Conservative government out to undercut unions, critics say

NDP labour critic Yvon Godin is not alone in his assessment of a bleak future for unionized workers.

"This is only the beginning — no matter what," the New Brunswick MP, former miner and Steelworkers' negotiator told the Toronto Star. He was referring to labour disputes with Air Canada and Canada Post that have involved Parliament in the early days of the Conservatives' first majority mandate.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper "has made it clear he's only here for the big employers," Godin said from Ottawa before leaving for this weekend's NDP national convention in Vancouver. "It's a message to all workers that they don't matter anymore . . . Do we really want a return to the Dirty Thirties (and a Depression)?"

The result, he argues, will be an unsettling future of labour unrest.

The Conservative government acted swiftly in both disputes. After Canada Post locked out postal workers involved in rotating strikes on June 15, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt announced back-to-work legislation within hours. It will be tabled in the Commons Monday.

The government planned similar legislation for striking Air Canada customer service and sales staff. However, the issue became moot when the company and the Canadian Auto Workers' union reached a settlement — with talks continuing on the dispute over pensions.

Union members and labour analysts fear this government has tougher measures in store, including concern about the Conservative party's recent resolution calling for better protection for replacement workers. As well, they point out a potential for "poison pills" hidden in back-to-work legislation for postal workers, such as the worst-case scenario of curtailment of the right to strike for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said his party will study the legislation carefully when it is introduced Monday. He says Harper's "authoritarian, command-and-control approach clearly puts the government on one side in labour disputes — management's side. It's going to make future bargaining more difficult."

In the Commons, Harper said government actions are necessary to prevent "significant damage to the Canadian economy. The government has not taken a stand on the issues."

Carla Lipsig-Mummé, founding director of the Centre for Research on Work and Society at York University, says she's concerned about the potential for further federal legislation that restricts workers' rights.

"I worry considerably because the government has shown itself to be so hostile to unions . . . It indicates this government is ready to go to lengths we have never seen in Canada to essentially threaten unions.

"It's a green light to companies — 'You can behave as badly as you want and we will support you.'"

An internationally recognized expert on workplace issues, Lipsig-Mummé said she saw no reason to legislate against postal workers when its union offered to accept the existing contract and continue negotiations in order to keep the mail moving. She called the government's actions "unconscionable and unwise."

CUPW president Denis Lemelin said the message in rotating strikes, including to small businesses, was that "we'll keep the mail moving. There will be delays but you will receive your mail."

Lemelin said in an interview the union is fighting Canada Post's efforts to treat new hires differently, both in wages, pension and other benefits. "What kind of society do we want to create? One in which there are still good jobs or one in which we try to create cheap labour at any cost?"

The June 15 lockout of postal workers happened so rapidly, some CUPW insiders suggest Canada Post laid a trap for the union.

"That's absolutely untrue," said Jon Hamilton, general manager for communications at Canada Post. "If you look at what has been happening in the rotating strikes, the revenue loss to Canada Post has been $100 million . . . We could not continue to live with that kind of national uncertainty."

Lipsig-Mummé doesn't buy the argument the Canadian public, hit by job losses, layoffs and reduced wages and benefits, has little sympathy for labour disputes.

"There is a fairly ingrained sense of fairness among Canadians," she said. "(The government's actions) are not the way we work in Canada . . . Here is a government that wishes to signal it will be tough on unions that undercut the Canadian economy but in neither case (Air Canada and Canada Post) can they show real damage to the economy."

Toronto Star, Fri Jun 17 2011
Byline: Linda Diebel

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