Stacking the deck against labour

Every Canadian who voted in the last federal election knew that Stephen Harper’s government has a strong pro-business bias. We didn’t know until this week that, with a majority government in hand, he would so hastily abuse the rights of working Canadians.

Every Canadian who voted in the last federal election knew that Stephen Harper’s government has a strong pro-business bias.

We didn’t know until this week that, with a majority government in hand, he would so hastily abuse the rights of working Canadians.

On Monday, Harper’s parliamentary secretary to the minister of labour implied that her government had no plans to force striking postal employees back to work.

“The best solution is one that the parties come up with together, by themselves,” Conservative MP Kellie Leitch told the House of Commons.

“The minister is monitoring the situation closely and will continue to provide the parties with the support and assistance required through the mediator,” Leitch added.

She was right in her first comment. Support and assistance, however, seems tilted one way.

The very next day, after Canada Post locked out its workers, preventing them from doing their jobs, Harper’s government announced legislation that will force the company to open its doors and oblige employees to return to work.

Since June 2, the 50,000 striking posties had been legally engaged in rotating walkouts that limited, the disruption of mail service nationally.

Last weekend, for example, postal workers staged a 48-hour walkout at the Red Deer mail-sorting plant.

The effect of that job action was almost wholly symbolic. Under normal weekend conditions, that plant is closed for 44 of those 48 hours.

Strikers’ actions seemed designed to pressure Canada Post to negotiate a new deal, while letting mail flow at a reduced rate and limiting the costly consequences of a full-blown strike.

On the surface, the crisis of a full shutdown looks like precisely what Canada Post management hoped to trigger by locking out workers this week.

Based on the evidence, who can blame them? They saw what happened in the Air Canada strike.

At Air Canada, 3,800 check-in and call centre employees walked out on Tuesday.

Airline management had plenty of notice that this was coming; it had prepared non-union managers to fulfil duties of those on the picket lines.

That day, frequent flyers noted that in some places, Air Canada had four or five ticket stations open at times of the day where, normally, only one or two would be staffed.

News stories said traffic was moving smoothly and very few disruptions were noted.

At the end of a largely uneventful Day 1, however, Harper’s government pronounced the situation intolerable.

Air Canada is too important to the national economy, his labour minister said, and legislation would be expedited to force its employees back to work.

There’s no question that in Canada, with a small population thinly spread over a huge land mass, air travel is vital to our prosperity. Air Canada, with its size and reach, remains the dominant carrier.

The company and its employees have to work together for their mutual and our national benefit.

The federal government has rights and responsibilities to manage for the national benefit as well.

That includes the ability to impose back-to-work legislation when there’s clear evidence that labour disruptions are threatening the economy.

A quiet, one-day walkout by some staff at one airline — even one as important as Air Canada — does not constitute that proof.

The Harper government’s expressed intent to force striking Air Canada workers back to their jobs tilts the bargaining table immediately and steeply.

Why would management at any company in a labour dispute bargain seriously for a new contract while knowing that dragging its heels will lead the federal government to assist it?

It sure didn’t take Canada Post management long to learn that lesson.

One day after Harper’s government announced its intention to force striking airline workers back to their jobs, Canada Post management preempted rotating, short-term work stoppages in limited locations by locking out the entire bargaining unit.

Harper’s government has clearly put the hammer in management’s hands.

In the short term, employees will be forced back to their jobs.

Long-term consequences are less obvious, but potentially poisonous.

Impetus for management to bargain diligently for a fair and balanced deal diminishes with knowledge that government will come to their assistance to force a contract settlement.

That, in turn, will diminish respect of front-line workers for their bosses, and ultimately, prospects for the enterprise.

In all industries — but especially those like airlines and postal service, where employee-customer relationships are paramount — a demoralized workforce can be toxic.

Short-term gain in federally regulated industries may translate into long-term pain, when government gives workers reasons to distrust their bosses.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.