Hon. Lisa Raitt (Minister of Labour, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am here today to explain why we put an act to provide for the continuation and resumption of air service operations on notice. The reasons for introducing this bill are threefold.
First, we are acting to protect the Canadian economy. A work stoppage at Canada's largest airline would be detrimental to our economic recovery.
Second, we are acting to protect the public interest. March break is one of the busiest travel times of the year and a work stoppage right now would affect hundreds of thousands of Canadian families who have made travel plans. In fact, over one million passengers are scheduled to travel with Air Canada over the course of this week.
Third, we are acting to protect all of those additional employees who would be affected by a work stoppage at Air Canada. Air Canada directly employs 26,000 people, but its operations have an indirect impact on an additional 250,000 employees. Many of these people have families and these families rely on the livelihoods of these employees for their daily living expenses.
As members may recall, last June there was a three-day strike by Air Canada's customer service and sales agents. It was quickly resolved by the parties and Canada's economy was spared unnecessary harm.
Also, in 2011, when talks broke down between Canada Post and CUPW, the union representing Canada Post employees, we acted decisively by introducing and passing the Restoring Mail Delivery for Canadians Act. Again, Canada and its hard-working businesses and workers were spared from continued hardship in that case.
Canada faces a new challenge today: Canadians are faced with two potential work stoppages. Talks have broken down between Air Canada and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Talks have also broken down between Air Canada and the Air Canada Pilots Association. Just as they did last year, these developments create uncertainty and doubt where we need stability and certainty, because stability and certainty help keep Canada in business.
I would invite members to ask their constituents or in fact anyone in Canada right now about this and they will hear what I have been hearing, that we cannot afford this work stoppage. It is that simple. The risks are too great and we have a responsibility as parliamentarians to act. That is why I would like to ask this House to support an act to provide for the continuation and resumption of air service operations.
This is an important bill. We have tried to avoid the need to step in, but this measure is necessary because there is something vital at stake. As parliamentarians, we have to take a stand on this issue. We need to take a stand for Canada's recovering economy. We need to take a stand against uncertainty in this matter. We need to take a stand and demand a better solution in the interests of all Canadians.
I will take a few minutes to elaborate on each of these points.
Like other industrialized economies around the world, Canada is coming out of a difficult recession. Our economy has weathered the storm well, but we are mindful that these are uncertain times and that we cannot afford to take our relative good fortune for granted.
Our government is proud of its record of sheltering Canadians from the worst effects of the downturn and laying a foundation for recovery. As of February 2012, our employment rate was at 7.4%, which is an improvement over last year. There is definitely some wind in our sails, but that also means it is a risky time for Canada.
We cannot afford to have disruptions that draw attention and resources away from a growing economy because there is so much potential there. We cannot let a labour dispute in a major industry get in the way, and a labour stoppage that cripples a major transportation sector is certainly no exception. We depend on air service; that is a fact.
It is not just industry that depends on air service, but individual citizens as well. They depend on air service for work and for leisure. The sheer size of our country means that Canadians depend on air service more than citizens of most other nations do.
A work stoppage would have important financial implications for Canada's economy. There is no doubt it would adversely affect our efforts to revive our economy and create new jobs for citizens. A 2009 working paper by the International Labour Organization, ILO, states that for every job lost in the airline sector, up to 10 jobs could be lost elsewhere. Estimates of the impact of a stoppage on the Canadian economy vary, but some put it as high as $22.4 million for each week of work stoppage.
Consider what this could mean to businesses. A work stoppage at Air Canada could mean the loss of sales at home or abroad. Would businesses be able to recoup those losses? There is really no way to know. Would a business be able to quickly adapt and find alternative solutions? Again, we cannot say, because a labour dispute creates a ripple effect, one ripple of uncertainty after another.
What is clear is that a work stoppage at Air Canada would be bad for Canadians. It would be bad for the workers, and it would be bad for business. Even a short strike could be very costly. For example, in 2005 a one-day wildcat strike involving ground crew workers at Air Canada in Toronto saw 60 flights delayed and 17 cancelled. We have to take a stand against uncertainty.
Let us talk about what a labour stoppage could do to the company as well. The airline business has high fixed costs and it has a low profit margin, and that is at the best of times.
In April 2003 the financial pressures on Air Canada became so severe that the corporation applied for bankruptcy protection. Air Canada emerged from that protection in September 2004 under a court approved plan which saw it stripped of its assets and restructured under the name, ACE Aviation Holdings Incorporated.
Consider what happened after the 2008 global financial collapse when commercial credit markets all but froze. Companies like Air Canada which provided defined benefit pension plans suddenly faced much higher funding obligations. The combined effect of the recession, less air travel, and Air Canada's contractual obligations led to further challenges for Air Canada.
In 2008, in order to avoid the threat of bankruptcy again, Air Canada had no choice but to secure additional loans to keep it going. The company at that time was also able to get the co-operation of its unions to extend its collective agreements without any work stoppages.
The potential for a work stoppage involving Air Canada's pilots and the technical maintenance and operational support employees is creating more uncertainty and more instability for Air Canada.
Air Canada has indicated that it is already feeling the effects of the labour uncertainty. It has to cancel flights on a daily basis and cargo shipments are suppressed. That could be the tipping point for an airline already operating on the very edge of profitability.
Let me take a moment to recapitulate the developments in these two separate disputes that we are talking about today.
The IAMAW, the machinists, represent a unit of approximately 8,200 employees. They are responsible for the technical, maintenance and operational services, including the mechanics who service Air Canada's aircraft and those who handle the baggage and the cargo. Their collective agreement expired on March 31, 2011.
On December 2, 2011 a notice of dispute was sent by the employer to our offices at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services. On December 21 Madame Louise Otis, a conciliation commissioner, was appointed to assist the parties in their negotiations from outside of the labour program. Madame Otis is a very respected former jurist in the province of Quebec.
On February 10 the parties reached a tentative agreement. In her report and recommendations which she shared with me, Madame Otis said the following:
|| Taking into consideration the situation of the Parties, the tentative agreement is reasonable and fair. The negotiation process, which was carried out diligently and competently, has been exhausted. I do not recommend that negotiations be resumed or that a mediator be appointed. Under the full circumstances, I consider that a reasonable agreement had been reached.
Unfortunately, she wrote this in response to the fact that this tentative agreement was rejected by 65.6% of the union members, having had the tentative agreement unanimously recommended by the negotiating committee. Therefore, on March 6, 2012. the union provided me with its strike notice.
I want to reiterate that one point I made. These parties reached a deal which the union membership did not ratify. That is very important to remember because a similar situation has occurred with the Air Canada Pilots Association. The collective agreement covering a unit of approximately 3,000 pilots expired on March 31, 2011. On March 17, 2011, the parties reached a tentative agreement in direct negotiations without the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The negotiating team recommended the deal because it was subject to ratification by the union membership. On May 19, the union informed the employer that the membership voted to reject the tentative agreement. In October 2011, a notice of dispute was received by our program from the employer in the matter, and on November 10, 2011 a conciliation officer from the Department of Labour was appointed.
This conciliation period was extended three different times in an attempt to provide more time for the parties to reach a deal. A mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was appointed and met with the parties on a number of occasions. On two separate occasions, February 6 and 13, I met with both parties to urge them to reach an agreement and stressed the importance of a deal for the Canadian public.
During the last meeting with the parties, I informed them that I would be appointing two new co-mediators to assist them in reaching a deal and that they would be entering into a process that could take up to six months because they had indicated to me they needed the time. However, despite all this assistance and despite both parties confirming in writing that they would co-operate with the co-mediators and comply with the six-month mediation process, the union sought and received a strike mandate from its membership. The pilots voted 97% in favour of strike action.
On February 17, the two co-mediators, Madame Justice Louise Otis, who had just been successful with the machinists, and Jacques Lessard from my department, met with the parties. However, following this meeting, Madame Otis determined that it was necessary for her to tender her resignation, the reason being that the details of the mediation on that first meeting were made public by the pilots association. Madame Otis, being a well-respected former member of the judiciary, felt this failure to observe confidentiality would further hamper the efforts of any mediator to assist the parties in reaching a deal. This breach of confidentiality by one party at the table was instrumental in the resignation of a well-respected former judge. That speaks volumes about the state of bargaining in this matter.
Finally, this brings us to the reason for introducing the bill. On March 8, the employer gave notice of its intent to lock out the pilots on Monday, March 12 at midnight.
I want to take a moment to stress to members of the House that the parties in the case of the pilots association had reached a deal too. They had concluded their collective bargaining process but again, that deal could not be ratified.
As a matter of interest, Air Canada has reached a deal with every bargaining unit that it negotiated with over the course of this fiscal year, six bargaining units. Eight times within those six bargaining units, Air Canada came to the table, reached a deal and shook hands with the respective union bargaining teams, only to find that four of those deals were rejected by the union membership.
This has gone on long enough. This labour uncertainty is eroding the public confidence in travelling. While it goes on, Canadian businesses, travellers, workers, students, parents, seniors and professionals and many others are feeling the pressure. How will businesses manage their travel obligations? How will families take their vacations? What about the 45,000 passengers who fly across the oceans daily? What will Canadians do? We just do not know. In all fairness, these are not questions that Canadians should have to be asking themselves, especially at a time when Canada's economy is still in recovery.
It is important to remember that there is more at stake than the matters being dealt with at the bargaining table.
The employees represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, IAMAW, want to be treated fairly, and the pilots represented by the Air Canada Pilots Association, ACPA, want to be treated fairly. I understand that. It is very important. What I also understand is there are millions of Canadians who depend upon air service. They want to be treated fairly too. In fact, as I stated earlier, over one million passengers are scheduled to fly with Air Canada over the March break period. This is an incredibly bad time for hundreds of thousands of families with travel plans to be faced with work stoppages. Additionally, Air Canada is simply not in a position where it can afford the risks associated with a prolonged work stoppage. Our economy is also vulnerable.
As stated in the preamble to the Canada Labour Code, free collective bargaining is the basis for sound industrial relations. The code gives the parties in a dispute the right to strike and walk out. The federal government only intervenes in situations where the public interest is negatively affected. This is true, for example, when the national economy is affected by the threat of a work stoppage, as in this case.
I have no doubt that a work stoppage at Air Canada is contrary to the best interests of Canadians and Canadian businesses. I have no doubt that a work stoppage could cause serious harm to the health of our recovering economy. The economy and the public interest would certainly be affected in this case and the legislation is clearly necessary. That is why the bill must be passed. It would protect our economy and would ensure that Canadian businesses and communities would not continue to suffer.
Some would say that we should do nothing and that we should let this dispute come to its natural end, whatever that may be. That would certainly be easier for all of us, but I say that we must do the right thing rather than the easy thing. Canadians expect us to show leadership and they expect us to act.
Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I note with sadness that this has all been said before. It is sad to have a bill or a motion of this type from the government. I am going to explain this, so that Canadians understand.
Yes, it is true that it is a break week and that people want to enjoy their vacation time. I very much sympathize with that. I am also a human being and I know that there are families who have planned vacations. However, at the same time, workers have rights, fundamental rights according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They have the right to negotiate freely. As I watch the government continually intervene in negotiations, as the Conservative government does, I think it sends a direct message to employers that they do not need to negotiate. They can take as much as possible from their employees because the government will not tolerate lockouts or strikes, and it will legislate to force workers back to work. In the meantime, the employers get everything they want. They can rely on the government to support them in their battles.
I find this unacceptable and wrong. That is not what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for when it comes to unions. The Supreme Court has even stated that workers are entitled to negotiate freely. It is wrong for the government to interfere in this manner. The government can assist parties by way of conciliation and mediation, and help them reach an agreement, but it should not be interfering in this fashion.
Moreover, there is a lack of respect for democracy in the House of Commons. Earlier, in my question to the minister, I referred to time limits. Not only is the government taking away employees' right to strike or the company's right to lock out employees, no debate is even allowed in the House of Commons. The bill may be read twice or thrice in the same sitting. One, two, three times in one sitting and it is done.
First we hear, “not more than two hours shall be allotted for the consideration of the second reading stage of the said bill, following the adoption of this Order.” That is two hours of debate. Then, “when the bill has been read a second time, it shall be referred to a Committee of the Whole.” We then hear that at the very most “not more than one hour shall be allotted for the consideration of the Committee of the Whole stage of the said bill.” One hour, no more. Then, the motion says, “not more than one half hour shall be allotted for the consideration of the third reading stage of the said bill, provided that no Member shall speak for more than ten minutes at a time during the said stage and that no period for questions and comments be permitted following each Member’s speech”.
Where are they going with this, Mr. Speaker? What are they doing to our democracy and the fundamental right to have a Parliament to debate such important questions?
The minister herself said that this was an important issue. Last week in Toronto, the Prime Minister himself said—and I find this hard to believe—that a part of him did not want to intervene in the dispute. Give me a break. Where is the Prime Minister? I do not have the right to say his name, but I think that everyone in Canada knows who the country's Prime Minister is. He is the same person who wants to intervene to raise the retirement age to 67. He is the same person who intervened in the partial strike by postal workers, not only to say that he was legislating them back to work, but also to intervene in the collective agreement. The employer, Canada Post, was going to give workers a 2% wage increase, but the government intervened and lowered it to 1.5%. The government said that Canada Post employees did not need a bigger wage increase than public servants. The government intervened directly in the negotiations.
I am going to say this to Canadians and workers. Last year, it was the postal workers. Today, it is the pilots and maintenance workers at Air Canada. Tomorrow, it may be them. The government's argument is that we cannot allow a group of people to blackmail the rest of Canadians. The interests of all Canadians must be defended.
The government could apply the same argument to the negotiation of every collective agreement. It could apply the same argument to the economy, to the mining industry. For example, if the miners at a large mine in Sudbury went on strike, there is no denying that it would have a negative impact on the entire city. However, striking is a fundamental bargaining right. It is not up to the government to intervene. This is not a matter of health and safety. It is not an essential service. I am anxious to hear what the industrial relations boards will have to say about it.
And there is more. Air Canada has just said that it is going to lock out its pilots the minute maintenance workers go on strike. This basically means that the government is cracking down not only on the unions but also on the company itself. Air Canada could say that its right to declare a lockout is being taken away. Once again, I do not believe it. Talks are being held between the company and the government. The minister herself said that the company was having financial problems.
Let me talk about Air Canada's financial problems. My colleague from Cape Breton—Canso said earlier that the president received a $2 million bonus. My colleague is indicating to me that it was $5 million that Mr. Milton, the former president of Air Canada, left with when he washed his hands of Air Canada and all its problems. He collected $80 million in salary from the company. It was Air Canada's workers who paid for all that; the ones who ensure that people boarding a plane receive services, from flight attendants to baggage handlers. All those services are delivered by these workers and Air Canada now wants to make cuts in order to offer cheaper flights. That is good for the general public, but not for the workers.
The problem is that they are not the only ones who will be affected. Who will be next? That is the message the government is sending to industry. I do not like the fact that this is happening during March break either, but whether it happens now or in April, May or June, the flights are always full. This is always going to affect travellers. Air Canada's workers will never have the right to negotiate freely, a right guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They will never have the right to strike. What is happening to the balance of power between workers and employers?
The Minister said in her presentation that the union representatives, the people at the bargaining table, had made recommendations to the workers, and they had not accepted them. That is like thinking the workers are required to abide by the recommendations made by the bargaining committee. However, when the government wants to speak ill of the union, which it has done repeatedly, it says the employees never get a say and it is always the union bosses who decide. I have always said there are no union bosses. The real bosses are the members. The members have the democratic right to put a team in place that will bargain for them. It is up to the members to decide whether the offers are sufficient or not, not the team. The team can make recommendations.
I have been a union representative and I have made recommendations that the members refused. I was not angry with them. It is their union; it is their association. It does not belong to the bargaining committee or the company or the government.
The union is the members. The bosses have always been the members and we need to respect the members. They are the ones who chose to join a union. They are the ones who pay their union dues, and the union is accountable to its members.
How does this work? Bargaining is initiated. A presentation is made and it is followed through to the end. At the end of the process, the union presents its members with a collective agreement and makes a recommendation. The day when the bargaining committee decides for the members will be the day there is no more democracy and the union no longer belongs to them. So we have to be careful here, be careful about the message we are sending. That is why there is a vote, a sacred vote. It gives the members the chance to vote democratically within their union, so that it is their own decision and not their representatives’ decision.
I have participated in many union meetings and I have never hesitated to tell people that the union is not the people at the table, or the president, the vice-president, the treasurer or the secretary. The union is them. It belongs to them; it is their association. We must not be ashamed of having unions in this country.
The reason we have a fine country, one that is considered to be among the best in the world, the reason we have good conditions, with pension funds and the right to stop work if the job is dangerous, the reason we have all these conditions in collective agreements is that there are unions. People should go to other countries or the third world to see how workers are treated. Should we be going back to those days?
I charge the Conservative government with being anti-worker and anti-union. During the negotiations with Canada Post, the Conservative government could have intervened to say that it was sending the parties to arbitration to have an arbitrator resolve the problems. That is not what it did. Its bill even included lower wages than the employer was proposing. There cannot be more interference than that. It is not possible to be more anti-worker than that, when the employer promises 2% and the Conservative government reduces it to 1.5%, if you can imagine. Where is the respect?
On Friday, the Prime Minister said that part of him refused to intervene in the dispute. I doubt that very much. We need to remind the Canadians who are watching us today that this is the same government that wants to push the age of retirement up to 67 years. It is the same government that has no respect for the men and women who get up in the morning and go to work and build this country. The Conservative government wants to blame it all on the economy. It should stop spending money on F-35s, gazebos and fake lakes and put the money where it belongs, instead of making working people bear the burden. Then we might well have a smaller deficit in this country.
There is one place where the money might be spent. In our offices, we get telephone calls criticizing the cuts being made in the public sector in relation to employment insurance. How is it possible for this government to decide to close over 100 Service Canada offices when workers are losing their jobs and have to wait 40 days before they receive employment insurance benefits? That is insane. There will be only 22 offices left. That is all connected with the cuts that have a negative impact on working people and on the services provided to Canadians.
Today, the minister has the nerve to stand up and say that she is working in the interests of Canadians, while at the same time the services provided by Service Canada are being cut. All Canadians and Quebeckers are going to lose services to an extent never before seen, be it in relation to old age security benefits, the Canada pension plan or benefits paid to veterans. We are the only country doing this.
For example, the United States and England will not be reducing the benefits paid to veterans and will not be cutting the services provided to veterans in their next budgets, while that is what Canada will be doing in the next budget. The Conservatives voted against the NDP motion.
For all these reasons, and to give working people their rights, we must not be ashamed to stand up and say that there are fundamental rights in this country, and we will defend them.
The Conservative government is making all Canadians pay the price, and that is not right. The government sent a clear message to companies that if they have problems, the government will help them out. Without that, Air Canada would already have negotiated a collective agreement. The airline would have had no reason not to. There is no longer a balance of power; the employer has it all.
This motion is anti-democratic. It would take away our right to hold debates in the House of Commons. The government plans to introduce another bill this afternoon or tomorrow to take away Canadian workers' labour relations rights.
One day, Canadians will decide what kind of Canada they want. Do we want to build prisons, buy F-35s, spend tons of money and attack workers' pension plans? People will decide what kind of government they want. I am sure that this is not the kind of government they want.
Ask anyone planning to get on a plane what they think of an Air Canada strike, and of course they will say that they do not want it to interfere with their trip. I sympathize with those people, but I want the employer and employees to go back to the bargaining table to negotiate a collective agreement. The government has to send a message to both parties that it will not negotiate for them and that they have to do it themselves. In the long term, that will be a better investment for the economy, democracy, employers and workers' rights.
Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton—Canso, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is an episode of Groundhog Day here. Here we go again with more back to work legislation presented. The government is injecting itself in the midst of a labour dispute with a private company.
I would like to go back and comment on some things the minister shared during her speech. She said that Parliament has intervened in various labour disputes in the country over 35 times since 1950. That may be so. If we look at essential services, and what is considered to be essential changes over time, there are times where intervention is warranted. It would be interesting to go back and see, of those over 35 interventions by Parliament, how many have been preceded by a motion to limit debate on a bill that was not even seen yet. The government is setting the table in limiting the debate even before we see the proposed legislation. We have seen some pretty archaic legislation presented by the government, certainly in the case of Canada Post. I would like to know how many interventions have been led by notice restricting the amount of debate on a particular motion before it even came forward.
She also indicated during her comments that the government was taking this action as an important and integral step so that the economy of the country would not slow down, so that this work stoppage would not interfere with the progress that has taken place with the economic recovery in Canada.
I would like to take a moment to reflect on the progress. We know now that 1.4 million Canadians are unemployed. This number has continued to grow since October of last year. We know that there are more unemployed young Canadians. The youth unemployment rate in the country right now is about 14.7%. Even more compelling than that is the shrinking participation rate of the youth workforce in the country over the last number of months. Some young Canadians have given up seeking work. They are disengaging from the economy.
We know that people are unemployed for longer periods of time. In 2008, the average duration of unemployment was 14.8 weeks. Last year, that duration was 21.2 weeks. Under the stewardship of the Conservative government, we are reaching record highs in youth unemployment. Its answer to that is to close the youth employment service centres across the country and give young people even less of an opportunity to find employment. That has been its approach. If it is doing this for the economy, I am sure Canadians are saying, “the government has helped enough, step away from the economy, the damage has been done”.
I would think the impact on the economy of this particular strike would be marginal. It would be fairly limited. There are other carriers in the country. WestJet, Porter and various air carriers offer other opportunities to travel across the country. Most business operators, even though they still travel and use air travel during the course of regular business, use the technology we have available today. Skyping and Internet calling are very commonplace.
Coming from a small community like Sydney serviced by Jazz Air, if we are not able to get to Halifax with a connector flight, we certainly can still get access to it because there are other ways to get out of Sydney. Whether or not this is an essential service, let us look at the transit strike in Halifax. A great number of the residents normally access that public service on a daily basis, ensuring that they can get back and forth to work. That strike has been going on for eight weeks now. Therefore, comparing a public transit strike with this particular lockout and the legislation being brought forward by this minister is like comparing apples and oranges.
We see this as a heavy-handed approach on the part of the government to inject itself here. It is certainly not new. This is the fourth time the government has injected itself into the midst of a labour dispute, and we have seen the actions undertaken by the government in these cases. We know that employees at Air Canada, the grounds crew, baggage handlers, machinists, pilots, flight attendants and customer service attendants, have all been impacted by the actions of the government. Those 48,000 employees have lost their right to free and fair collective bargaining. If we throw in the postal workers, about 75,000 Canadians have lost their rights. All of those lost rights add up to one colossal wrong, and it is wrong on the part of the government to inject itself here.
I am going to give the minister some kudos here because I think she did what she could leading up to this, and I am going to recognize that. She changed the mediator. She did not inject her own personal views into this but saw that the talks were stalling and put in another mediator. If we were in power, we would have done the same thing. However, it was the past actions of the government that gave an indication to the management at Air Canada that the minister was going to come forward with legislation regardless of the outcome of the mediation talks. The management believed it could count on the government to bring forward back to work legislation; that is where the well was poisoned. The landscape was changed as a result of the minister's prior actions because Air Canada management knew this was coming.
What is happening with Mr. Rovinescu, the CEO of Air Canada, is that the Minister is really doing his job. He should be compelled to find a way through these negotiations, to find some way to accommodate his workforce so that the airline can continue to operate and serve Canadians. Knowing the minister is coming forward with this legislation makes his job easier. In his situation, at the end of this month, he will get his $5 million bonus. That is unbelievable. Over 10 years, since Air Canada filed for protection under the bankruptcy laws, we know that the concessions made by the workers total $2 billion. They had wage rollbacks and benefit concessions totalling $2 billion over 10 years. They have done their part to bring this company around and to help Air Canada survive.
When Mr. Milton left, he got a golden handshake of $80 million on the backs of the workers. Now we have Mr. Rovinescu picking up $5 million. I know $5 million does not look like a lot to some people on the government side, but it is not bad. His job is just made that much easier knowing that the Conservative government will come up with back to work legislation.
It rattles the morale of this company. It further wedges the worker-management relationship within Air Canada and serves no one well. It further hurts a great airline. Every Canadian complains about the weather and we complain about Air Canada. There is not a lot of love for Air Canada by those who have ever lost a piece of luggage or ever been delayed by them. For them, it is about that darned Air Canada.
I fly three weeks of the year back and forth to my riding and a few times outside of that. I do not think there are any people at any company who have a tougher job and do a better job than the people at Air Canada. The disregard and disrespect for their rights shown by the government is shameful.
Judging by some of the comments made, there is no justification for the steps taken by the government. I want to read a couple of quotes, if I could. The union president, Paul Strachan, from the Air Canada Pilots Association talks about the track record of the government injecting itself into past disputes and the concerns about that. He states that “It does affect the bargaining landscape, absolutely” and that the power to intervene is like the “sword of Damocles hanging over the heads” of all union negotiators.
Dave Ritchie, the Canadian general vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, says:
|| I asked [the minister] to stay out of the process, but she didn't, so I am disappointed in her move. I'm not too happy about it.
He added that it hurts their relations.
However, it is not just union officials who are going on the record talking about the actions of the government. There is a quote from George Smith, Air Canada's former director of employee relations and now a professor at Queen's University. He talked about the interference of the government in the current dispute and in past disputes. He is a person who sat at the table a number of times and who has been through many negotiations over the years. He argues that if disputes are placed in the hands of arbitrators, management is unlikely to get what it wants. That is a fact.
In his own words:
|| We had strikes and lockouts over my 10 years at Air Canada and the government never had to intervene.
|| This has all the appearances of the federal government doing what's best for the country but really it's a disaster.... If you are negotiating a difficult labour contract, the process is being taken out of your hands and the government will do it for you. The “showdown” element which hurts in the short run but results in a fair settlement is gone. The net result will be labour agreements that are uncompetitive.
That comes from a respected voice, a guy who sat on the other side of the table representing management in many negotiations.
We know that hammering out labour agreements is a difficult process. Certainly, when we consider the global economy, we see that many businesses are just trying to stay on their feet through these tough times. However, I think that most Canadians understand when they work for a company that has been able to sustain itself and to right itself that they were part of the good work that went on to make sure that company was competitive and stayed afloat and, really, has grown over the last number of years.
There has to be an opportunity provided to those workers who contributed to that success. There has to be an opportunity to share in that success. However, even just the opportunity to share in that success has been taken away by the government. That is what is egregious and truly unfortunate in this case.
We have seen this time and time again where two parties sit down and think they have an agreement in place. The representative of a union representing 8,000 or however many people may leave the table thinking he or she has the bases covered. However, it is not for the union executive to say they have a deal, but instead that they are willing to take the deal back to their membership.
Once a union executive signs off at the negotiating table, it probably has a pretty good feel that it has a chance of getting it through their membership. However, it not a fait accompli, not a done deal. They go back to the membership and have a vote and, in this case, it has been rejected, which just gives them the wherewithal to go back to the table and address the shortcomings of the proposed deal. That is their responsibility and what was going to take place in this case.
However, with the government coming forward with legislation, the management has seen the end of the movie already. One could say that they had a deal in place and that everything was done already, but that it not the case. The union membership has to sign-off on any tentative deals. That is why these are called tentative deals, because they are pending the acceptance of the membership. The union executive takes the deal back to their membership and if it gets voted down, we then go on to the next aspect of the process. In this case, they did not get the opportunity to do that.
This is the situation we find ourselves in. I am sure the government has legislation on the shelf ready for it to plug in the name of a company, whichever one is currently in a position to take its membership out and force management to come forward with serious considerations. However, we certainly have not seen any kind of resolve on the part of the government to be seriously supportive of fair and open collective bargaining. We have seen the government compromise that, and I do not think we can get it back. The dye has been cast. I am sure the public service unions in this country know they are in the crosshairs and that they have some tough times ahead. Certainly they are watching the upcoming budget with a great deal of anticipation. However, make no mistake about it, this government will certainly be willing to bring the hammer down on them as well.
To wrap up my comments, it is unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation again. It is unfortunate that the government has taken away the fair right of unions to negotiate fair collective agreements. The government has tilted the playing field in favour of the company. I think organized labour in this country has been dealt a blow since the Conservative government came to power and it is something we are going to see more of in the years to come.
Ms. Kellie Leitch (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to the necessity of the bill that the Minister of Labour has given notice on, an act to provide for the continuation and resumption of air service operations.
Keeping Air Canada flying now is essential to the economy and travellers. Over one million hard-working Canadians and Canadian families have scheduled travel with Air Canada over the March break period. Those people are depending on the government and we think that the travelling public overwhelmingly expects the government to act. As much as we wish that these disputes could have been settled among the three parties themselves, government action is essential to keep the airline flying and Canadians travelling. We will not sit by and let the airline shut itself down. We need to act to provide for the continuation of air service operations at Air Canada.
We are not doing this to take sides. We are not doing this to punish any of the parties. We also are not doing this because it is an easy solution to a difficult problem. We are doing this because it is the right thing to do. We need to do this because it is necessary to protect the Canadian public and Canada's economy recovery that we are all counting on for growth and prosperity in the years to come. Time is of the essence. We must act now.
We need to ensure that Air Canada's operations continue at regular peak period capacity before serious damage is inflicted on our economy. We need to act before Canadian businesses suffer and go elsewhere, and before travelling Canadians have their vacation plans ruined. Under these circumstances at the present time, this is not what the economy needs and it is certainly not what the travelling public needs.
Would our government have preferred that the parties come to an agreement on their own? Absolutely. My hon. colleague, the Minister of Labour, is on the record saying repeatedly that the best solution to a labour dispute is when the parties can resolve their differences together without a work stoppage. In fact, 94% of labour negotiations in Canada are settled without a work stoppage. That statistic is not lost on either employers or unions in Canada. There is a better way to solve these disputes and the better way is the path chosen by the parties in an overwhelming majority of cases. In spite of what we wish and, of course, what we find works in the majority of cases, these points do not change the fact that the two disputes are still before us today.
We need to consider the following. On February 10, 2012, IAMAW and Air Canada reached a tentative agreement. However, on February 22, 2012, the union informed the employer that its membership had rejected the agreement. On March 17, 2011, ACPA and Air Canada reached a tentative agreement. On May 19, 2011, the union informed the employer that its membership voted to reject the tentative agreement. That is two tentative agreements that Air Canada reached with two separate bargaining units, two tentative agreements that the respective union memberships voted to reject.
The threat of labour action can be a tool in labour negotiations. It can bring pressure to bear on an employer, which is a legitimate prerogative, but the effect of this pressure does not end at Air Canada. Everyone who depends on air transport feels it and is potentially affected by it. That includes those who are travelling for business, school, new opportunities, vacations or to visit their loved ones.
As everyone knows, Air Canada has an excellent safety record. Air Canada follows rigorous safety rules and procedures. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represents Air Canada employees who are responsible for the technical, maintenance and operations services, including cabin grooming, aircraft cleaning, the handling of baggage and the purchases and distribution of parts and supplies. In effect, they are a fundamental component of making Air Canada transportation operations move smoothly, safely and efficiently. They are skilled workers who cannot be easily replaced.
In addition, Air Canada's pilots are responsible for the operation of the aircraft, the safety of passengers and crew members and all flight decisions once in the air. The pilots are obviously a fundamental and key component in the safety of Air Canada's operations. Again, these are highly -trained and skilled workers who are not easily replaceable. Therefore, work stoppages by either of these groups of valuable workers would have a far-reaching economic impact. A work stoppage could threaten the very future of Air Canada. The direct impact on Air Canada could be severe at a time when it is facing financial constraints.
We need to consider the impact on the travelling public and businesses that use Air Canada. To properly understand the scale of that impact, it helps if we look at the size of Air Canada's operations. Air Canada is Canada's largest domestic U.S. transborder and international airline and the largest provider of scheduled passenger services in the Canadian market, the Canada-U.S. transborder market and in the international market to and from Canada. Air Canada serves over 32 million customers annually and provides direct passenger service to 170 destinations on five different continents.
A disruption at Air Canada could cost the Canadian economy as much as $22.4 million a week for every week that it is allowed to continue. However, financial figures are only one of the ways that we can measure the cost of a labour dispute. There is also the cost of jobs lost. There is the cost of lost time and of missed opportunities for every business that relies on Air Canada. There is the cost of someone being stranded, or someone whose business is grounded.
We must also consider the impact on other Air Canada employees. There are approximately 25,000 staff directly employed by Air Canada and there are another 250,000 staff members indirectly related to Air Canada who would be affected. Many of these employees have families. If the airline were to be grounded, all of these direct and indirect employees, as well as their families, would be affected.
As we see, every action has consequences. There would be a ripple effect as the losses are compounded affecting stakeholders in the process. The reduced operations at Air Canada would adversely affect Canada's airports and Air Canada's third party suppliers. What about the passengers? Alternative carriers are not always readily available. Even if passengers switched to other modes of transportation, as suggested by the member opposite, they would suffer inconvenience as well as extra costs. Those who could not switch may be left in a difficult spot and could find themselves stranded at an airport or elsewhere.
As we have said before, over one million passengers are scheduled to travel with Air Canada over the March break period. That is a huge number of Canadians. That means hundreds of thousands of Canadian families' travel plans would be affected or even cancelled due to a work stoppage. What is clear is that these two labour disputes involve more than just Air Canada and its machinists and aerospace workers, more than just Air Canada and its pilots. It involves all Canadians who are stakeholders, whether they want to be or not. Clearly the public interest is at stake and that is why we must act for the continuation and resumption of air service operations at Air Canada.
Some might ask what today's actions say about the status of collective bargaining in Canada. Let me address that point. The Canada Labour Code strikes a balance between rights and interests of employers and workers. The code reinforces a long-standing tradition of co-operative labour management relationships. It recognizes the principles of freedom of association and free collective bargaining. It promotes the negotiation of terms and conditions of employment and the constructive settlement of disputes.
The Canada Labour Code does not promote government intervention. Rather it is designed to help labour and management settle their differences on their own. The code provides a framework for constructive dispute settlement in federally regulated workspaces and this process is usually all that is required. As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of collective agreements are negotiated successfully, with compromises made on both sides. If the parties are unable to resolve their differences on their own, the Canada Labour Code provides a process of conciliation and mediation.
The first step in this process is one where the parties file a notice of dispute with the Minister of Labour. The minister can then appoint one or more conciliator officers. If the conciliators are not successful, mediators can be called in. These mediators work intensively with the parties to avert a work stoppage and if these efforts fail, the Canada Labour Code also allows the employer and the union to offer binding arbitration if they both agree. Twenty-one days after the conciliation process ends, the union acquires the right to strike and the employer acquires the right to lock out their employees. At that point, the union must give the employer and the Minister of Labour 72 hours notice in advance of a strike. The employer must do the same if it plans a lockout.
Let me give the House a little background on these two disputes to show how the Government of Canada has worked to try to help each one of these parties every step of the way. The collective agreement covering a unit of approximately 8,200 employees engaged in technical, maintenance and operating support functions expired on March 31, 2011. The workers represented by IAMAW have been working without a renewed contract since that time. On December 21, 2011, a conciliator commissioner was appointed to assist the parties in their negotiations. Even though both parties reached a tentative agreement on February 10, with the assistance of a conciliator commissioner, it was defeated in a ratification vote by the union membership on February 22. The parties acquired the legal right to strike or lockout on March 12.
In the case of the Air Canada Pilots Association, its collective agreement, which covers 3,000 pilots, expired on March 31, 2011. On March 17, 2011, the parties reached a tentative agreement. However, on May 19, 2011 the deal was rejected by a vote of the ACPA membership. Again, another tentative agreement reached by Air Canada and one of its bargaining agents was rejected by the union membership. A conciliation officer was then appointed to assist the parties on November 10, 2011. Further to that, two co-mediators were appointed on February 16 of this year to work with the parties through a six month mediation period.
Despite all of this assistance, including meetings with the Minister of Labour, the parties have been unable to reach a deal.
The minister spoke very clearly on this issue, saying:
|| Our Government is concerned that a strike at Air Canada would have a significantly negative impact on families and our national economy....We encourage both parties to avoid a work stoppage and restore confidence for the traveling public and Canadian job creators that rely on commercial air services.
This government believes in the principle of free collective bargaining. We have made the resources of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service fully available to both parties in an effort to help them reach a negotiated arrangements. However, despite these efforts, work stoppages are still being considered.
These disputes have gone on long enough. We will not wait to see how much damage a work stoppage could do to our fragile economy. History teaches us a sober lesson about what happens when we stand by and do nothing.
Thirty-five work stoppages have occurred in the air transport industry since 1984. Six of these stoppages, about a fifth of them, have involved Air Canada. The most significant of these was in 1998, when 2,100 airline pilots went on strike for 13 days. Financial industry analysts tell us that Air Canada lost about $300 million because of the cancelled flights. That was 13 years ago, in a booming economy, both domestically and internationally. The severity of the damage this time around would be unimaginable.
Markets do not like uncertainty. Businesses do not like it either. There would be a price paid for every day that we let uncertainty overtake our air transportation system.
Air Canada is already struggling. Just a few weeks ago, Air Canada reported a higher than expected $80 million fourth-quarter loss. Now it has to contend with the cost of a strike by its machinists and aerospace workers.
All other avenues have been explored to resolve this dispute. Government action right now is necessary to solve this problem. It would end the uncertainty of this important sector of our economy. The business of Canada depends upon this, not just our industry but also our citizens. Canadians are counting on the Government of Canada to do the right thing. They expect us to act to protect our economy, to protect jobs, growth and prosperity. Ensuring the continuation and resumption of air service operations at Air Canada would help restore that certainty.
We need to keep the planes in the air. We need to keep our economy moving and working and not lose the momentum that we have worked so hard to create over the last number of months. Therefore, I urge my fellow parliamentarians to support the government in keeping Air Canada flying. Let us work together to do the right thing for all Canadians.
Mr. Dennis Bevington (Western Arctic, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am actually not very pleased to have to stand again and speak to an issue of this nature, dealing with a motion to cut the time we can spend debating the issue of whether we should support the back to work legislation which the Conservatives have sponsored.
I listened to the Minister of Labour's speech. She said that there is more at stake than what is at the bargaining table.That statement is very true. What is at stake with the legislation and the particular approach the Conservatives have taken?
First, when we talk about process in the House, we have a motion that is dedicated to eliminating any discussion on this issue. That is one thing that is very clear. We have some very significant issues with that.
The Conservatives are basing their argument on the principle that this work stoppage, this labour issue, is going to affect the national economy very seriously. We have heard other things from the member for Simcoe--Grey. She said that the work stoppage and disruptions could cost Air Canada $22 million a week. Carried over a year, that figure would be about $1 billion. Out of a $1.5 trillion Canadian economy, it does not appear to be as large a figure. If there was a two or three week labour stoppage, we would be dealing with an impact on the economy of less than $100 million, according to the figures supplied in the speech that was just given.
We are dealing with legislation that is ostensibly put forward for one reason only, to stop the labour dispute because it affects the economy, yet the figures that have been given are laughable.
I also heard concern about not being able to get vaccinations into northern and remote parts of the country. Anyone who lives in a remote part of our country realizes that Air Canada is not the provider of transportation services there. A strike would have to include First Air, Canadian North, and many other sub-carriers which carry people all over the country. They are not part of Air Canada. The remote regions of our country are not going to be impacted tremendously by this labour dispute. That is just not going to happen.
As for the issue of major Canadian transportation across the country, there is another airline that does that very well: WestJet. It does not have executive seats. Maybe that is one thing the Conservative Party is worried about. I walk past many government members on the way back to economy class on Air Canada when I go across the country. I would put that as a very serious consideration.
The bill has more at stake than what is at the bargaining table. Since it got its majority, the government has been dedicated to crushing labour. It identifies organized labour as a prime opposition to its continued hold over the country. The government is taking very firm action right at the beginning to make sure it separates what it considers to be its problem from its legitimate place in Canadian society, with legitimate rights of collective bargaining. This is what is going on here. It is another step. Perhaps it is not as dramatic as the postal work stoppage that we had to deal with in June, but it is one which is clearly along the same lines.
Let us talk about what the Conservative government has not done for the aviation industry to help these companies so that they can afford to pay the workers a decent wage. One is that the government views the industry as a cash cow.
If we look at what the U.S. government charges its airport facilities for rent versus what the Canadian government does with our airports, we would see a remarkable difference. On the one hand the government says it does not want to get involved in a labour dispute, but on the other hand it collects money from the very airline it is supporting. That has made the airline less competitive in the world. Many Canadians cross the border to get flights from the United States. We see that loss of passenger services.
All these things add up to airlines that cannot compete as well. It is not about the cost of wages. Many other factors enter into why our airlines are having trouble today.
Is it the number of passengers on the flights? No. Actually the number of passenger seats that are filled is higher than it has been for a long time. In other words, domestic flights are fuller than they have been in a very long time, so the aviation industry is actually healthy when it comes to that.
It is not healthy in the extra charges, the security charges. What we have to pay for security in Canada, a country where security is not--