Madam Speaker, today, like many people in this room, I have a certain sense of déjà vu because it was almost exactly one year ago today that our former leader, Jack Layton, stood in this House under very similar circumstances. He stood to oppose this government's special legislation to force locked-out Canada Post workers—and it is important to note that they were locked out—back to work. It is important to note that they were locked out because it is this government that locked them out in the first place.
There is a word for this in the jargon of collective bargaining and labour law. It is a term that is part of everyday language but that has a specific meaning in matters pertaining to labour relations, and that is “bad faith”.
There has rarely been such a blatant example of bad faith on the part of a government than in this case. Let us not forget what happened. The government took a look at the Canada Post workers who were doing their jobs and imposed a lockout on them to prevent them from working. Then the Conservatives cried, “Oh, my goodness; the postal workers have stopped working. What are we going to do? We have to legislate them back to work.”
And that is how this exercise came about, one that illustrates the Conservatives' strong tendency, since taking office, to violate collective rights, attack workers and use any means at the disposal of their majority to send a clear signal to employers. The signal is that it is open season on workers' rights. Employers should not let themselves be tricked. Collective agreements, the Supreme Court, the rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—all those exist for another day. The Conservatives are here to impose law and order and it is open season for employers. That is the message that the Conservatives are sending.
After Canada Post came Air Canada. They did not even need to draw their weapons this time because the reaction was so immediate. They were winning their bet. Today, it is CP Rail.
That was three pieces of back-to-work legislation from this government in this session of Parliament alone: three special bills passed in a mad rush in less than 12 months.
Let us now compare that to what has happened in recent years and we will understand the difference and the message that the Conservatives are trying to send. Only nine back-to-work bills were passed in all of the 1990s, and only six in all of the 1980s, when the Conservatives were mainly in power. We can see how disproportionate this is. The Conservatives are at three bills in 12 months. As my friend and colleague, the official opposition House leader, just said, the Conservatives have imposed gag orders and used a guillotine to cut off debate and prevent parliamentarians from speaking about subjects as important as the budget over 20 times. This demonstrates the Conservatives' strong tendency to muzzle, gag and silence the elected representatives of the people here in this House.
There is much more at stake here today than the CP Rail dispute. Yes, there was the Air Canada dispute. Yes, there was the Canada Post dispute. But what we are seeing here is a defining element of the Conservative approach to lower the standard of living for every single Canadian.
There has been example after example since the Conservatives came to power of lowering the standard of living of Canadians. This is the first generation where we have seen the middle class start to lose. Over the past 25 years the earnings of the top 20% in our society have increased, a tendency that we have observed throughout the history of the country, but for the other 80%, living conditions, wages, the middle class has actually seen that drop.
It is the first time in Canadian history we have observed that, and it is a heavy tendency. It is one that we keep observing. It is a series of actions by the government, and by today's attack on collective bargaining rights, on labour rights, on rights that are reserved and guaranteed by the charter, reserved and guaranteed and enforced by the courts, the Conservatives are again attacking workers and their rights in this country.
Some of the choices that the Conservatives have made over the years have resulted in the pressures that they now say they need to react to by cutting everything in the budget. For example, if we look at employment insurance, people are told to take a 30% pay cut, ship themselves a couple of hours out of town and take any job that presents itself, otherwise they will lose their right to collect the employment insurance that they paid into with their own money and their employers paid into.
Do members remember in 2009 when the Conservatives double closed the door that the Liberals had already closed, which had already gone all the way to the Supreme Court, when they emptied out $50 billion from the employment insurance account? They turned that into general revenue of the government. A lot of people said that it was government money before and that it was government money now and asked what that changed. Here is what it changed. The $50 billion in question was paid into the employment insurance account by every employee for a specific purpose: to take care of them during the cyclical ups and downs of the economy; and it was paid into by every employer. Whether employers were earning a good profit, breaking even or losing money, they still had to pay into it for every employee.
When the Liberals emptied out the EI account, they created a $50 billion fiscal space. What became of that $50 billion fiscal space? It was turned into tax reductions for the richest corporations. The Conservatives do not like it when we say “for the richest corporations“. They will argue that it is for all corporations. Let us look at the facts. A company that was breaking even or losing money certainly did not benefit from a tax reduction because it was not paying any.
In these tough economic times, especially for any export sector, including the fisheries, the forestry and manufacturing, a lot of them were losing money or barely breaking even. The money they had paid in was for a specific purpose: to provide insurance in case of unemployment. When the 2008 crisis hit, that cupboard was bare and it had been emptied because that money had been turned over to the wealthiest corporations, like the banks and the oil companies. That is the record of the Conservatives and the Liberals and that is why the NDP is standing up today and saying that it has to stop.
With their decisions, the Conservatives are disrupting the balance of the economy that we have built up since the Second World War. Countries such as Norway, like us, are resource-rich. However, they have learned to deal with the challenges this represents. We have not been as wise: we have engaged in the unbridled development of natural resources, without applying the basic principle of polluter pay. This is disrupting the balance of the economy that we have built up since the Second World War.
There was a time when Canadians from Langley to St. John's could count on a decent job with adequate wages to support their families. They could also count on a pension that let them retire with dignity and on an accessible employment insurance system. Not anymore.
At a conference attended by billionaires held in the Swiss Alps, our Prime Minister decided to do some grandstanding and show that he too would do some boasting and lecture the least fortunate. He would announce that even though they had worked all their lives in construction or had worked hard in a factory, he did not believe that they had worked hard enough and he would make them work two more years and would take $12,000 out of their pockets because he believed that they were not productive enough.
At the same time, he eliminated those jobs and employment opportunities for the younger generation. This younger generation is already paying the biggest environmental, economic and social debt in history. Today, university students in Canada borrow an average of $30,000 to complete an undergraduate degree.
At what point are young couples who are already $60,000 in debt when they start their careers supposed to buy a house? This is what happens when the government's economic ability to support post-secondary education is eliminated. The government creates the situation and decries it, just as it did in the Canada Post lockout. It creates the situation and says that it can no longer help because there is no more money. What did it do with the money? It gave the money to corporations that do not create jobs. The Royal Bank of Canada did not create any jobs last year.
Last year, federally chartered banks in Canada made $30 billion in profit. They gave $15 billion in bonuses to their executives. That is what they did with the money. They did not create jobs.
At least the NDP has a vision: if there is fiscal room available, we will direct it to companies that create jobs. That is what a government is supposed to do.
The government is trying to tell Canadians that we need to accept less, that we should accept lower wages and weaker pensions. They are trying to create for employers an unlimited pool of cheap labour. It is commonplace and it is almost a caricature but it was the Minister of Human Resources last week, in response to a question in a press conference, who specifically cited the creation of workers for McDonalds. It is not a hyperbole on the part of the opposition. That is what she actually said. One of the ministers responsible for finance said “Well, of course if a teacher is looking for a job in Newfoundland, we have jobs in the mines”. This is their philosophy. This is money that belongs to the workers. The Conservatives think it belongs to McDonalds and they are creating a system for employers and evacuating workers rights.
This special legislation forcing workers back on the job despite the collective bargaining process is just a fuller illustration of exactly what they are up to: lowering workers rights, lowering the ability of the middle-class to pay for itself and evacuating the capacity of the government to provide services. That is the agenda of the Conservatives.
It is important to note that the Conservatives are not just affecting any one union or any one group of people but all Canadians. That is the Conservative vision. Under their policies, we are becoming the first generation that will leave less to our children than what we inherited from our parents. The New Democrats will not let that happen.
Collective bargaining is guaranteed by the charter and by the Supreme Court of Canada. Collective bargaining benefits all Canadians with better wages, workplace safety, a 40-hour work week, a weekend where workers can actually be with their families and the list goes on. However, the Conservatives are determined to dismantle it. They are undermining this right and it is unprecedented in Canada.
For Air Canada, the government did not even wait for a strike to begin to bring in legislation. It did not bother to allow a negotiated settlement to happen. The labour minister says that she will intervene in any dispute she feels impacts the economy. The last time I checked, every working Canadian contributes to the economy, period. That basically means no more rights.
The minister is saying that no labour negotiation is safe from Conservative interference. The approach is unbalanced, it is heavy-handed, it is against the charter and it will be enforced but it will take time. Taking sides helps no one. It sends a terrible message that legislative settlement is the new labour relations norm in Canada. There is no incentive for the parties to negotiate in good faith if they know the government will step in. What possible incentive do employers have to bargain in good faith with their employees when they receive a clear signal from the government that it will bring in back-to-work legislation, as we saw with Canada Post and as we are seeing again? They can just fold their arms and wait until the employees are forced back to work. They do not care. Of course, the government does not care either but it is willing to do the bidding of any employer that asks. That is what we are here standing up against today.
The government is creating a slippery slope where no one will get a fair deal. Canadians relied on collective bargaining rights for decades. The government must respect the right of future generations to live with the same security past generations have had. What we are leaving our children is a defining issue of our times. As I mentioned, the middle-class is struggling like never before with income disparity levels not seen since the Great Depression. We are one of the richest countries in the world and yet we are one of the countries with the greatest disparity between the rich and the poor.
It is worth noting that, in Canada, the gap between the wealthy in our society and the least fortunate is among the largest in the world and has only gotten wider since the Conservatives took office. We have not seen this since the depression in the 1920s. The security Canadians once felt is starting to vanish. This is not by chance; it is by design.
Look at what is happening in the Saguenay with Rio Tinto. When Rio Tinto bought Alcan, it did not just buy plants. This foreign corporation became the owner of the Saguenay riverbed. Think about it. When foreign entities take this type of control over a Canadian corporation there has to be a net benefit to Canada. That is mandated by law. By the way, assessments used to be done automatically at a certain level, but now the government is raising that level to $1 billion.
Things that used to be assessed will no longer be. But let us look at what they have done. Even when they were doing assessments, they ticked off the box “net benefit to Canada” for the takeover of Alcan by Rio Tinto. What happened?
European authorities responsible for competition asked companies to divest themselves of their highly specialized metal production. No problem, they sold it off to an American. What happened next? The Americans flipped it to an Indian multinational. Then, they said things were not very good there and they moved to the United States. Jobs were lost overnight and there was no protection for the workers. Such is the Conservatives' attitude.
Just look at what is happening. Employees are still locked out at Rio Tinto in Alma. What do the Conservatives care? To them, this is like a warning. The barbarians arrive. They destroy the village. They leave the people at the entrance to the village and tell them to look closely at what is on the horizon and to get used to it. That is what they are doing: dismantling and destroying decades, generations of protections that help society as a whole, by dismantling our entire system of protecting social rights and workers' rights.
We need to look at the Conservative net benefit. We have just looked at Rio Tinto Alcan in Alma in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region where workers have been on lockout for six months. Is that a net benefit for Canada to have everybody locked out? The Conservatives approved the takeover of Inco by Brazil's Vale in 2006. Vale proposed in 2009 to end defined benefit pensions for new employees. Then the USWA goes on strike and it lasts nearly one year. That is the future for workers under the Conservatives.
A Swiss-based mining company, Xstrata, absorbed Falconbridge in 2006. The takeover deal said “no layoffs for three years”. In 2009, Xstrata laid off 700 people and 700 families lost their living because they did not understand that a net benefit meant not just a net benefit for the shareholders but also a net benefit for the families that work there.
I have one of the best illustrations of the Conservatives' approach. I will start with a reference to what happened during the 2011 general election. Our current Prime Minister went out and visited the lovely company in London, Ontario called Electro-Motive Diesel. He used it as a backdrop. He used it as a model. As a matter of fact, since there was nothing that the Conservatives would not do during the election, they touted a $5 million tax break with no strings attached. The company did not need to create any work and it could t take the $5 million. That is what he did during the 2011 election campaign.
A U.S. company called Caterpillar had bought Electro-Motive Diesel in 2010. What happened in the months that followed? In January 2012, 450 Electro-Motive Diesel employees were locked out. Why? It was because they were being unreasonable. They were only being asked to take a 50% pay cut. After all, the company had been given $5 million and it was only asking for 50%, otherwise it must have been 60% it had been thinking of.
In February 2012, just a few months ago, the plant closed and the operation moved. What a net benefit for Canada.
The government announced plans last week to raise takeover review to $1 billion, and there will be even more reckless foreign takeovers that will fly under the radar. Other working Canadians are forced to fight for their pension funds that they paid into for their golden years.
I remember when the Prime Minister stood up and said he would not touch pensions. That is one of my favourite tricks of this government. The Prime Minister said he would not touch pensions. When they added two years of work and subtracted $12,000, the Minister of Finance stood up and said:
“We said that we would not touch pensions. We never said that we would not touch old age security”, as if for the average Canadian it was not one in the same thing, their revenue when they were going to retire.
Unprecedented attacks on workers, unprecedented attacks on the middle-class, that is the legacy of the Conservatives and that is why we are here standing up today.