War on unions

The TelegramOpinionEditorial

October 14, 2011   http://www.thetelegram.com/

It’s hard to feel sympathy for workers protected by powerful unions. Many of them have healthy paycheques, a bathtub full of benefits and a modicum of job security.

There have been numerous attempts in the past to rein in labour unrest that threatens public safety or economic stability. In the case of public employees, governments of various stripes have resorted to legislation to break a deadlock.

But the single-minded zest with which the current federal government intervenes in labour situations is troubling.

In June, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt tabled legislation to end a postal strike, one day after rotating job action turned into a nationwide lockout.

No mere back-to-work bill, the Conservatives’ legislation stipulated lower wages than had been in the last offer to employees — a measure that, rather than reaching a fair conciliation, appeared to punish the union for not accepting the final offer.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers is now challenging that legislation in court, and is also challenging the choice of an arbitrator to mediate other issues.

On Thursday, Raitt unleashed a new tool in the fight against collective bargaining. She ordered a review by the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) into the ongoing dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants. The move stopped a planned strike in its tracks — indefinitely.

If a review of industrial relations sounds familiar, it’s because then-premier Danny Williams ordered one into the lengthy standoff between Vale and its Voisey’s Bay nickel mine workers in Labrador. But there were big differences between the two cases.

The Voisey’s Bay workers were already on strike, and several attempts to negotiate an end had proven fruitless. In other words, it was ordered as a last resort, not as an immediate stopgap. More importantly, the Voisey’s Bay inquiry had no legal mandate to force workers back to work. It could only lay bare the circumstances surrounding the labour strife.

Conservatives had already legislated Air Canada workers back to work three months before. With Parliament not in session, the CIRB review gave Raitt an instant means to avert a strike.

It is this unusual deployment of the CIRB that should raise eyebrows.

The board’s stated mandate is to “contribute to and promote a harmonious industrial relations climate in the federally regulated sector through the impartial, effective and appropriate administration of the rules of conduct that govern labour and management in their representational and bargaining activities.”

The CIRB was last employed in the spring of 2010 to establish successor rights for the union representing Canwest employees after that company sold off a number of TV stations.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions and recommendations the board reaches in its review of the Air Canada conflict.

But it will be even more interesting to see whether the Conservatives are willing to accept those findings on their face.

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