OTTAWA - Barely 12 hours after the House of Commons forced through legislation ordering CP Rail workers back to work, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt asked unionized employees to voluntarily end their strike.
The turn of events came Wednesday as Bill C-39, the third back-to-work legislation tabled by the Conservative government in the last year, stalled momentarily in the Senate.
The upper chamber is expected to hear briefly from witnesses Thursday before passing the legislation, setting up a likely Friday timeline for a return of freight service.
For Raitt, that's not fast enough. She had hoped the trains would be moving by Thursday morning.
Conservatives claim the strike is costing the Canadian economy $75 million to $80 million a day.
The minister accused the Liberal minority in the Senate of obstructing the back-to-work bill and said she wants 4,800 striking members of the Teamsters union and CP Rail to voluntarily get the trains rolling again almost immediately.
"I'm asking the Teamsters and CP Rail to return to work starting from now in 12 hours," Raitt said following the afternoon question period in the House of Commons.
"As soon as they can get back on the rails, I'm asking them to voluntarily return to work."
An official with the Teamsters, asked for reaction, said it was the first he'd heard of Raitt's pitch and would not immediately comment.
Some 220 rail traffic controllers and 4,200 various locomotive engineers, conductors, yardmen and others walked off the job last Wednesday after talks broke down.
The union subsequently claimed that the Conservative government's quick avowal later the same day to introduce back-to-work legislation poisoned the atmosphere and gave the company no incentive to return to good-faith bargaining.
The bill was introduced when Parliament returned on Monday from a week-long break, and the Harper government used its majority to force the legislation through the Commons in a single, 14-hour marathon that ended just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
By noon Wednesday, Raitt was already chafing that the bill did not appear set to speed through the Conservative-dominated Senate in a single sitting.
"The clock is ticking and it is on their conscience," she said of Liberal senators.
But Liberals said the party agreed to cut the usual 48-hour waiting period in half, and that the bill would be dealt with in short order. Indeed, when the government introduced the bill in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon it asked for — and received — unanimous consent to deal with the legislation at the next sitting: Thursday.
"It's not being delayed by anybody," said Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader.
"We do want to make sure that witnesses can appear and that people are allowed to have their say. But there's no desire on our part that there should be any delay."
Raitt, representatives of the company, the union, and a couple of academic experts are expected to speak to the Senate in 45-minute segments Thursday before the final votes are held and the bill receives royal assent from the Governor General.
The political she-said, he-said leaves thousands of CP Rail customers hanging for another day, but with the certain prospect of freight service resuming by the weekend.
"Both union and management at CP forget that it is farmers' money that helps pay their wages and yet it is farmers that suffer financially when they can't negotiate settlements in good faith," Richard Phillips, the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada, said in a release.
The official Opposition New Democrats opposed the back-to-work bill and also want the Senate abolished, leaving them Wednesday crying a pox on both the Conservative and Liberal houses.
Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader, said workers have had their rights stripped away by the Conservatives and yet now Raitt is seeking a voluntary compromise.
"She's created a circumstance in which that is impossible," said Cullen, who argues CP Rail and the union should have been left to work out their differences in free collective bargaining.
As for the temporary Senate impasse, Cullen was not sympathetic.
"Taking lessons on accountability and democracy from the Conservatives? Particularly with the Senate, which they stuffed to a new record high of 26 (appointees) in one year?" he said.
"For them to now complain about the unaccountability of the Senate is a bit rich."
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.