Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to a motion that seeks to limit, in a very draconian way, the length of time the House of Commons can deal with a bill that we have not even seen yet. This is not only absurd but it shows contempt for the institution of Parliament, for members of Parliament, for labour laws in this country and for the safety of both locomotive engineers and Canadian rail passengers.
All we know is that some bill will be introduced sometime this afternoon that will be back to work legislation. Therefore, I must focus my comments on the issue in general, rather than the specifics, because we have not yet seen the legislation.
I want to be clear from the outset. New Democrats will not be supporting this draconian measure to end the labour dispute at the Canadian National Railway.
I will begin by laying out the principles behind our position, and it is the principled position. We once again find ourselves in the position where the federal government is violating Canada's international labour obligations by calling on Parliament to end a legal labour dispute. We have a duty, as a country, to honour the conventions and treaties that our governments have signed over the years with both the United Nations and the International Labour Organization.
The current Conservative government is behaving in the same old discredited way that governments in the past have behaved by violating our international obligations to respect the rights of workers.
In the last 25 years, the federal government alone passed 15 pieces of back to work legislation. Oftentimes, this legislation not only forced workers back to work after taking strike action, but also arbitrarily imposed settlements on the striking workers. This makes an absolute mockery of Canada's signature on international labour and human rights conventions and treaties.
It is not like collective bargaining is a flawed process. Eighty-five per cent of the time it works without a work stoppage. It works for both parties.
I want to take a step backward because I suspect some of the viewers who are watching the proceedings in the House right now may not fully understand the background to the current debate, so I will take moment to fill them in.
At issue is the government's intention to end a legal labour dispute at CNR through back to work legislation. I do understand those who are concerned about the economic impact of the strike and the need to get our freight moving. However, we need to understand from the very outset that the collective bargaining process is about two parties. This is a negotiation process whereby two parties try to arrive at an agreement that they will have to live with day in and day out for the term of the agreement.
For the people who work in rail and the people affected by this collective agreement, workplace issues come up from time to time over the course of days, weeks, months and even years and there is only one opportunity for those concerns to be addressed in a democratic fashion, and that is through their elected representatives in the bargaining process. The representatives take the concerns to the bargaining table and, in a meeting of equals, representatives of both labour and management try to resolve their differences. This is a process that is defined by law. It has been defined over a period of decades and, indeed, generations. The rights that are enshrined in the collective bargaining process are rights that people have fought for. They were not just given by a government or by the employer. These were rights that people had to organize and fight for, and sometimes they were terrible fights, in order to achieve that basic opportunity to sit down with the employer, to raise the issues of the day and to resolve those concerns in a democratic fashion.
Usually when there is some kind of dispute in bargaining, the focus of the media, and therefore the public, is automatically on wages and they become the central issue. Yes, wages are often a part of the concern but they are rarely the entire concern. Issues that are negotiated include wages, benefits, working conditions, relationships in the workplace, particularly in terms of how disputes will be addressed, and how concerns will be dealt with. As part of the working conditions, the most important are those of the health and the safety of the people who work in a given environment.
However, when a government comes with ham-fisted back to work legislation, it pushes the democratic process off the table and, instead, it imposes a solution. Yet, when agreements are imposed, whatever the method of the imposition, they often end up being less satisfactory than if they had been negotiated and agreed to by both parties. That leaves unresolved issues to fester, regardless of whether they are issues on the side of the employer or on the side of the workers.
Collective bargaining is a pas de deux. It, is or at least ought to be, a negotiation between two parties that both wield power in the process.
The employer, of course, has a great deal of power in the workplace. Employers decide who to hire, who to fire and who to promote. In addition, employers decide what their product or service will be, how they will manage that product or service and what equipment they will invest in. They decide the advertising and how they will market their products and services.
For people who work for the employer, the only opportunities they have to give their input and to exercise their rights in the workplace is through the collective, through collective bargaining. The power that workers bring to the table is the ability to withhold their labour. That is the counterweight to the immense powers held by the employers. It is the tool that provides the impetus for negotiations at the bargaining table.
When the government steps into that process by bringing in back to work legislation, it undermines the democratic legal rights of the people in the workplace. It is a heavy-handed or, as I said earlier ham-fisted way of forcing a resolution to a legal dispute that ought to be resolved between the two parties at the table.
What is worse, when the government prospectively signals its willingness to proceed with back to work legislation, it removes any incentive for the employer to participate in the bargaining process. That is exactly the situation that has evolved in the current dispute between the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference and the Canadian National Railway.
Having learned from past experience that the Conservative government is not likely to allow a rail strike to continue, CNR has been able to inappropriately use Parliament to abrogate its responsibilities, vis-à-vis the teamsters union, and the right to collective bargaining. It is an absolute disgrace.
I am not sure whether I am more disgusted by CN or by the government for allowing itself to become CN's patsy. There was absolutely no need for this to happen. My goodness, the government gave notice of its intention to table back to work legislation when the strike was less than 12 hours old. How bizarre is that when, in another labour dispute at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum, workers have been on strike for 72 days and the government has idly stood by washing its hands of any responsibility.
Nothing illustrates more clearly the significance of placement in the economy. There certainly is no consistency in the government's action on labour relations.
All through bargaining, CN has been able to use back to work legislation as a bargaining chip in order to move the union off its issues but, thankfully, the teamsters did not care because at stake is nothing less than worker safety and railway safety. I am glad to say that the teamsters did not cave.
A few years ago, Transport Canada released a study highlighting serious concerns in rail safety. Top of mind was the slew of derailments that had occurred. I remember one period in 2007 when there were seven derailments in just over two months.
On January 8, 2007, 24 cars of a 122-car freight train derailed at Montmagny, Quebec, 60 kilometres east of Quebec City. On January 14 of the same year there was a derailment near Minisinakwa in northern Ontario dumping more than 30 cars, one containing paint supplies, into the water.
On February 28, 2007, hydrochloric acid spilled from cars on the CP Rail line that went off the tracks in the Kicking Horse Pass canyon.
On March 1, 2007, a CN freight train derailment in Pickering disrupted VIA service on the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor and commuter service into Toronto.
On March 4, 2007, grain was spilled near Blue River, British Columbia, two hours north of Kamloops, when 27 cars on the westbound train fell of the track.
On March 10, 2007, rail traffic along CN's main freight line through central New Brunswick was disrupted until the next day by a 17 car derailment in the Plaster Rock area.
On March 12, 2007, 3,000 VIA passengers had to board buses on the first day of the March break after train service in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor was disrupted after a CN freight train derailed near the station in Kingston. That was quite a sorry and quite a high profile record for such a short period of time.
Suffice to say that when workers argue that there needs to be improvements to rail safety, they certainly have empirical evidence to support their concerns.
Among the solutions to improve rail safety and security are things like improved maintenance, better track conditions and better rolling stock conditions. Another part of the solution is related to staff. On most trains, which can be anywhere from a few to 100-plus cars, there are two workers. There is an engineer and a conductor. We have two people running a train who are responsible for cars that are 130 tonnes each, in terms of loaded freight cars, and engines that are capable of producing anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower.
The safe operation of these trains rests in the hands of two people, the conductors and the locomotive engineers. The engineers are represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference and they are the ones who are on strike against CN. The reason they went on strike was to fight for improved railway safety. CN wanted to raise the monthly mileage cap by 500 miles to 4,300 miles. That would require some locomotive engineers to work seven days a week with no time off. Talk about undermining the safe operations of our railways. The teamsters are determined to resolve these safety concerns at the bargaining table.
Are we here in this House going to deny them the right to resolve issues that put their very lives at risk? What right do we have to do that?
Let us make no mistake about it, the implications of the health and safety issues at stake here are enormous, and not just for the railway workers themselves. They are enormous because health and safety issues in the context of rail travel have the potential to translate into serious threats to the travelling public. Even more broadly, they pose considerable threats with dire consequences in the event that failed health and safety practices result in train derailments and in spills of toxic chemicals. They literally can affect not just families who are living immediately adjacent to rail lines but whole communities that have railways passing through them or running nearby.
These are serious issues. I obviously do not know them as well as the engineers themselves but that is why the process of collective bargaining works so well. The two parties, which know the workplace best and know the issues and concerns best, may come at them from a different perspective in the bargaining process but they have to sit down and hammer those issues out and come to a mutually agreeable solution. That is how we best protect the safety of both workers and Canadians at large.
We all have a vested interest in the outcome of these negotiations and because of that we all have a vested interest in the process for arriving at solutions. The government has tried to minimize the safety impact by focusing almost exclusively on the economic impact of this labour dispute. Yes, the continued transportation of goods is important but it needs to be the safe transportation of goods to have an economic benefit. The economic consequence of a derailment, for example, is profoundly negative and its cost may be measured not just in dollars but in lives.
We have an obligation to mitigate against those circumstances. We cannot sacrifice safety to the bottom line. It is only through collective bargaining that we will arrive at the proper balance. If, through that process, we can address some of the safety and infrastructure concerns of the railway system, then it will be good for the economy too.
In the brief time that I have remaining, I will speak to the issue from one last perspective. CN as a whole used to be a key part of our national identity. It was part of our history, our tradition, our heritage, linking this country together from sea to sea and it was a symbol of our greatness. Sadly, that symbolism and the pride we felt in what truly was a national institution has deteriorated badly since it was privatized and sold off.
I remember when Mr. Gordon Rhodes, who was a long time locomotive engineer and the only survivor of one of the most egregious accidents where two CN employees were killed due to CN's more safety management practices, was at the transport committee in 2007. I remember him saying this in his testimony:
I'm not American, I'm Canadian, and I used to be proud to call my company Canadian National Railroad back in the 1980s. Now I'm not even allowed to do so. I'm supposed to say CNR. What's this?
I would encourage all members of this House to go back and remind themselves of Mr. Rhodes' testimony before they vote on the bill that is before us today. He spoke to what should be important to every member of Parliament here, and that is the safety and the continuation of our rail system and not allowing CN management to decide what the rail system is going to look like. He said:
--CN has gone in the opposite direction. They're very adversarial. I call it the poisoned work environment, because that's what it is. Nobody wants to go to work there. Everybody's counting the days, the months, and the years until they're gone, until they're out of there. That's not the way it was...The way I look at it is this: CN is a big multinational corporation with railways going from Mexico to Canada; they have bought and absorbed many railways into their system, and they're experts at doing that. The problem here is that they absorbed one railway they had no expertise in. They thought they did, but they don't. Their arrogance is what happened, in the sense that they came in and took our GOI, general operating instructions, of probably some 50 years of railroad knowledge on how to run trains on that track, but they were going to do it their way because they wanted it all homogenized. They wanted it all one way, and that was it. They didn't listen to anybody, but just plowed ahead with their system.
Referring to American management, he said, “They're telling us how they're going to run things”, and then he made an impassioned plea to the government and to members of Parliament. He said, “I think it's time you guys tell them how it's going to be run”.
That was part of the message from Mr. Rhodes, the only survivor of one of the many accidents that CN has had. On behalf of the locomotive engineers, he was saying that we have to help them. Communities are being devastated, environments are being destroyed, lives are being lost, and we as parliamentarians have to help.
However, instead of responding to that call to action, the government is saying that it does not care about the employees. It is not going to address the safety issues. It does not care about the communities that are being devastated. It certainly does not care about the shipping problems that happen as a result of the devastation of these derailments, collisions, fires and explosions. It is not going to address any of those issues.
It is going to toss the entire weight of the government behind a plan to simply hand a blank cheque to CN management. That is not good enough. It is not good enough for rail safety in Canada, it is not good enough for protecting labour rights in Canada, and it is not good enough for the NDP in Canada.
I would urge all members in the House to join us in opposing this draconian piece of government legislation, stand in solidarity with the members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, and stand up for the values and principles on which our country was built. It is a vision of Canada that is worth fighting for.