Mr. Speaker, I am rising once again in this House to defend the rights of Canadian and Quebec families and the fundamental rights of workers. This government is a repeat offender in attacking the rights of workers to associate and bargain freely. In this case, 5,000 workers and their families are being affected. These people are being attacked by a government that cannot stop interfering and sticking its nose into matters that are none of its concern. The government does not do the things it should do, but when it should be doing nothing, there it is, in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has an effect on people's lives and on the living and working conditions of Canadian workers. This is unacceptable to us in the NDP, the official opposition.
I would like to point out a paradox that would be amusing were it not for its serious impact on workers and on the future of labour relations in this country. The paradox has to do with the Conservative government's ideology, which includes allowing the market to decide everything, the state not intervening, small government and no redistribution of wealth through social programs. In other words, laissez-faire economics. It is the notion that society will manage best if there is no intervention. Yet, bizarrely, the Conservatives' ideology no longer applies when it comes to the rights of workers; the government intervenes, and intervenes quickly—too quickly.
It is strange, because the Conservative government is looking a lot like the leaning tower of Pisa: it always leans on the same side. It always leans on the side of the shareholders, never on the side of working people and their families and their interests. I am going to try to demonstrate this, but the Minister of Labour has made a good start on that today by showing her true colours: the colours of a Conservative government that could not care less about people’s working conditions or their right of association, their right to use pressure tactics, their right to speak or their right to negotiate a collective agreement without having big brother, in the form of the federal government, coming along and saying no. They have to get back in line and get back to work, and they no longer have the right to speak or to bargain freely, because the government has changed the rules of the game. This is not the first time it has done this, and we will come back to that.
This bill, which we have not seen yet and whose content is unknown to us, is a matter of great concern on more than one front. It is a matter of concern because this government reoffends repeatedly, attacking free bargaining and working people’s right of association; this is not the first time it has done it. This violates the bargaining framework that has been in place in Canada for about a century. It upsets the balance of power between the parties, because in negotiations between an employer and an association of employees, each side has the ability to put pressure on the other. The employer has the right to lock out and has its management rights; the employees have their association and a collective agreement, and the right to use pressure tactics, including the right to strike. But we get the impression that under this government, the right to strike is being eroded away. Every time someone is inconvenienced, a stop is put to all of that. The people are told to get back in line and shut up, and told they no longer have a choice.
The right to bargain means the right to use pressure tactics. Last week, the Minister of Labour came out publicly and went to the media to announce, not even 24 hours after the workers went on strike, that if there was no negotiated agreement there would be special back-to-work legislation. What did the minister accomplish when she did that? She told the private company and the employer that there was no longer any motivation to bargain in good faith, because the legal and constitutional threat that the workers were using had disappeared. There is no longer a balance of power. The employer has no incentive to find a negotiated solution that would be reasonable for both parties.
In so doing, this government attacked not just those 5,000 families, but also the right to strike and to use pressure tactics. That upsets the historic balance between employer and union in labour relations in Canada, and this is not the first time it has done this. It is strange to note that the Conservatives do not do this when it is to preserve jobs. We will recall what the Minister of Transport had to say, not so long ago, when it came to the 2,400 jobs at Aveos.
The Conservative government responded that it would not interfere because Aveos was a private company.
As far as I know, CP is also a private company. How is it that the Conservative government cannot save 1,800 jobs in the Montreal area, but can rush to the aid of a very profitable company that wants to attack its employees' working conditions and pensions? In this case, the Conservative government is acting as quick as a flash, jumping in with both feet and imposing its will on the parties.
Last Wednesday, the minister told the head of CP that he did not have to negotiate any more because she was going to take action and force 5,000 people to return to work. That was the Conservative government's message—the same message it gave to Canada Post and twice to Air Canada. Today it is attacking the rights of CP workers.
In just over one year, on four occasions, this Conservative government has interfered in collective bargaining, favoured the employer and attacked the rights of workers by shoving down their throats concessions regarding their working and living conditions.
That is not acceptable to us in the NDP. We are concerned about this and so are the workers and their families across this country. Who will be next? The postal workers have paid the price. For the first time, the official opposition put up a fight in this House to defend their rights and allow them to negotiate longer. The Canada Post employees remember. They still congratulate us on the work we did as the official opposition, even though the Prime Minister's Office killed the agreements that had been reached at the bargaining table.
The Conservatives attacked the rights of the Air Canada pilots. They also attacked other Air Canada employees, like the mechanics. This time, it is the 5,000 workers at Canadian Pacific who will pay the price. For the NDP MPs, this is unacceptable. We are wondering who will be next. Which groups of workers will have to suffer once again the unnecessary, irresponsible, and unjustified interventions of this government, which jumps at every opportunity to impose cutbacks on the workers and hurt the economy in the same breath? I will come back to that.
There are not a lot of figures on this file, but there are some that are very important: 570 is the millions of dollars in profits that Canadian Pacific made in 2011. This is not a company that is struggling.
I had the honour of representing Quebec membership for years and with my union background, I can tell you that when a company is in real difficulty, the union and the workers' associations are able to sit down and come up with solutions. Concessions are negotiated. I have seen it happen. When the company is doing well, the employees can do well. When it is in difficulty, the employees are careful, they tighten their belts, they can accept freezes, they can spread things out. The workers know the score. They are not stupid.
CP Rail made $570 million in profit in a year. What is the government doing? It is dipping into workers' pockets in order to pay the company's U.S. shareholders. That is what is happening today. It is shameful and unacceptable. We are fed up with seeing this government interfere in free bargaining and attack fundamental rights, as they are doing once again today and tomorrow.
With $570 million in profit, this company is hardly in trouble. If the government had let the parties bargain freely, they could have found a solution. There is optimism in the early stages of bargaining. But when the government stuck its nose into the process, the employer started to get the message that it did not need to do anything. It could just sit back and wait for special legislation, which is very sad.
In the past quarter alone, CP made $142 million in profit. This is a company that is in very good shape financially. In the past four quarters, shareholders have received the largest dividends in CP's history. We are talking about historic amounts. In 30 years, CP shareholders had never received dividends as large as they received in the past four quarters.
The message that sends is that even if your company is doing well, you have the right to attack workers' working conditions. The government will not only let you, it will encourage you. That is what the government is doing today.
This gives us an idea of the real situation at CP Rail. We are told that there are problems with the pension plan. All pension plans have problems, and I will come back to this later. But the pension plan negotiated by the Teamsters and CP was 96% funded last year, and that is a very high rate. The plan is healthy. Yes, workers get good pension benefits, but that is because they put a lot of money into the plan. CP workers put twice as much money into their pension plan as other rail workers, including those at CN. Obviously, at the end of the day, they benefit from that, which is a good thing.
What is retirement? It means deferred wages, money that people set aside for their senior years, and this is a good thing. Canadian Pacific was asking for huge concessions, and the union, which was also at the negotiating table, was prepared to compromise. There was some openness in that regard. When the company talked to the union and met with it, that is what it told us. It knew it was facing a challenge, but I would also point out that this company is extremely profitable and financially sound. We must not forget that.
The Minister of Labour and the Conservative government have only a single argument: the impact this will have on the economy. I have not heard anything else from the minister. The first thing I would say to that is this: if you use pressure tactics and it has no impact, you do not hold much balance of power. When the minister announced the special legislation, the strike was not even 24 hours old. This really pulls the legs out from under workers. It pulls the rug right out from under them and violates their rights, once again.
If this has any impact on the economy, it is because of the balance of power. That is how the labour relations system functions in this country. Of course it should have an impact. When the employer imposes a lockout, that also has an impact on workers. When workers resort to pressure tactics, of course it has an impact. If that were not the case, they would not be called pressure tactics, because there would be no balance of power. Our system is built on that principle.
I would like to respond to the minister's argument about the economic impact of the job action. Reducing Canadian Pacific workers' pensions by up to 40% will have an economic impact because it will reduce salaries and pensions overall. That is dangerous because we need people, seniors with good pensions who can keep spending money in their communities. If these people have no income other than OAS, which they will not receive until they turn 67, what impact will that have on our cities, towns and communities? These people will be poor and will no longer be able to spend money the way they used to in restaurants, corner stores and clothing shops or on travel and tourism.
A company that racks up a $570 million profit in a year, then asks its workers to agree to cuts of up to 40% of their retirement benefits is indecent. The NDP understands why workers are not okay with this. These people have contributed to their retirement plans and do not want the benefits to decrease.
The icing on the cake is that 2,000 non-unionized workers—mainly Canadian Pacific managers—contribute to the same pension plan. Yet, they receive the same benefits despite the fact that they contribute half as much as the unionized workers. That means one thing: this is an attack on people's ability to spend and have a satisfactory retirement. It is a very important issue, not only for the workers of Canadian Pacific, but also for the entire population.
In passing, I wish to salute the campaigns of the Canadian Labour Congress and the FTQ that, for several months, have been urging the government to invest and inject money into the public pension plans.
Indeed, that would be the most effective and healthy way of ensuring that retirees and seniors live decent lives. These are simple and affordable solutions that could save all seniors from the grips of poverty. Therefore, it is important to invest in the guaranteed income supplement, and also to invest in the public plans, the Canada and Quebec pension plans.
These tools exist, but the Conservative government is ignoring them and prefers to give free reign to a company that intends to slash the benefits of its workers. For us, that is unacceptable because it will have repercussions on the economy and on the lives of families and future retirees. When people invest a lot of money in a retirement plan, they expect to receive benefits; that is natural. It is a pity that the government is encouraging management to move in this direction. That is what this legislation does today. It is not good for the economy, nor is it good for communities and families.
Here are a few examples of the draconian effects that Canadian Pacific's demands will have on Canadian middle-class families. Indeed, the attacks on unionized workers are very much attacks on the middle class. The middle class is primarily a creature of the union and labour movement because, before people became organized and fought for their working conditions and their rights, they faced exploitation that was even worse than we see today. Yet, there is a sense that the middle class is crumbling because labour unions are being attacked. Once again, the Conservative government is pushing this ideology.
Here is an example: an employee who is 50 years old with 30 years’ service for Canadian Pacific would lose $9,900 every year to the end of their life. The changes proposed by the employer and encouraged by the Conservative government would cause that person a loss of nearly $10,000 a year. A locomotive engineer aged 50 with 30 years’ service, who lives and works in British Columbia and has five years left to work before being able to retire would see their pension cut by $9,900 a year, if Canadian Pacific gets the concession it is demanding. That employee will have invested their entire adult life in that career; they are preparing to retire and have no alternative to replace that income to entitle them to a pension that Canadian Pacific is trying to take away from them. That employee made higher contributions than the contributions paid by employees of any other railway company, and now the government would give the employer preference by acquiescing in the significant concession that Canadian Pacific is demanding from its Canadian and Quebec employees. This is shameful. This is not the way to treat people. This is picking the pockets of working people and their families so the company, which is already making a profit, will make even more profits. A profit of $570 million in one year is not enough; it has to have $600 million or $700 million. How are they going to achieve that? They are going to hit the workers over the head, they are going to lower their working conditions and cut their pensions. What that will do is impoverish our society; it will impoverish the whole of our real economy. That is what the Conservatives seem to forget. They are blind to this phenomenon.
Here is another example: an employee who is 40 years old with 20 years’ service for CP would lose more than $27,000 a year. That is appalling. A conductor aged 40 with 20 years’ service who lives and works in Saskatchewan and has about 15 years left to work before being able to retire would see their pension cut by more than $27,000 a year, if Canadian Pacific gets the concession it is demanding. That employee will have invested their entire life and be preparing to retire. They will have no other choice, no other option. They counted on this; it was their nest egg. I would point out that this employee has paid higher contributions than the contributions paid by employees of any other railway company in the country, but the government is giving the employer and its concession demands preference, once again. It is shoving substantial losses of income down these people’s throats, when these women and men, who work hard, who provide a service to our economy, will be losing their pensions. In the NDP, we think they deserve more respect than that.
Here is another example: a 30 year old employee with 10 years of service with CP would lose more than $30,000 a year upon retirement. An Alberta train conductor who is 30 years old with 6 years of service will still need to work another 25 years before retiring. His pension will be cut by $30,000 a year. He will have invested in this fund throughout his life, because there was no other alternative available, no other option. The Conservative government is going to make this young worker pay the price, and his living conditions will be affected by the special bill that the Minister of Labour is about to introduce in the House.
And it is unfortunate, because I would have liked to have had the opportunity beforehand to ask her whether she was going to have the courage to introduce the bill today so that we could see exactly what the details were. Or did she feel that it would be better instead to wait another day, given that the motion on the subject was clear in any event: she is planning to spend only 3.5 hours of debate in this House on the matter. We will have 3.5 hours to discuss very important special legislation that will have a major impact on the lives of 5,000 people in this country.
Pension plans are an essential factor for the redistribution of wealth and equity in our societies. Unfortunately, we have a government that is not doing anything to improve or protect pension plans.
I am going to relate a family anecdote. My grandfather Urgel—I think I am allowed to use his name—worked for the Singer company for 44 years in a big factory; it was a big company in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. He worked at the forge with his friends. When he retired, the company left with the pension fund. He was left with nothing. There were legal proceedings for years, even decades. By the time the workers finally won their case, my grandfather had died. He never got his money.
Why is this government going down the same road and attacking Canadians' retirement plans? Why is it unable to do anything to help them? Why, when a company declares bankruptcy, are the workers not at the top of the list of creditors? Why are the banks and shareholders the ones who collect the money and why are there only ever crumbs left over for the workers? We have a government that is heading in the wrong direction, that makes bad economic choices, that always favours the same people, when people are in need and people in the middle class are having a hard time making ends meet. The middle class is shrinking and the Conservative government is not helping.
From 1980 to 2009, the purchasing power of the middle class has remained unchanged. The richest 20% became 38% richer. Over a period of roughly 30 years, their incomes increased by nearly 40%. The poorest 20% have seen their incomes drop 11.5%. The poor are poorer today than they were in 1980 because they had greater purchasing power then than they do now. The middle class has stagnated; there was no increase. Middle class incomes did not go up. If their income does not increase, how are they supposed to cope when the price of fuel, milk and meat increases, when the cost of groceries and rent goes up? What does this mean? This means that there are people who are poorer today. The middle class is poorer today than it was 30 years ago.
Shoving special legislation down our throats is not going to improve the situation or change anything. The government giving tax credits to the oil companies at every turn is not going to help Canadian and Quebec families. The government tells us it gives families tax credits, but, again, those families have to have enough income to pay income tax in order for such credits to be of any benefit.
Allow me to come back to the issue of the Canadian Pacific negotiations, because they are at the centre of today's discussion and of this infamous bill that the Minister of Labour will be introducing.
I want to speak about fatigue management. Canadian Pacific workers are constantly on call. They must be reachable by telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is a real problem at Canadian Pacific, that of fatigue management. There was a pilot project that lasted five years. This phenomenon, which affects hundreds of workers across eastern Canada, was studied. The issue was studied because there is a real problem with fatigue at work. Solutions were found, but nothing was done.
Today, we have a government that is helping an employer perpetuate a dreadful situation where employees working conditions subject them to extreme fatigue. Canadian Pacific workers have put forward legitimate demands at the bargaining table.
Just imagine: what was the demand for a person who has worked several weeks full-time? Two 48-hour break periods per month, real breaks, just to sleep. From time to time, it feels good to be able to sleep at night, and not during the daytime, because it is not the same quality of sleep. The workers documented this, had a study done, and came up with concrete solutions.
It is 2012 and we still have to fight to get days off, to be able to say that enough is enough, that we have worked long enough, and that we would like to spend a couple of days at home. The fact is that Canadian Pacific workers are unable to plan anything at all because they are always on call. Why not come up with a freely negotiated solution that says these workers will have two 48-hour periods per month when they can guarantee that they will be at home with their family and their loved ones? That is not asking too much. These demands are entirely reasonable.
What is this Conservative government doing? It is making it possible for the employer to perpetuate this situation. Canadian Pacific workers will continue to be tired. This not only has an impact on workers, their families, their family and community life, it also has consequences in terms of public safety. It is not in anybody's best interests to have people who are overtired managing trains. It may end up causing accidents and derailments. It is impossible to know what might happen.
We know that CP transports goods and sometimes dangerous goods. The trains sometimes go through residential areas, towns. Do we really want to have exhausted people working on or around those trains? Personally, I want CP workers who are healthy, proud of what they do and able to work under normal conditions. But they cannot at present. The Conservative government is totally insensitive to this.
This special back-to-work bill, the fourth in a year, will have an impact on public safety. That is shameful. It is shameful because not only does it send the wrong message and violate workers' fundamental rights, but it delays solving the real problems at CP.
Just imagine what will happen if this bill is passed and CP workers are forced back to work, even though they were exercising a legitimate and legal right. Imagine the poisoned work environment. This is not in anyone's interest, not even the company's. Problems that are not resolved today will still be problems tomorrow.
What the government is doing is putting things off, seeking a short-term solution and violating workers' rights. This will mean downgrading working conditions and reducing pensions, wages and leave; that is the message the Conservative government is sending today. This will leave scars on CP workers, and the problems that are not resolved will resurface with even more resentment, even more acrimony, because people will be frustrated. Forcing people back to work is never a good solution for the medium or long term. The government should have let the parties negotiate freely. The bargaining had not been going on for years. This strike is not very old.
The minister did not even wait 24 hours to issue her threat and hoist her sword of Damocles over the heads of Canadian Pacific workers. That is not a responsible way to behave. For once, we would have agreed with the Conservatives government's tendency to do nothing, to let the two parties continue negotiating. The government could have let the two parties—on the one hand, a strong union representing hundreds, thousands of workers, and on the other, a company just as strong, important to the country and profitable, which is a good thing—reach an agreement. Still, given that the company is profitable, it should treat its workers well because they are entitled to their fair share.
Another issue that this bill raises—and this has come up over and over again in the House over the past year or more—is the fact that just as this government seems driven to attack workers' rights and working conditions, so it seems driven to silence MPs.
The motion we are debating here today is basically another gag order, because it sets out very specific guidelines for the discussions and because the government does not appear very willing to listen. I will read the motion:
(a) the said bill may be read twice or thrice in one sitting;
(b) not more than two hours shall be allotted for the consideration of the second reading stage of the said bill, following the adoption of this order;
(c) when the bill has been read a second time, it shall be referred to a Committee of the Whole;
(d) any division requested in the committee shall be deferred until the end of the committee's consideration of the bill;
(e) not more than one hour shall be allotted for the consideration of the Committee of the Whole stage of the said bill;
Wow, one hour.
There are 308 members in this House, all parties combined. I do not have a calculator, but if we divide one hour by 308 members, that does not allow much time for everyone to speak, although when we are in Committee of the Whole, we should be able to propose amendments to the minister's bill.
Thus, at second reading, two hours of debate will be allowed, but during the Committee of the Whole, only one hour is granted. The motion continues:
(f) not more than one half hour shall be allotted for the consideration of the third reading stage...
It is a good thing we do not have a fourth reading, for it would get only 15 minutes, since the Conservatives are cutting the time in half each time.
Canadians and Quebeckers are starting to get a little tired of the government’s arrogant and condescending attitude, because we are seeing the gag being used repeatedly in this House. We have seen it several times. If my calculations are correct, today is the 21st gag in a year. That is a record I would not be proud of if I were a Conservative member, because it is an infringement of members’ freedom to speak to bills as fundamental as those.
We have seen this with other bills. Debate on Bill C-38, a bill that amends 69 acts and is 450 pages long, was gagged. That bill will therefore be considered by only one committee, the Standing Committee on Finance. In Bill C-38, the government is amending a lot of things and attacking a lot of rights. One third of the Act to implement certain provisions of the budget relates to environmental assessments. As they say, the connection escapes me. The bill also amends the Fisheries Act and fish habitat provisions. That is going to be considered by the Standing Committee on Finance. I imagine that the Standing Committee on Finance has invited a lot of fish habitat experts—or at least I hope it has—because that is a consequence of this bill.
Why is the government refusing to listen to parliamentarians, to members? Because it does not want to hear the amendments; it does not want to have suggestions; it does not want to agree to amendments; it does not like opposition; it does not like democracy; it does not like debate; it does not like discussion. One thing is clear: to the Conservative government, democracy means 35 days every four years.
We know that once the election is over, if we happen to have the misfortune of getting a Conservative majority government, it has no further need to listen to anyone and it does what it likes.
Excuse me, but that is not a healthy, living democracy. There has to be dialogue with the public, with the people. There has to be discussion with colleagues in Parliament. Unfortunately, we have a government that has a closed mind and even gags its own members, who might like to speak occasionally, but have to close ranks.
Recently, we had a few examples of someone who dared to think for themself, dared to use their critical thinking skills and say that it was perhaps a little extreme to impose a gag for a 450-page-long bill with consequences for a multitude of issues and subjects. But they were immediately brought to heel. Bam.
On the opposition side, perhaps we would also like to hear what the Conservative members have to say, what they are talking about, what they think. Do they think it is healthy in a democracy to have a bill of this kind shoved down the throats of parliamentarians—on which they are unable to express their views?
Unfortunately, the special back-to-work legislation is another demonstration of this. We have a government that will not take responsibility when workers lose their jobs. It says that nothing can be done; these are market forces at work; and it is really sad.
I really liked it when the Minister of Transport expressed his sympathy and his sadness about the 2,400 Aveos workers, even though the Air Canada Public Participation Act had provisions forcing it to maintain jobs, primarily in Montreal as well as other cities across the country. Now the minister is refusing to enforce it because Air Canada created a subcontractor, Aveos. Because of that, the legislation does not apply anymore and the government can wash its hands of the whole thing.
When that is the issue, the Conservatives sit on their hands and do absolutely nothing. However, when it is a question of people exercising their right to freedom of association, freedom of expression, to use pressure tactics and a possible strike, then, what does the government do? It does what it did before. It brings out the big guns and boom. It tells people to get back into line and go back to work, because it does not want any repercussions. The company is doing well, but it does not have to make any concessions. It is always the same ones who have to make concessions; it is always the workers who have to compromise their working conditions and their living conditions. For us in the NDP, the official opposition, this is not a fair and equitable standpoint. This is not the kind of society we want to live in. Why can they not simply let the parties express themselves and give free reign to the balance in union-management relations that we have found in this country? The collective agreement with CP had not expired very long ago and, before the government got involved, the negotiations were going well. The company is profitable and is able to talk with its employees. However, with the threat of special legislation hanging over them, I say again, the Minister of Labour has destroyed that balance and unfortunately given the advantage to just one side, the management side.
The official opposition—the NDP—is incensed and opposes this bill that attacks workers' rights. We are starting to get fed up with the attitude of this government, which gives tax breaks to big corporations that do not need them and does nothing to help people who have trouble paying their bills and providing for their day-to-day needs. That will be the fate of the CP workers if this bill passes and their pensions are affected and reduced in this way, as is expected. We are anxious to see what exactly is in the bill because we do not yet know what it contains. Will the government impose arbitration? Will it side with the employer? We are anxious to find out. We would have liked the Minister of Labour to introduce her bill today, but she does not seem to have the courage to do so.
I will close by simply saying that the official opposition vehemently opposes a special bill that forces workers to return to work, attacks their fundamental rights and worsens the working and living conditions of thousands of Canadians. It is unacceptable and we condemn it.