Once again this week we saw the Harper Conservative government announce it would suspend workers’ rights.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt threatened to legislate Air Canada flight attendants back to work if they chose to exercise their right to strike. And she prevented job action before legislation could be introduced by abusing powers intended to protect against real threats to public health and safety.
There are serious questions that the Harper government needs to answer here.
How can there be fair collective bargaining when workers know that the government will force them back to work if they don’t accept their employer’s demands?
A strike is a disruption for a business’s clients – no question about that – but it’s a much bigger disruption for the striking workers who no longer collect a pay cheque. When workers collectively decide to stop getting a pay cheque, it tells me that there is something seriously wrong in that workplace, and makes me want to find out about the real issues driving workers to make that sacrifice. Similarly, when an employer is willing to take a strike, it also makes me want to know why they are so reluctant to address the concerns of their workforce.
What’s clear though is that none of these real issues are addressed or resolved when the government takes the employer’s side and uses a heavy hand to force workers back to work. Employers have no incentive to negotiate seriously if they can count on the government to step in on their behalf and force workers to accept the employer’s terms.
Allowing the collective bargaining process to unfold without interference provides the best opportunity to make sure the issues important to both sides in a labour dispute are addressed. We know this because historically in Canada the free collective bargaining process results in 97% of labour contracts being negotiated successfully without a strike or lockout.
So, why would a government undermine fair and free collective bargaining, even going so far as to announce back-to-work legislation for a private business before there is even an actual work stoppage?
Several answers to this question seem plausible.
One is that Harper`s Conservatives have more empathy for employers than working Canadians. How else can you explain why they would use extraordinary powers against flight attendants to protect the interests of Air Canada whose CEO now earns $4.6 million in annual salary and benefits after receiving a whopping 75% increase this past year?
Another is that the Harper Conservatives think they can drive a wedge between voters and the opposition NDP by pushing the NDP to support disruptive strike action. Suspending workers` fundamental rights to score political points isn`t just wrong in principle; it`s also a miscalculation. A strong majority of Canadians believe in the collective bargaining process, believe in the right to join a union and believe workers have a right to strike. Canadians recognize an abuse of power when they see it and this latest attack on workers` rights just reinforces the growing view that Harper`s Conservatives are bullies willing to use their majority status to run roughshod over Canada`s tradition of fairness and democracy.
Unfortunately, there are real consequences to this abuse of power. We are already seeing employers get cocky, knowing that Stephen Harper has their back. Air Canada is a case in point. This week, Air Canada had the audacity to file a complaint at the Canadian Industrial Relations Board alleging the flight attendants` union didn`t do enough to persuade members to accept the employer`s offer. If this weren`t ridiculous enough, Air Canada is taking employer audacity to a new level by demanding that the union pay it damages! The company’s gall takes your breathe away, but it is hardly surprising when the company knows the federal government is standing right behind it.
Stephen Harper and Air Canada are the ones who need to be taken to task for their unfair attack on workers. They have made a mockery of workers legal rights to a fair collective bargaining process. They have done serious damage to our bargaining system and worker-employer relations in general. `By abusing their parliamentary majority to pass laws that help their friends, the Conservatives are betraying their responsibility to govern on behalf of all Canadians.
Mr. Prime Minister, I know you feel pretty high from winning a majority government and we look like little people from the air up there, but your heavy-handed actions are not what Canadians expect from a leader. Shame on you.