OTTAWA - Back-to-work legislation for striking Canadian Pacific Rail workers cleared the Senate to become law Thursday, but Labour Minister Lisa Raitt is predicting it will take weeks to clear the backlog of freight once trains start rolling Friday morning.
Some 4,800 locomotive engineers, conductors, yardmen and others walked off the job nine days ago, crippling the country's biggest freight rail carrier.
CP Rail said the company's plan was to have cars rolling 12 hours after the bill received royal assent. The union representing the workers issued a news release late Thursday saying it disagreed with the law, but was advising its members to obey it and report for work Friday morning.
Even before the final Senate vote, VIA Rail, which uses some CP track, was informing customers that service would return to normal Friday, with the exception of a northern Ontario route that will be back on line Saturday.
CP Rail expects freight service will return to full capacity 48 hours after the wheels start turning, said spokesman Ed Greenberg, although clearing the backlog is more difficult to assess.
"We have lost nine days of loading," Raitt told an emergency debate in the upper chamber Thursday afternoon, where she was making a last pitch to speed through the legislation.
By way of illustration, Raitt said there are six ships currently in the port of Vancouver awaiting overseas grain shipments, and another eight ships are on their way to Vancouver. Each ship requires half a day to load.
"Even when the trains do start rolling it will take weeks for the backlog to clear, and customers don't forget this," said Raitt. "This is a setback from which it could take years to recover lost business and lost investments."
The bill sends the labour dispute to a government-appointed arbitrator, who has 90 days to impose a deal on the two sides — unless they can negotiate one themselves in the interim.
The Harper government has been both lauded and criticized for swiftly ending the labour disruption, which Raitt claims cost the economy half a billion dollars a week.
But Thursday's emergency committee-of-the-whole in the Senate — the only parliamentary body to actually hear witnesses on the contentious back-to-work bill — offered several surprises.
"This bill is fair. It is a fair bill. It gives us an option or a chance to perhaps get a good deal," Phil Benson, a lobbyist representing the Teamsters Canada union, told the Senate.
But Benson said previous heavy-handed back-to-work bills by the Conservative government that favoured Air Canada and Canada Post management led CP Rail to bargain in bad faith, fully expecting to get the same soft treatment.
"I firmly believe if that elephant hadn't been in the room — the previous back-to-work laws — we wouldn't be here. I really believe we would have had a deal," said Benson.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal agreed, although he framed the issue more broadly as a long-standing pattern of back-to-work bills by successive governments, Liberal and Conservative.
Segal asked Raitt whether her legislation would "further feed the pattern that there is no real need for either side to give or bend or reach or stretch to achieve a negotiated settlement" because they know the government will ultimately step in.
Raitt, to her credit, called the repeated precedents "troubling."
"Being in government, you have to make tough decisions," she added.
Raitt said that companies and unions should agree to arbitration of their own making, rather than "essentially roll the dice and let a body in Ottawa determine how an important issue like pensions are going to be decided for the future or your company."
Pensions appear to be at the heart of the CP Rail dispute.
Peter Edwards, the company's vice-president of human resources and industrial relations, testified the company has poured $1.9 billion over the past three years into solvency deficits in the pension fund, with no end in sight.
And he noted the pension plan tops out at $93,000 a year for a locomotive engineer, compared to $60,000 for an engineer at competitor CN.
Benson, speaking for the Teamsters, later noted that no CP engineer had actually ever reached the pension cap — although management employees do and their pension is not on the table.
Liberal Senator Larry Campbell forced Edwards to acknowledge it was CP management that included the escalator cap in the pension some years ago.
In the testiest exchange of the day, Campbell said the back-to-work bill is saving the company from itself.
"What we're being asked to do basically is help you out of a huge bind that's of your own making," said the senator.
The Liberals in the Senate voted against the legislation but were easily out-voted by the Conservative-appointed majority.
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.