The unionized flight attendants have strongly rejected a proposed settlement bargained by the union’s bargaining committee, for the second time. This means there may be a strike at Air Canada later this week, albeit probably a short one given that the Conservative government has said it will introduce back to work legislation yet again once Parliament resumes.
The Minister of Labour said something curious yesterday, as reported in this Ottawa Citizen story. Here is what she said:
“There have been two full rounds of collective bargaining resulting in tentative agreements recommended by the bargaining committee. In each case the membership has rejected the recommendation of their team. It is clear there is a breakdown in the process contemplated in the Canada Labour Code. “
That quote raised some eyebrows. She also suggested the government would consider making changes to the Canada Labour Code? What does she mean?
I have no idea what sorts of changes she has in mind. I guess the government could try to ban all strikes in the Federal sector, but I doubt even the Tories would try to go that far. Nor do I have any idea what she means when she says that the process contemplated in the Code is not working. Quite the contrary. It is working exactly as intended.
The reason we have a legal requirement for unions to take a proposed settlement to the membership for a ratification vote is because politicians don’t trust union leaders and bargaining committees to decide themselves whether a proposed deal is a reasonable one. The requirement to conduct a ratification vote is intended to ensure a proper democratic process in collective bargaining. It is an idea pushed by conservative politicians, not unions. If employees don’t like what the union has been able to bargain, they can vote against the settlement and send that committee back to the bargaining table. If the employer says it has nothing more to offer, then the legislation has a solution for that. It is called a strike and a lockout. That has been our system for over half a century, through both Conservative and Liberal governments, and in the vast majority of cases, it leads to settlements without a work stoppage. The threat of a strike or lockout steers the parties towards a deal most of the time, but not in every case.
All that has happened in the Air Canada flight attendant case is that the government doesn’t like the outcome of the democratic process. The Tories don’t like that the workers voted against the proposed agreement. They don’t like that the workers voted to strike if an acceptable deal is not reached. That’s the trouble with democracy. Sometimes if you give people a choice, they don’t decide the way you’d prefer. But that has never been a good argument to eliminate democracy and replace it with something else. Has it?
Conservative governments are usually big fans of mandatory employee votes in unionized workplaces because they envision union leaders as inherently oppressive and undemocratic. The state needs to ensure employees have a voice, since otherwise, they believe, union leaders will abuse their authority. Here, the employees have spoken. They think the employer’s offer is inadequate. They think a strike will pressure the employer to offer more. They have a better read on that than you or I, the media pundits, or the proverbial guy at Tim Hortons.
The workers did exactly what the legislation tells them to do when they don’t like a proposed settlement: vote against it and go on strike. There’s been no breakdown in the process contemplated by the Canada Labour Code. That process has worked exactly as designed. Perhaps Raitt wants to do away with ratification votes and allow a union bargaining committee to implement a collective agreement against the employees’ wishes.
Do you think that would be a better system?
What do you think Raitt has in mind when she talks about fixing the Canada Labour Code to deal with situations such as that occurring at Air Canada?
How would you change the law, if you think it is broken?