06/22/2011 07:22 EDT | Updated 08/22/2011 05:12 EDT

Harper vs. Unions: Labour Battle In the Making Over Back-To-Work Bills: Expert

AP File

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - The Conservative government is spoiling for a fight with Canada's labour movement, says the head of one of the largest public sector unions in the country.

Two sets of labour disputes triggering immediate back-to-work legislation within the space of a week are ringing alarm bells in union shops across the country, said John Gordon, the national president of the Public Sector Alliance of Canada.

"The style this government has taken, the tone it is setting, is going to have repercussions," he said.

"We will not stand back idly and watch the government do this. If they are pushing for a major battle on the labour front they are going in the right direction."

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is currently trying to referee the dispute between Canada Post and its locked-out employees via back-to-work legislation that would force each side to submit its final offer to an arbitrator who would pick the better choice.

The government has said it hopes the threat of legislation compels the two sides to reach their own agreement; Air Canada and its striking workers announced an agreement only hours after the Tories introduced back-to-work legislation to end that dispute last week. The airline workers had been on strike for a day when the bill was brought forward.

Wages, however, are a major difference between the two bills.

The Air Canada legislation made no mention of how much employees should get paid. The Canada Post bill sets out wage increases which the Canadian Union of Postal Workers says are less than what Canada Post put forward in its final offer.

The last time postal workers were legislated back to their routes in 1997, the bill also provided lower wages than what management had on the table.

Labour relations expert George Smith said he's hopeful it's just a political tactic on the part of the Conservatives.

It's possible, he suggested, that it will force postal workers to make other concessions in order to achieve the higher wage rate, thus allowing a deal to get done before the bill passes.

"If it is a pressure tactic, and it works, then everyone goes home safe," said Smith.

He said "the longer term implications" include a "signal there's a change in labour relations policy at the federal level in this country that has issues relative to how parties get along, how they discuss, debate and make change and how they implement it."

Opposition Leader Jack Layton said the legislation also suggests to workers that if they don't accept management terms, the government will step in and impose them.

"How is that possibly to be considered fair?" Layton asked in the Commons.

Harper did not explain why the wages were included in the bill.

"There have been a series of strikes and lockouts in a dispute between these two parties that is beginning to damage a large number of people who do not sit at the table," the prime minister said in response.

"The government is acting to protect those interests and the wage rates laid out in the legislation are the rates that this government agreed to with its other public service workers and that's a fair settlement for Canada Post workers as well."

The government attitude raises a red flag for the public sector.

PSAC currently has two contracts up for negotiation, said the union president.

"It certainly puts us on alert as to how we're going to conduct ourselves during negotiations," Gordon said.

"If the government wants to act in that way, we'll take them on."

Smith cautioned that critics shouldn't necessarily see the bill as a boon to management, as they will be forced to implement a contract their workers don't want.

"Change is a negotiated process and, as an employer, you've got to negotiate and get your union and your employees to agree. It can't be directed," he said.

"This is taking us down the road of a directed change which isn't a meaningful change because it won't be implemented. It will be resisted."

MPs began debating a motion Tuesday on expediting the bill through the parliamentary process. The Conservatives have now forced an end to that debate, meaning discussion on the bill itself will begin in earnest on Thursday.

"Well, I'm hopeful that we can finish it off, if not on Thursday, perhaps on Friday," government House leader Peter Van Loan told reporters.

"Then it has to be dealt with at the Senate, so that could mean postal service as early as next week."

The Opposition parties say they won't support the bill.

"I say the Conservative government should be ashamed of themselves," New Democrat MP Yves Godin said earlier Tuesday. "Yes, they did get (voter) support. Yes, they are here in a majority government.

"But did they tell all the workers what they will do with them if they got elected? Did we see in their platform that they will legislate people to work with a collective agreement with less than what the operator will give them?"

"They are setting a precedent and I think everyone will pay a very high price for that," Godin said in French.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the proposed law is undemocratic, although he added his party recognizes that the public wants the postal lockout to end.

But Rae said there are specific reasons why the legislation is bad news.

"It's the way in which the discretion of the arbitrator has been entirely tied and fettered by what the government has done," he said.

Rae said the Tories cynically set a political trap for the NDP by going so far off-side with the legislation. Godin's inflamed reaction in the House helped illustrate the point, he said.

The debate is pitting workers' rights against the economic needs of society.

"I think the government is engaging us in an act of political theatre, knowing full well there are some in this House who will simply play the game in response," Rae said.

He said the "bait has been laid and the bait has been taken."

"It's too bad for Canada that we don't have a pragmatic, practical approach to the resolution of a dispute which is there to be found."

Urban postal operations were suspended countrywide last Wednesday after nearly two weeks of rotating strikes by the union.

The Crown corporation has said the main sticking point in the dispute is the union's demand for staffing levels beyond the capability of Canada Post, adding that wages were not the key disagreement.

The union has been emphasizing working conditions and safety issues, as well as arguing that new employees would receive inferior wages and pensions.

Canada Post says it's losing about $25 million a day as a result of the dispute.