incomes than those affected by regional rates of pay. When 97% of federal workers already have uniform rates of pay, surely giving it to the other 3% would not lose unheralded inflationary pressures”.
These are some of the reasons that this party remains fundamentally opposed to the legislation before us this afternoon, which we will be debating and discussing over the next couple of days.
The wrap up of this individual's letter from Halifax said: “The federal government's regional rates of pay policies discriminate against blue collar workers. Treasury Board's bargaining tactics have been counterproductive for the public service in Canada. Treasury Board manager Alain Jolicoeur suggested to the media in Ottawa that had we not been happy with our wages, we could have quit, entirely ignoring our real economic situation as modest wage earners and our commitment to serve the Canadian public. The government has treated us as though we are entirely worthless and disposable”.
And these are modest wage earners. It is fair to say that the average salary is in the neighbourhood of $26,000, hardly a king's ransom. As my colleague from Winnipeg Centre noted in his remarks, the pay scale does not compare with what folks earn in the private sector in provinces such as Saskatchewan or indeed Nova Scotia.
By way of concluding my remarks, it is my contention that had the government opposite negotiated in good faith, this rotating strike situation would be over in a day. We note that the public service employees, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, have not had a raise for some seven years. It was pointed out to me earlier that in some groups, not all in table two but in some, settlements have been imposed. It has really been 15 years since they have had any kind of meaningful increase. These people are not asking for the moon. They are asking for a wage increase of what will amount to less than 3% per annum.
It is our contention that this strike is fully and totally the responsibility of the government opposite. At the same time, as was noted in question period today, it is the farmers who are being hurt as a result of this. There is a grain backlog from the west coast terminals all the way back to the farm gate in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.
While we are debating this legislation, it is noteworthy to point out that the strikers are back at work today. The government should have seized the opportunity when the pickets came down on Friday morning to get back to the bargaining table and to have negotiated a full and final settlement over the weekend.
As a result of the government's bungling and total mishandling of this situation, it should pay Canadian farmers for the losses they are suffering due to this aforementioned bungling.