The Harper Government’s Contempt for Canadian Workers

by Errol Black

Shortly after being elected with a majority government on May 2, 2011 the Harper government began to show their contempt for the rights of Canadian workers and their organizations.

On June 16, 2011, Harper’s government legislated an end to a two-day strike of CAW members at Air Canada. This was followed on June 20 with back-to-work legislation to end a lockout at Canada Post and force CUPW back to work at a wage imposed by the government with final-offer selection arbitration to follow on other outstanding issues. On October 12, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt preempted strike action by CUPE flight attendants at Air Canada by referring the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board with a directive to impose an agreement or refer the matter to arbitration. On March 8th, Lisa Raitt announced that she had taken similar steps to  prevent a lockout by Air Canada of the 3,000 members of the Air Canada Pilots Association, and a strike against Air Canada by 8,600 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

In all of these cases, the Harper government claimed that their actions reflected the government’s mandate “to protect the Canadian economy and Canadian jobs.” In effect, this was a declaration that strikes by workers in the federal jurisdiction will not be tolerated by the Harper government.

A bizarre manifestation of the Harper government’s labour doctrine occurred in Brandon, Manitoba with a visit from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in November 2011. At that time the Brandon University Faculty Association was involved in a protracted, bitter confrontation with an employer intent on crushing the union. While in Brandon, Toews met with the Brandon Sun editorial board to talk about local issues including the strike. On November 22, the Sun published a story by Keith Borkowsky titled, “Toews ‘concerned’ about ongoing professors strike.” According to the story, Toews told the editorial board that “it’s time the provincial government steps in to intervene in the Brandon University faculty strike…Toews said he has encouraged local PCs to speak out on the…strike, but has not yet spoken to Premier Greg Selinger.” In his concluding comments, Toews said he thought that allowing the strike to continue was unacceptable: “I see this strike as counterproductive to what we have been doing [at the federal level with Canada Post and Air Canada…] I have to say, I’m concerned about the inability of the participants to recognize the economic damage this can do to a small centre like Brandon.”

Yet the Harper government showed no concern for the potential economic impact of labour disputes when on January 1st, 2012, 800 United Steelworkers members at Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec, and 450 CAW members at a Caterpillar locomotive plant in London, Ontario, were locked out by their employer. Rio Tinto Alcan used 200 of their management employees to maintain output during their lockout and Caterpillar demanded that locked out workers take a 50 per cent cut in wages, and accept degradation of their pension plan and vacation and overtime provisions in the collective agreement. When the workers rejected that demand, Caterpillar declared that it would close the London plant and relocate to Indiana. When the federal government was asked to lean on these firms to get back to bargaining, the Harper government declined to intervene or to use their influence to encourage the Quebec and Ontario governments to step in.

The Harper government has demonstrated their utter disregard for the rights of workers. We can expect the struggle to protect workers rights will intensify in the coming years requiring increased efforts to educate the general population about the destructive effects of government policies that undermine worker and trade union rights and powers, including policies that allow foreign carte blanche takeovers, particularly by U.S. based firms, of Canadian enterprises.

We will continue to follow and document the Harper government’s record on labour issues on PolicyFix. Stay tuned.

[Postscript, March 12, 2012: Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was interviewed by Evan Solomon Saturday morning (March 10) on CBC Radio’s, The House.  The interview focused on the latest intervention by Raitt into disputes between Air Canada and two of its unions, the Air Canada Pilots Association and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers of Canada. At one point in the interview, Solomon asked Raitt if the government’s apparent preoccupation with Air Canada with its dealings with unions was a result of a flaw in the bargaining process at Air Canada.  In response, Raitt said “No.  In fact, six separate times unions and Air Canada management have reached a deal and shook hands across the table, but then the agreements were rejected by the members. The collective bargaining process works.  It seems to be the ratification process that is in dispute.” For Raitt and her government, it seems that “protecting the public and the  Canadian economy” (as defined by them) trumps the rights of Air Canada workers and unions. Unfortunately, Solomon didn’t follow up on this particular point.]

Errol Black is on the CCPA-MB’s board.

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Filed under Government of Canada, Labour

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