Labour Minister Lisa Raitt is tilting the playing field against unions
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun May 27 2012. R. Michael Warren
Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt threatened back-to-work legislation on the first day of the strike by the Teamsters Union against Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s the same message that she sent to workers at Canada Post and Air Canada: You are no longer allowed to withdraw your services for any length of time because it will impact our fragile economy.
This amounts to a continuing assault by the Harper government on labour’s legal right to strike. Free collective bargaining means that if negotiation and mediation fails, then management and labour are free to conduct a limited form of economic warfare. Management can lock out its workers. Workers can withdraw their services. Both are free to place as much economic pressure on each other as they can, in pursuit of their positions.
Yes, it can be messy, inconvenient and costly. But these are the very factors that drive striking workers and management toward an eventual settlement. A settlement of their own making.
Past federal governments have understood that fair and competitive collective agreements most often flow from free collective bargaining. It has only been in cases of severe economic impact that back-to-work legislation has been used.
Raitt takes a different approach. She begins interfering at the first sign of a union engaging in a legal strike. Despite repeated denials she is changing the balance of power between the parties.
The ability of unions to negotiate is being weakened. Employers now know that they won’t be shut down for long, so they can more easily press for major concessions. And they have a reasonable chance of ultimately getting much what they want from arbitrators appointed by this minister.
Raitt’s rational for repeatedly invoking early back-to-work legislation is questionable.
In effect, she is treating all major federal employers — Canada Post, Air Canada and now CP Rail — as if they are essential services. They aren’t. The public and customers affected by every major national labour dispute in the last year have had a wide range of other service providers to choose from.
The rotating strikes at Canada Post saw their customers move from letter mail to the Internet, and to the legion of other parcel and courier companies. These strikes cost Canada Post $200 million in lost business. Most of that went to the bottom line of its competitors.
In the case of Air Canada, there was widespread inconvenience for stranded travellers. Many others had to change their travel plans. Alternate air carriers in Canada and abroad were there to pick up Air Canada’s lost business. The forced arbitration has done nothing to improve the labour relations climate at Air Canada.
Normally, CP Rail’s customers, when faced with a possible strike, would have planned in advance and already be using other rail and trucking alternatives. But Raitt’s premature actions with Canada Post and Air Canada encouraged them to focus their efforts on pressing her to cut short free collective bargaining once again. She stands ready to oblige.
Then there is the fragility of our economy. Raitt maintains that any work stoppage at a national corporation like Canada Post, Air Canada or CP Rail is a direct threat to our economy recovery. It’s so serious that it warrants the curtailment of labour’s basic right to withdraw its services — a cornerstone of free collective bargaining in Canada.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasts that we have the strongest economy in the western world. If that’s the case, surely it can withstand a legal strike by CP Rail workers, and an ultimate resolution of the dispute by the parties themselves, without Raitt’s interference.
The labour minister seems think that if a negotiated agreement can’t be reached by a private company like CP Rail, then its management and unions should agree to binding arbitration. This is not free collective bargaining. This is settlement-imposition by government-selected arbitrators.
If this is the dispute-resolution approach that the Harper government wants to use in the future then it should come clean. Stop circumventing our existing labour legislation. Bring this arbitration-based system to Parliament, and debate its implications in full view of all Canadians.
R. Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. email@example.com
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