OTTAWA - Labour Minister Lisa Raitt says the government must act now to end a strike by 4,800 Canadian Pacific Railway workers in order to preserve the country's international reputation.
The Harper government is tabling back-to-work legislation, the third time it has intervened in a labour dispute in similar fashion in the last year.
"Simply put, the strike can't go on," Raitt told the House of Commons on Monday. "We need to get the trains running again."
She said Canada's reputation as an international business partner is at stake, and that CP Rail's business affects a million workers in the bulk shipping industry and has an impact of half a billion dollars a week on the Canadian economy.
"The work stoppage is preventing our ability to keep products moving in and out of Canada and that undermines Canada's reputation as a reliable place to do business," said Raitt.
Mediated contract talks between the railway and the Teamsters union representing locomotive engineers and conductors collapsed Sunday.
Raitt gave notice of intention to intervene shortly after last Wednesday morning's walkout halted CP's freight service across Canada, setting the stage for Monday's intervention.
The union says the company is demanding up to a 40 per cent cut in the earned pensions of employees, after making a $570 million profit last year.
"We've spent out entire careers paying for this, contributing to this and relying on this," Doug Finnson, union vice-president and chief negotiator told a news conference on Parliament Hill.
"And because the shareholders want increased value, they want to squeeze it out of our pension plan and then put it over to the shareholders."
The labour unrest comes amid front-office turmoil that saw CP's chief executive officer Fred Green and much of the old company board forced out by an investor revolt, led by New York-based investor Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management LP.
The departing CEO, who Ackman accused of running an underperforming company, ended up walking away with an $18-million severance package, a point dryly noted by Liberal House leader Marc Garneau.
Opposition critics say the Conservative government's heavy-handed use of back-to-work legislation is undermining the right to collective bargaining and will hurt the wages of all workers, unionized or not.
"If employers know they can count on the government to intervene on their side to put an end to collective bargaining, then there's less need for them to have good-faith negotiations at the bargaining table," said Peggy Nash, the NDP finance critic and a former union negotiator.
"You always have a better outcome when the two parties freely come to an agreement on their own."
Added the Liberals' Garneau: "The whole process of collective bargaining in good faith is brought to a grinding halt. The government does this every time."
Raitt, as she has done with previous labour disputes at Air Canada and Canada Post, cited the damage to the economic recovery for quickly legislating an end to work stoppages.
But she held out hope that a negotiated deal could still be found. In the case of both Canada Post and Air Canada, workers ended up returning to the job under the threat of the legislation, without actually being forced by law back to work.
The government says a prolonged strike by CP Rail workers could cost the Canadian economy $540 million a week.
"The economic impact on the Canadian economy is significant day after day," said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
"We're in a time of fragile economic recovery and it's important that we not have shocks within our own economy at this time, we want to make sure we continue on the path of moderate economic growth."
All the government talk of economic necessity did not impress NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"I don't understand why the government doesn't include workers when it talks about the economy ... people working are the economy," said Cullen.
"And this government seems to have no concern for them, particularly if they hold a union card."
He said all workers should be worried by the government's actions.
"It will suppress wages whether you're in a union or not."
Indeed, the Teamsters union claims CP management was negotiating in bad faith in the full knowledge the federal government would ride to the rescue.
"It's only because the government is going to act that CP is not at the table," said Finnson. "That's the only reason they're not here, because they think they have an insurance policy in the federal government."
And he too warned that all Canadian workers should sit up and take notice.
"If CP hits a home run on this one and they can steal our pension money, other employers are going to line up and try to do the same thing, I suspect," said Finnson.
Labour Day: A Canadian Invention
Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.
The Regina Riot
During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.
In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.
Giant Mine Bombing
In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.
The Toronto G20
The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.
When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.