On a purely pragmatic level, federal Labour Minister Kellie Leitch must be pleased that the mere threat of back-to-work legislation got CP Rail trains running on time Monday.
When it comes to democratic principle, however, Canadian conservatives should be no happier than their liberal and left compatriots at the eagerness of a Conservative government to meddle in private sector contract disputes. As the Opposition parties were quick to point out, the labour minister’s bill-that-never-was constitutes the seventh time since 2006 that the Harper administration has used the raw power of the State to redirect labour negotiations to its liking.
“It is,” as NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice put it, “becoming a bad habit.”
His comment was no less on point just because the legislation was ultimately never tabled. Less than 24 hours after about 3,000 members of the Teamsters went on strike against CP Rail, the company and the union announced they were entering mediated arbitration. That instantly made the work stoppage old news, and left Leitch’s legislation stillborn thirty minutes before she was to introduce it in the House of Commons.
In fairness, in her speech before the bill was to be introduced, the minister was emphatic that she preferred a negotiated settlement to the government stepping in with two-tonne political boots. Equally, though, she insisted there was little choice but to order workers back on the job given that a shutdown of CP’s Canadian rail operations would cost the country roughly $200 million a week in lost economic activity.
Leitch said the company and the union had been given “ample time” to work out their differences, although their contract only formally expired at the end of December and talks had only been going on in earnest since November. Three months at any bargaining table hardly constitutes intractable talks.
Still, Leitch said: “Rail services must continue. The economy is our top priority. [A strike] would have a detrimental effect on our [international] reputation as a reliable trading partner.”
The kindest account of her remarks is that they epitomize the Harper government’s weakness for tin-eared talking points. They represent an utter failure to recognize, for example, that even the Teamsters could not be automatically and unilaterally blamed for any interrupted rail services. The company, after all, was at the bargaining table, too. Did it not have an obligation to make concessions that would allow rail service to continue?
Worse yet is the minister’s implicit assumption that workers, duly exercising their legal rights and acting in their own economic best interests, are somehow a subordinate part of the Canadian economy. If the economy is the government’s top priority, shouldn’t fair treatment of labour be an integral element of its strategy? Indeed, how is it that such a bizarre formulation should come from a federal labour minister, whose very job signals the indispensability of labour to the economy.
Worst of all is her insistence that our international reputation as reliable traders trumps the risk of Canada being seen as a country where respect for fair negotiation of contract gives way to the State routinely placing its heavy thumb on the scale to favour private corporate interest.
There is a name for that form of conservatism, and it is much uglier than a mere bad habit. It is something that no appeal to mere pragmatism can excuse. We are, it must be stressed, a long, long way from that. But each time the Harper government intervenes on behalf of profit-making companies to legislate unionized workers back to private sector jobs, it feels as if we are getting closer than democratic principle should allow.