The Velvet Glove Comes Off Harper Government’s Labour Relations Agenda

Even though labour relations is largely a provincial responsibility in Canada, we were worried about what would happen in this field under a Harper majority.  And it didn’t take long to find out.

In the disputes at both Air Canada and Canada Post, the government waded into the fray in a pre-emptive and utterly one-sided manner.  With both the timing of its intervention, and the details of its proposed legislation, the government in both cases was clearly acting to assist the respective employers to take away long-standing features of the existing contracts, and facilitate the downward ratcheting of compensation.

At Air Canada, the CAW (which represents 3800 customer service and reservations agents) and the company had been bargaining toward a new contract for several months.  But by the time the two parties reached the deadline of midnight June 13, they were at loggerheads.  The main sticking point was the company’s demand for dramatic changes in pensions: including major cuts in pension benefits for existing workers, and the complete abolition of the defined benefit pension system for future hires.

Just a few hours after the strike began, the Harper majority government indicated that it would intervene to end the strike and arbitrate an outcome.  This was an unprecedented intrusion into free collective bargaining.

Air Canada, of course, is a private corporation.  These were free, legal negotiations between two private parties, and the work stoppage was fully legal.

The government’s claim that the work stoppage at Air Canada would jeopardize Canada’s economic recovery was laughable.  I doubt you could find two economists in the whole country who believe that this strike was truly threatening the recovery (such as it is!).

For a government that supposedly believes in the virtues of private business and the free market, this intrusion was surprising.  Worse yet, the government’s intervention clearly supported the company’s position, by setting in motion a loaded arbitration process that would clearly have assisted the company in reducing pension benefits.

The two sides continued bargaining, despite the complication posed by the government’s intrusion.  By June 21 a tentative agreement had been reached that largely preserved pension benefits for the existing workforce.  The matter of pensions for future hires will be sent to a mediation and arbitration process that will be more neutral than the one contemplated by the government legislation.

Harper government officials claim that their actions led to a quick settlement of the strike.  In reality, the government’s intervention made this bargaining more difficult, and probably contributed to the strike.  And the intervention will likely contribute to work stoppages at other bargaining tables in the future, because of its impact on the normal processes of collective bargaining.

Even before the CAW reached the June 13 strike deadline, it was clear the company was backing away from trying to reach a deal.  Now we know why.  The company was in contact with government officials, and had a strong indication of what the government had in store.

They knew that the government’s intervention would tip the bargaining field in their favour.  In this way, the government actually contributed to the strike, by hardening the company’s position.  Now that companies know the government will take their side in this way, the dynamics of future collective bargaining will be altered, and the risk of future conflicts exacerbated.

In essence, the government was willing to do Air Canada’s dirty work for them.  It has taken an even more Machiavellian approach to the dispute at Canada Post, where the union was careful to avoid a full work stoppage.  But when management locked out the workers, then the government jumped in again – proposing wage increases that were even lower than the company was already offering!

Every single worker in Canada, whatever sector they work in, is threatened by the government’s unprecedented actions.  Public sector or private sector.  Essential service or not.

The government has thrown away any guise of neutrality.  It has abandoned the principle of leaving free collective bargaining up to the private parties.  It invokes phony arguments about the economic recovery, to justify virtually anything it wants to do.

We must also remember that the government could play a more constructive role in resolving the underlying problems that have contributed to theconflicts at Air Canada, Canada Post, and many other bargaining tables.

We need to expand the Canada Pension Plan, which is the most universal, portable, efficient, and secure pension system in the land.  We need stable, long-run funding rules for defined-benefit pensions, and an insurance system to backstop pension plans when companies get into trouble.

These are things that government could do to strengthen workers’ pensions, and improve the chances that hard-working Canadians can retire with dignity and security.  Instead, this government just jumped right into the middle of collective bargaining, clearly on the side of corporations, to help take pensions away from workers.

I was under no illusions about how this majority government would wield its power.  But even I am shocked.

6 comments

  • We are following the global trend of government pandering to global capital. We will eventually realize that global labour is needed to meet global capital on a level playing field. In the meantime, even avowed social democratic governments are participating in the dismantling of organized labour in the entitled islands of the global economy. I expect much more pressure on entitlements from our right wing government during their term(s) in office.

  • For the record, ottawa’s transit strike/ lockout ended in a somewhat similar manner, but was locally more costly. Andre Cornellier (RIP) local president of the ATU in Ottawa was forced into similar positions with the employer because of the Harper’s interference. I was involved quite a bit at the end, and on the final day received a call from him stating that all along the millionaire mayor o’brien had been counting on the
    Harper regime coming in with an impose settlement and btw legislation. This action hardened the employers position, and in many ways turned a strike into a strike/ lockout and in the end damaged labour relations much further into a zone where bargaining became almost impossible.

    Sadly, it was Andre and the union that became enemy number one here in Ottawa, and in that phone call an hour before the end of one of Ottawa’s most coldest and painful work stoppages, it was Andre and the ATU that were forced into a position where free collective bargaining was not allowed to take place, and he said to me, call Paul Dewar and arrange for a meeting to ward off the labour minister’s legislation that was coming down the pipe.

    Sadly in the Ottawa case Harper and his group allowed the fictitious strike and the anti union mayor some time to actually try and break the union on a few occasions so at least the caw was spared that treatment and the settlement came rather quickly.

    That was a year and a half ago, so to me it is just a mere continuation of Harper’s interventionist, beat on the workers class war drum.

    Poor Andre ATU president apparently was in the front end of a terminal illness at the time, he was a true working class hero, yet only labour historians will ever know the truth.

  • I wonder what WestJet thought of the feds interfering with their market.

  • Westjet mgmt will want the same or better.

  • Hi. Long time reader, first time poster.

    While the whole thing stinks of union busting, I wonder whether the legislated wage increase would stand up to constitutional challenge. The use of state coercion to unilaterally rewrite a collective agreement strikes (ahem..) me as infringing on the right to the process of collective bargaining, as protected under s.2(d) of the Charter.

    I wonder whether Harper is counting on CUPW not launching a legal challenge for some reason (i.e. lack of time or resources), or even scarier, is he relying on the pause the SCC seems to have taken vis a vis the advancement of collective bargaining rights in the recent Fraser decision, and hoping his new court appointees will reverse BC Health Services when the matter next arises?

    Would he really sink so low as to politicize the judiciary to meet his ends? I wish I knew what the lawyers who put this fine piece of work together were thinking. I won’t jump to conclusions, but I will certainly be paying attention.

  • Our model for judiciary capture (by global capital) includes unlimited political donations by corporate “persons” (in the U.S.),

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.