PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Labour Minister Lisa Raitt won’t risk a strike at Air Canada disrupting March break, and tabled back-to-work legislation that passed a House of Commons vote Wednesday to send the dispute to binding arbitration.
“Our government is very concerned that a disruption at Air Canada will damage Canada’s fragile economic recovery,” Raitt said when introducing the legislation Monday.
She said a million Canadians are set to travel and would be left stranded should the airline’s pilots or machinists strike or be locked out.
“We will take swift action to ensure that Canada’s economic recovery isn’t negatively affected, and that Canadians across the country who rely on air services are not unduly impacted.”
Raitt rejected a reporter’s suggestion that she made frequent use of back-to-work legislation, citing some 35 times Parliament has passed similar legislation since 1950, noting that Liberal governments were behind 19 of those.
Raitt has tabled such legislation three times, in 2009 for railway operations, 2011 for Canada Post, and now for Air Canada. The record for the most back-to-work legislation in a single year goes to former PC Labour Minister Marcel Danil, who tabled three of four such acts in 1991 under Progressive Conservative PM Brian Mulroney.
“Right now the NDP is giving a speech talking about how we should let things stay the way they are,” Raitt said. “That’s unacceptable. You cannot have this impacting the economy and you just simply can’t strand millions of Canadians without any means of getting back to their homes. So we’re acting.”
Raitt said the work stoppage would knock 275,000 employees off the job and leave a million Canadians, mainly families, “scattered around the world.”
Motion Infringes on Charter
But pre-empting a strike was the wrong move, according to NDP Labour critic Yvon Godin.
He slammed Raitt for rushing her back-to-work legislation through Parliament, with speeches on the act limited to 10 minutes and no time for comments or questions. He said the two hours scheduled to the whole debate wasn’t enough, and that the motion itself infringes on the charter rights of both Air Canada workers and the company.
“For the government to get involved the way they are doing is sending a strong message to the business, ‘You don’t have to negotiate, just come see us, we’ll be there for you.’ I think we’ll go backwards, this country will go backwards.”
Godin said the move keeps the parties from sorting out their problems and is part of a pattern of undemocratic behaviour by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Air Canada had received strike notice from its machinists’ union March 7, with the work action scheduled to begin Monday, March 12. On March 8, Air Canada issued a notice to lock out pilots, which would have also taken effect March 12.
Later that day, Raitt referred labour dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board for review of whether a strike would affect the health and safety of Canadians. That move effectively suspended the strike and lockout notices.
With the legislation passed, the airline cannot lock out workers and workers cannot strike. It passed after a late-night session at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. The Tories carried it with 155 in support with 124 from the opposition benches against.
“With no prospect of resolution in sight, our Government acted to ensure air services are not halted which would in turn harm businesses and travellers alike,” Raitt said in a statement.