Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for Acadie—Bathurst. He is a vigorous defender of workers' rights in this country: the right to collective bargaining, employment insurance and many other matters.
I also want to thank the member for bringing up a particularly important issue. We hear from the other side about the NDP taking its marching orders from the labour bosses. The member for Acadie—Bathurst rightly pointed out that the collective bargaining process, the trade union movement, is a democratic process. Workers involved in that process get to choose whether they want a particular settlement or not. They elect their own leaders and participate fully. I would say the House has a lesson to learn about democracy when we see the kinds of processes that are constantly invoked in the House, such as shutting down debate, closure, time allocation and time limits on committees. We could certainly learn a lesson from the trade union movement.
The other interesting thing we keep hearing from members opposite is how this is all about the economy. One day they will stand in the House and talk about their terrific program that allowed a strong economy to emerge. The next day they talk about how fragile the economy is and that we must do everything possible to shut down workers to protect this very fragile economy. Yet when opposition members rise in the House to talk about child and family poverty in this country and the fact that a significant number of working people live well below the poverty line, we do not hear that being talked about in terms of our fragile economy and having a plan in place to deal with those kinds of things.
What we are talking about today is the back to work legislation in the labour dispute between Air Canada and its workers. I will take a step back in history. Back in 2004 an article was written by Judy and Larry Haiven entitled “Back-to-work legislation a threat to democracy”. I am not going to read the whole article, but there is one particular paragraph that is very important in the context of why it is important to have a free, open and transparent collective bargaining process. It states:
Canada and other industrialized countries introduced modern collective bargaining legislation in the mid 20th century because they had learned that, given appropriate conditions, workers would join unions and that they would go on strike whether or not they were allowed to by law. Even when unions themselves were illegal and strikes were met by troops and machine guns, workers would still go on strike. Modern governments figured it better to legalize strikes and institutionalize collective bargaining, tolerating and even encouraging occasional strikes rather than bottle up worker resentment until it burst forth in even greater measure.
There were a number of very good reasons for a collective bargaining process that allowed workers and their employers to work things out without interference from government.
I want to quote from a letter from the Canadian Labour Congress written on March 9, 2012. It raises some very good questions for the minister and the government. The letter states:
I am writing, yet again, to protest the government's ongoing interference in free collective bargaining at Air Canada, coincidentally on the heels of the company's announcement yesterday to lock out its pilots at midnight on Sunday.
Once again, just like we had with Canada Post, we have the employer locking out its workers.
The ongoing interference in collective bargaining at Air Canada, a private company, continues to signal to business that this government is squarely on the side of the employer, and failing to remain neutral, and to respect free collective bargaining.
Minister, one must ask themselves how well managed is a company where the members of every single one of its bargaining units have voted for strike action or gone on strike in the last year? Clearly Air Canada management has so poisoned the bargaining relationship that employees simply were not, and are not, willing to sacrifice anymore. Your government's actions in forcing employees to accept what they cannot freely negotiate and vote on could potentially cause irreparable harm to future labour relations between the workers and their unions with the company. Employees will have no ownership or duty of responsibility to what can only be characterized as collective agreement negotiated between the Government of Canada and Air Canada.
These decisions, while seemingly appealing for the government in the short-term, will have far-reaching long-term implications for a mature federal labour relations system that has withstood the test of time.
The Canadian Labour Congress has raised some very good points around why it is important to allow this process to play itself out instead of having a government-employer type of collective bargaining that simply shuts the workers out.
In an article from last November there is a very good analysis of the Conservative government's labour relations policies. I am sure that if author Jim Stanford were writing it today, he would add another interference by the government. The article is about how the labour minister's three principles for labour relations only run one way. In it, Mr. Stanford writes:
[The Conservative] government has interpreted the rule of law rather flexibly in the arena of labour relations. In just six months in power, the Conservative majority has intervened three times to end or prevent work stoppages.
Of course, it is now four times.
The article continues:
The first instance was in June, when [the labour minister] announced, after less than one day of picketing, that she would forcibly end a strike by Canadian Auto Workers members at Air Canada. The two sides settled, sending one outstanding item, pensions for new hires, to arbitration. She established what we could call [the labour minister's] First Principle: Even at private non-monopoly companies, government can ban strikes.
That is principle number one.
Later that month, [the minister] waded into the Canada Post dispute. It was management (not the union) that locked everyone out and closed the doors. But that was enough pretext for [the minister] to legislate the posties back to work, imposing wages lower than what management had already offered. [The minister's] Second Principle was established: Government can explicitly dictate wage settlements.
In October, she pushed the legal boundaries even further, calling in the labour board to pre-empt a CUPE strike at Air Canada, laughably worrying about the “health and safety” of the travelling public... [The minister's] Third Principle is actually a blank cheque: Government can simply prohibit any work stoppage it wants to.
The article goes on to say:
Each case represented an audacious willingness to intervene in labour-management relations, even at private companies. Each case moved the goalposts a little further. And now [the minister] has speculated about amending the labour code so that the economy itself is defined as an essential service. That would codify [the minister's] Third Principle, giving government the explicit right to ban any work stoppage it deems damaging.
Of course, which work stoppages are or aren’t prevented will remain a matter of judgment. Imagine if all work stoppages were prohibited--lockouts, as well as strikes. All disputes would then be settled by binding arbitration, as currently occurs with true essential services, like police and hospitals.
Mr. Stanford continues:
But employers don’t want that approach, fearing that arbitrators may occasionally side with the union. The arbitrator in the Air Canada-CAW case did exactly that, sparking a bizarre decision by the company to appeal his “final and binding” judgment to the courts (an appeal since abandoned, wisely).
When employers hold the better cards, as they do in today’s unforgiving labour market, they happily go for the jugular--work stoppage or not. Consider another epic dispute that ended last month:—
—again, this article was written a few months ago—
—the 50-week lockout at the United States Steel Corp. factory in Hamilton. The company starved out the union with far-reaching demands to gut pensions and other long-standing provisions. The economic cost of that bitter, lopsided dispute didn’t slow the company, nor did it spur any level of government to action.
I estimate that the direct loss to GDP resulting from the lockout in Hamilton was four times larger than the effects of a one-week full shutdown at Air Canada. Indirect spinoff losses made the steel lockout even more painful. If government were truly concerned with “protecting recovery,” why didn’t it intervene? True, steel falls within provincial (not federal) labour jurisdiction. But Ottawa had plenty of leverage if it wanted to act--not least U.S. Steel’s galling violation of the production and employment commitments it made when it took over the former Stelco Inc.
Of course, NDP members have raised that in this House a number of times.
Mr. Stanford goes on to stay:
In Hamilton, where workers held little power, the government stood idly by. It seems it’s only when workers have some leverage that it acts powerfully to “protect the economy.”
There’s no doubt [the minister's] actions were popular with many. And there’s no doubt work stoppages cause inconvenience and disruption. But because something is unpopular or inconvenient hardly gives government the moral authority to take away rights, making up the law as it goes--even if it does hold a majority of seats in Parliament.
I read that whole article because I think it very ably outlines the current Conservative government's approach to labour relations in this country. All workers in this country should be very concerned about the way workers are being treated at Air Canada and other workplaces.
I can see you are signalling that my time is up, Mr. Speaker. That is unfortunate, because I was just going to talk about the economic recovery, in relation to which Mr. Stanford once again ably takes apart the government's argument that this is all about the economy.