Mr. Speaker, I will not say it is a pleasure, but I am happy to speak against this motion.
What the Conservative government does not seem to understand about its approach to collective bargaining is that the separation between civil society and the government is, in fact, a fragile thing. The ability to pressure the government through appropriate non-violent measures such as demonstrating and striking is an essential part of the checks and balances of our democracy. Unions have been at the forefront of social progress in our society. Whether it be work safety, working hours, child labour, anti-child labour legislation, et cetera, they have been at the forefront of these issues. They have pushed for change, and change has happened.
Let me share a personal story. My great-grandfather, Ernest Ravignat, came to this country from Belgium as a stonemason in the beginning of the last century and he came to work on these very Parliament buildings. He may have even carved some of the stones in the House of Commons. He spent decades working on public works for his new country and, because of low safety standards, died of dust inhalation at a very early age, poor and penniless. I dare say that if he were unionized and if his union had negotiated better working conditions and a disability pension, he may have lived longer. I may have even known him, and what stories I would have heard even about this place.
What has improved these types of conditions is, unfortunately, not the goodwill of employers and governments but a long struggle for workers to have the right to organize and pressure their employers and government. The independence of the labour movement is key to our society and our democracy, and that includes the right to bargain fairly and freely their wages and conditions without interference. If one does not own one's own labour, one does not own anything. This must include the right to strike.
Let me make this point very clear. If the only actions unions can take are actions authorized by the government, then what is the point of workers' rights to free association? This is a slippery slope, and I dare say members on the other side of the House will regret these actions. They lead to an unhealthy relationship with civil society and a dangerous one, I dare say, one in which only approved unions and professional associations are allowed by the government to exist. This blurring of lines between government and civil society is one of the main features of authoritarian governments. There is a name for it. It is called corporatism and it was a feature of the Duplessis government and many governments whose commitment to real, messy, sometimes chaotic but beautiful democracy was questionable.
The decision by the government, which is before us, is in many ways a line in the sand for the labour movement. It is a crossroads, and if we cross it we send a clear message to the whole world that Canada has no respect for the independent rights of citizens to defend their interests. The situation with Air Canada is hardly a crisis. The employees have not gone on strike or engaged in any form of work action that harms the interests of Canadians.
On the contrary, the company is aware that the government is going to stand up for its interests, as it did for Canada Post. This is the government that gave employees an ultimatum to accept management’s latest offer. In this case, a notice of lockout issued by Air Canada will soon take effect. It is therefore up to Air Canada to return to the bargaining table with its employees.
We in the NDP, while defending the interests and rights of all Canadians to associate and to strike, call on the two parties to bargain in good faith in order to find a solution that does not cause problems for travellers.
The government must remain neutral and help both sides reach an agreement, and not favour one party over the other.
We continue to fight for the rights of Canadians, and we will vote against this back-to-work legislation.
The minister and her government claim that they are protecting the interests of all Canadians. Let us take the time to see if this is true. What the minister undoubtedly means is that she is protecting the profits of a company rather than the interests of hundreds of workers.
The reality is that Canada is a country of unions and unionization. The government may not like that image because it may fly in the face of its laissez-faire corporate values, but Statistics Canada reported in 2010 that just over 4.2 million employees belong to a union in Canada. This is to be celebrated.
During the first half of 2010, membership was up by 64,000. In 2010 union membership rose at a slightly faster pace than total employment. As a result, the nation's unionization rate edged from 29.5% in 2009 to 29.6% in 2010.
The government is arguing—strangely, considering these facts—that the disruption of air service to those thousands of Canadians and the curtailment of profit to an irresponsible corporation somehow outweigh the interests of 4.2 million Canadians who are unionized and recognize that the right to strike and negotiate their collective agreement is a fundamental right. That does not even talk about the families of these 4.2 million people.
The Conservatives talk about disruption of travel plans and economic impacts. What is more important: a temporary inconvenience impacting a few thousand Canadians, or the rights to collective free association and bargaining?
It is not as though Air Canada is the only carrier in this country. It is not as though we are talking about a protracted strike lasting for weeks. It is not as though the demands of the Air Canada workers are all that unreasonable.
What are the workers of Air Canada asking for? It is simple: good, reasonable pensions for all workers, young or old.
Making new hires join a new defined contribution pension plan, as suggested by Air Canada, weakens the existing defined benefit plan, because all new contributions would be diverted into a new plan. Defined contribution plans, which offer no guarantees of final pension payouts, also create a two-tiered system, which would make second-class workers of future generations.
I suppose it is to be expected that the government would be sympathetic to the position of Air Canada, because it wants to do exactly the same thing to pensions in this country. By doing so, it is taking away good pensions from the youngest workers of this country. It was good enough for baby boomers, but for hard-working members of generation X and Y, it is not. If I was more skeptical, which I am not, I would wonder if this is not an economic generation war.
The Canadian Auto Workers, along with two other unions representing Air Canada workers, jointly pledged last month to fight any further attempts by the airline to reduce or eliminate their defined benefit plans, and I think they are right. While pensions for their younger worker are in danger, the airline's top managers continue to make millions of dollars annually and enjoy generous guaranteed pensions. Shame.
It is simple, the Conservatives must respect the right of employees to bargain collectively. Moreover, workers and management must have the right to collectively bargain without interference from the government and without inappropriate ideology.