OTTAWA - Back-to-work legislation that will end a week-long strike by CP Rail workers is being put on Parliament's equivalent of a red-eye bullet train.
The Conservative government has used its majority to limit debate, setting in motion a series of overnight votes that will see the bill pass the House of Commons by Wednesday morning.
"The economy's being affected, there's no question about that at all," Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told the Commons during question period Tuesday.
Fast-tracking the bill through all stages was expected to take all Tuesday evening, with votes in the Commons until well after midnight. It will go to the Conservative-dominated Senate for Royal Assent on Wednesday.
"It's getting very tight for people who rely upon CP Rail and the transit of their goods and the receipt of their materials," Raitt said.
"And as such, for the greater good of the economy, we feel that the time has come where the negotiations have stopped, the work stoppage continues and we really do need to make sure that CP Rail gets working on Thursday."
But the union, backed by Opposition MPs, says the government's quick threat to order 4,800 engineers and conductors back on the job shortly after the strike began last Wednesday short-circuited talks at the bargaining table.
"When will these Conservatives figure out that workers are the backbone of the economy?" charged NDP critic Irene Mathyssen, noting a cut to the workers' pension fund "is at the heart of this dispute."
Mathyssen accused CP Rail, which posted a profit of $570 million last year, of going after the pension plan to increase its profitability and said the Harper government is enabling the company.
"Why are Conservatives always picking winners and losers and why is it that workers' pension are always under attack?"
Raitt pointed out that the back-to-work legislation calls for a government-appointed arbitrator to resolve outstanding differences within 90 days, and "doesn't pre-determined any issue."
"We are acting on the side of the Canadian economy and the general Canadian public interest," said Raitt.
"We're not the ones taking sides," added the minister. "I don't think the Opposition can say the same thing."
It's the third time in the past year the Harper government has moved to legislate an end to a labour dispute and critics say the government is tilting the field in favour of employers and against workers.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair opened the evening debate by saying the Conservatives have sent employers a clear signal with the repeated legislated back-to-work threats at Canada Post, Air Canada and now CP Rail.
"It send a terrible message that legislative settlement is the new labour relations norm in Canada," said Mulcair. "There is no incentive for the parties to negotiate in good faith if they know the government will step in."
About 100 CP Rail workers, members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, protested on the steps below Parliament's Peace Tower, where they met with a number of Liberal and NDP MPs.
Protesting employee Richard Moffat, president of a Teamsters local in Toronto and a locomotive engineer, said CP Rail is "asking for everything" and claimed the company has been aiming for an arbitrated settlement from the get-go.
"The back to work legislation puts us in arbitration — right where they want to be — by a Conservative-appointed arbitrator," said Moffat.
"And this all came from Lisa Raitt tipping her hand last week that she was going to order us back to work."
CP Rail countered Tuesday that "multiple reasonable and good faith offers" have been made to the unionized employees since talks began last October.
"The Teamsters pushed their members into an unnecessary work stoppage and have throughout the negotiations refused to minimize the impact on other affected CP employees, our customers and the Canadian economy," Peter Edward, the company's vice-president of human resources and industrial relations, said in a release.
Opposition MPs also complained that the government has used its majority to limit parliamentary debate 23 times since last May's election — but the government says that with CP freight traffic at a standstill and costing the economy half a billion dollars a week, time is of the essence.
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 a New York-based hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management LP.
Green, who was accused by Pershing principal Bill Ackman of running an under-performing company, walked away with an $18-million severance package.
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.