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Canada’s collective bargaining is broken

If any further evidence is needed to prove Canada’s federal industrial relations are in desperate need of repair, look no further than the recent labour dispute at Air Canada.


August 7, 2011
by Ken Lewenza

If any further evidence is needed to prove Canada’s federal industrial relations are in desperate need of repair, look no further than the recent labour dispute at Air Canada.

Negotiations took place over four months. Talks were fuelled by aggressive and ambitious company demands for significant cuts. At the same time, Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) members were determined to make long overdue gains after a decade of sacrifice.

The negotiations were difficult, and made more so by external factors that were well beyond the union’s control.

For starters, Air Canada didn’t shy away from making plans to hire replacement workers (scabs) in the event of a work stoppage. Under the Canada Labour Code – the legislative text that governs federal labour relations – companies are within their rights to do so. Most employers don’t venture down this path. In fact, hiring scabs is illegal in Quebec and BC. Replacement workers create animosity, often fuelling anger and violence on strike lines. Their employment also casts a chill over bargaining.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that the final hours of the Air Canada contract talks – often the most critical time in any negotiation – were bogged down. Insincere discussions over outstanding issues prevented the two sides from getting closer to or reaching a deal, despite having positions that were not far apart. With a company contingency plan already in place and scab workers scheduled to work, negotiations were destined to fail. We were bargaining with a company that had no real sense of urgency.

Despite the constant efforts of labour unions and supporters to establish federal legislation that bans the use of replacement workers, the Harper government continues to turn a blind eye. It’s seemingly content to watch workers pitted against very large and well-resourced employers, who have got little to lose, in a senseless game of chicken.

As scabs filled in behind Air Canada customer service desks on the first day of a three-day strike, the company boldly reassured the public that it was “business-as-usual.” Yet, only hours after the strike began, Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt signalled the Harper government’s intent to legislate Air Canada employees back to work – despite the fact a final settlement was well within reach. In her words, the strike posed a threat to Canada’s economic recovery – frankly, a bogus claim.

Last resort
Back-to-work legislation is a last resort when major economic and social disruption is threatened. In this case, the legislation was an ideologically driven, knee-jerk reaction to a situation under total control.

Workers were rightfully upset. Forcing them back to work and then imposing an arbitrated settlement not only fuels discontent, it undercuts collective bargaining and workplace democracy.

The Air Canada strike may not have happened if replacement workers were banned, and I have little doubt the Harper government’s absurd and heavy-handed back to work legislation will set a dangerous precedent for future interventions in federal negotiations.

Back to work legislation was passed once during each of the previous Harper minority governments (2007 and 2009). Less than two months into a Harper majority government, we’ve seen it tabled twice in one week (the second was Canada Post) – and for the first time ever, it was imposed on airline workers.

The institution of collective bargaining must be strengthened and policies that create rather than diffuse conflict should be dismantled. But the Conservative government has served notice it won’t hesitate to attack workers: music to the ears of Canada’s corporate classes – those in the Prime Minister’s inner circle who have no interest in fixing what’s wrong with our broken system of labour relations.

Ken Lewenza is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which represents 225,000 workers across the country in 17 different sectors of the economy. E-mail cawcomm@caw.ca