Last month, a small group of Air Canada baggage handlers taunted Lisa Raitt, the federal labour minister, with mock applause and sarcastic calls of “nice job,” following her decision to block a possible strike by their union. A rude and unnecessary gesture, to be sure, but Raitt has intervened in Air Canada’s contract talks with its employees no less than four times in 10 months. The minister has also taken time to interfere with labour disputes at Marine Atlantic, the Port of Montreal and Canada Post. Taken together, these intrusions have earned a reputation for Raitt, and the Conservative government, as the arch-enemies of organized labour. But it’s not just unionists taking a drubbing. Her misguided efforts have hurt the industries involved as much as their workers.
Anyone who suggests workers are placed at a disadvantage by the minister’s meddlings is not paying attention to Air Canada’s own experience. Last September, federal arbitrator Kevin Burkett sided with the airline’s customer-service employees in a dispute over pension benefits. Air Canada was so peeved by the ruling, it briefly threatened to go to court to have Burkett’s decision overturned.
Even when the final decision favours the employer, the long-term ramifications can be costly. If a dispute is settled by a back-to-work order, then it is more than three times more likely that government intervention will be needed in future labour talks, according to a 2010 report by the C.D. Howe Institute. “These results suggest that back-to-work legislation negatively affects the ability of labour and management to take responsibility for fashioning their own solutions,” the report concludes.
By Raitt’s own criteria for success, her strategy has failed. In blocking potential strikes by pilots and baggage handlers last month, the minister suggested she wanted to ensure families could travel on March Break without disruption. But frustrated baggage handlers staged a wildcat strike anyway while the airline alleged its pilots were calling in sick as part of an illegal job action. By short-circuiting the usual negotiating process between employers and employees, Raitt created labour woes rather than solving them.
In a recent interview, the minister explained she wasn’t driven to intervene based on ideology, but after a case-by-case consideration of each labour issue. This typifies the Conservative’s piecemeal approach to economic policy. From its overruling of the CRTC with regards to Globalive in 2009 to its quashing of the sale of Potash Corp. last year to its approach to labour relations, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently chosen one-off measures rather than undertaking much-needed legislative change. A little ideology would be a good thing if it informed a coherent business policy.
If there are problems with how collective bargaining is conducted in Canada, then change the laws. If you want to prevent a strike at a single airline from upending the country, then open the market to more competition. It’s the job of government to create a consistent, clear legal framework under which contract negotiations can take place. Raitt’s constant intervention only heightens tensions, subverts negotiations and makes unrest more likely in the future. Parliament isn’t the place to solve Air Canada’s problems. The bargaining table is.