I bet hardly anyone can name the last two federal Ministers of Labour that preceded Lisa Raitt. This is usually a low-profile position in the federal government. Not under Raitt’s term. She may be the most visible Minister in Cabinet. She appears to be at the centre of yet another labour problem at Air Canada this morning. The ground crew and baggage handlers are engaged in a ‘wildcat’ strike–a strike that occurs when the workers are not in a legal strike position– to express frustration at Raitt’s constant interventions in collective bargaining.
The wildcat was apparently instigated by a stupid incident in which three AC employees clapped as Raitt walked past. AC decided to suspend the workers for 3 days (72 hours). Really? If that is the whole story, then really? AC must have known that suspending employees for expressing frustration with an interventionist Minister would spark a volatile situation. Remember when Minister of state for the Status of Women in Harper’s government, Helen Guergis, went nuts against some poor Air Canada employees just trying to do their jobs a while back? What discipline was imposed on her by the government? Nothing, actually. Clapping sarcastically is a 72 hour suspension. Really, Air Canada? The workers are saying they will continue their action for 72 hours.
Lesson one: We know from many years of history in Canada and elsewhere that law can only go so far in bottling worker frustration. Sooner or later, workers will resist what they perceive to be an unfair legal model.
Not that the wildcat strike is lawful. It is clearly a violation of the governments Protection of Air Services Act, and fines could be issued against the workers, discipline imposed, and if AC gets an injunction, it is even possible for prison sentences to be ordered for contempt (though that would be highly unusual in the modern era). Air Canada will probably file complaints. Whether they will seek to fine or discipline their own employees remains to be seen. The Machinists’ union could also be liable, but only if they can be assessed blame. Already, the union has be trying to get the workers back to work, as the newspaper story reports.
I’ve noted before, as have others, that the government’s one-sided intervention in favour of Air Canada is only going to make a bad employee relations situation even worse. A sensible labour relations model has to at least have the appearance of even-handedness, neutrality, and fairness. Otherwise, it will be perceived as illegitimate, and illegitimate legal systems have a propensity to be ignored or challenged. We are now seeing that prediction come true, with Air Canada pilots and ground crew resisting the government’s intervention on behalf of Air Canada.
What Would You Do if You Were in Charge of Air Canada’s Labour Relations?
I have no idea what is happening in talks, so can’t comment on what may or may not have been considered by the parties as a way out of this mess. I did express modest surprise that the parties (Air Canada and its unions) hadn’t reached an agreement to refer the bargaining dispute to a truly neutral arbitration process that both sides will perceive as fair, rather than the silly model that the Tories keep imposing, which is clearly intended to tilt the arbitration process in favour of the employer (see s. 14 of the Act). The Tory model is being challenged in multiple Charter challenges. I’m not sure if the unions would accept that deal, but they might. That approach will still not allow a strike or lockout, but it at least would extend a olive branch to the workers and allow for a dispute resolution process that will have a greater sense of legitimacy than the government’s model. That might be enough to allow the parties to move forward, and begin to mend the very strained relationship.
Is it legal for the parties to agree to bypass the arbitration model in the Protection of Air Services Act? Well, the Act itself seems silent on that issue (unless I’m missing something). The Canada Labour Code clearly envisions private agreements to refer bargaining disputes to an arbitration process (Section 79) It’s not clear to me whether the PASA intends to suspend that right, but I can’t imagine any policy reason why even this government would want to prevent the parties from working out their problems on their own.
On the other hand, Air Canada may dig in and rely on the government’s interventions and the strict letter of the law to punish and fine workers who strike, and continue to move forward with the government’s controversial arbitration model. That approach could get AC outcomes it perceives to be favourable to its business interests, even though it may do so at the expense of continued employee anger and resentment. That frustration may manifest itself in huge numbers of grievances under the new imposed agreement, and in general non-cooperation with the employer. In short, there are many ways to resist in a workplace that can make life difficult for managers. That is why sticking it to your workers in collective bargaining, just because you can, is not always a great labour relations strategy in the long-run. That is why the perception of a fair process matters.
Questions for Consideration:
If you were running Air Canada’s labour relations department, would you have suspended your employees for applauding the Minister?
Would you discipline and fine your employees who are engaging in this wildcat strike?
Would you agree with the unions to bypass the arbitration model in the legislation, which the workers and the unions believe is unfair and unconstitutional, and design a model with the unions that will be perceived as fair and neutral?