Feds Urged to Use Back-to-Work Legislation Only in ‘Very Extreme’ Cases

by Steve Rennie

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt delivers a statement in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt delivers a statement in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

OTTAWA – An appeal from federal bureaucrats to use back-to-work legislation only as a last resort in labour disputes at Air Canada appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

The Department of Human Resources and Skills Development advised the governing Conservatives in a secret report to use the powerful legal measure only sparingly after the airline’s customer-service and sales staff walked out last June.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the July 21 report under the Access to Information Act.

In it, senior officials urged the Tories to save the back-to-work law for emergencies. The bureaucrats were not convinced the walkout by customer-service agents constituted anything more than a nuisance to air travellers.

“This is an option to be used only in very extreme circumstances where there is a serious impact on the national economy — in this instance it would appear to be more of an inconvenience to travellers who would have to rely on other modes of transportation,” the document says.

That piece of advice came after Labour Minister Lisa Raitt had already tabled back-to-work legislation to end labour unrest between Air Canada and its customer-service agents. The two sides reached a deal before the measure could be enacted.

A few months later, Raitt again threatened further back-to-work legislation when it looked like Air Canada’s flight attendants might walk off the job. The labour minister also sought to head off a strike by referring the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, allegedly over health and safety concerns during a work stoppage. The lead arbitrator subsequently imposed the last deal rejected by flight attendants.

Fast-forward to the airline’s latest bout of labour unrest. The House of Commons just voted to send a pair of disputes at Air Canada to binding arbitration even before a threatened strike and lockout. The legislation covers about 3,000 pilots and 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground crew.

On Tuesday, Air Canada pilots filed a legal challenge in an Ontario court, arguing that federal legislation contravened their charter rights.

Raitt’s spokeswoman did not directly answer questions about the department’s recommendations for using back-to-work legislation.

“Our government acted in the public’s best interest and the best interests of the national economy,” Ashley Kelahear wrote in an email. She did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about the report.

The Human Resources and Skills Development report gave several options to settle labour disputes, including back-to-work legislation. The other options were mediation, summoning both sides to Ottawa to meet Raitt, binding arbitration, ordering a vote on an employer offer and referring the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

The Tories have not been shy about passing bills to prevent work stoppages. The House of Commons passed a bill in June ordering 48,000 Canada Post employees back to work.

*source: The Canadian Press

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