Mr. Speaker, later today the , as the motion indicated, will introduce a bill to provide for the resumption and continuation of railway operations. This legislation is critical to protecting the national economy at this time when our economy is still in a fragile state from the global economic crisis. The motion before us will allow the House to consider the Minister of Labour's bill in an expedited fashion. The motion states that from first to third readings of the bill, the House shall not adjourn except pursuant to a motion proposed by a minister of the Crown, and that the bill go through all three readings in a single sitting, and that after being read a second time the bill will be referred to the committee of the whole.
I would like to advise members of the House to support the motion. The motion itself will not end the strike or impose a settlement; it will only allow us to proceed to deal with this issue as quickly as possible. The approach we are taking to this strike is obviously unusual. Normally for private disputes between private actors, we accept that it is their responsibility to come to a solution, perhaps with the help of government appointed conciliators and mediators.
I would again encourage the members to pass this procedural motion so we can at least get to the debate and continue to put pressure on both sides to come to a resolution. This motion essentially sets forward a process and procedure for a debate to take place in the House and for all members of the House to become engaged in the disposition of the matter by way of the bill that will be introduced.
The strike began at CN Rail early on Saturday after 14 months of inconclusive negotiations between the company and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. During the last six months of negotiations, the two sides were assisted by federal conciliators and mediators. Even after the strike began, we did not give up hope for a negotiated settlement, as that is the preferred course. Not only is it the preferred course, but the parties are always encouraged to come to a form of agreement on their own. Federal mediators worked with the employer and union all weekend in an effort to find a formula that would get the trains running again and establish a fair process for resolving all outstanding differences, but the parties could still not find their way to an understanding.
The became personally involved in the search for a solution. She contacted each side to encourage a negotiated agreement and offered to appoint an arbiter to resolve the matters in dispute, on which the Canada Labour Code requires both parties to concur. CN agreed but the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference did not. Unless the parties agree, that process cannot be instigated.
No one in the House likes back to work legislation. All of us prefer to see employers and unions freely bargain their collective agreements. That is certainly something that happens in the course of events, and many times there are struggles and difficulties to get there, but eventually a method is found to resolve an impasse, which is exactly how it should work if it can. But sometimes the parties are unable to reach agreement. Sometimes parties reach an impasse and a strike or lockout tends to happen and, in that case, it affects the national economy. When that happens Parliament must act in the public interest.
There are of course a number of factors in play. There is the public interest and there is the issue of the economy. As much as we want each of the parties in the process to negotiate with each other and just as each has appropriate and legitimate interests, and certainly we are respectful and mindful of the processes involved, what they do affects a bigger picture. It affects people other than them. It affects the public, the public interest, individuals and businesses. It affects the economy of Canada.
Therefore, it is important that we give due diligence to what has been placed before us, with the parties reaching the impasse they have, and, as I said, I trust and hope that they will see a way through to reach a negotiated settlement.
I would like to say a few words about the economy. As everyone in this House knows, Canada is starting to see signs of economic recovery. Statistics Canada announced this morning that the real GDP in Canada grew by 0.4% in the third quarter of 2009. While it is encouraging that Canada's economic growth has stabilized, the global economic recovery remains fragile and tentative, and that is a fact that must be taken into consideration.
As our finance minister has said, the Canadian economy is recovering but has not yet fully recovered. Too many families struggle and we may yet see more job losses before we fully turn the corner. Our government remains focused on fighting the recession and on helping Canadians, and that is obvious with the number of actions that we have taken in a variety of areas, whether it is funding for infrastructure, helping those who are unemployed by extending EI by five weeks, providing skills upgrading and training, and investing significant billions of dollars to ensure workers are prepared and equipped to be a part of our economy and ensure our economy does not stagnate but goes forward.
We remain focused on fighting the recession and helping Canadians. To protect our economy, we need to stay the course and, of course, we must continue implementing Canada's economic action plan.
Today's numbers show that Canada's economic action plan is helping fuel the recovery. Household spending has increased. thanks to our tax cuts for Canadian families. Spending on homes has rebounded, fuelled by a recession-fighting home renovation tax credit. Businesses increased their investment and productivity, improving machinery and equipment, thanks to our tax relief and tariff reductions. Infrastructure and other capital spending has increased by nearly 25% this quarter, the largest increase in nearly a decade, but our economy still remains in a fragile and tentative state.
Even though we have worked hard to implement Canada's economic action plan, we have always received enough support from this House in order to proceed. The global economic circumstances still leave Canada in a precarious position. We cannot allow a labour dispute, where the parties reach an impasse, to threaten our economic recovery.
Canadians know how central our rail system is to the economic health of Canada. It is what has connected our commerce from coast to coast to coast since the days of John A. Macdonald. Our government believes that it is the responsibility of this House to intervene in private disputes when they threaten to significantly damage the public interest.
I am sure many members will be getting letters and correspondence from various industries that will be impacted and involved by this particular strike and the impasse that has been reached. The motion we have here would allow Parliament to act quickly. It is a responsibility of the parties in this House to debate, negotiate and go forward with proposed legislation that will keep in mind the public interest and our economy.
As I have said, businesses and farmers from across Canada are expressing their concern about the economic impacts of this strike, and that is understandable. Some of them have been impacted three or four times over the last number of years and have suffered significant economic losses as a result of that.
We have had experiences with the effects of work stoppages in the past. In 2007, when trains were last slowed by a strike, Ford had to shut down production of one of its plants because parts were not getting through.
The Canadian Wheat Board incurred charges of over $300,000 per day because ships were delayed in Canadian ports.
Shifts were discontinued at lumber facilities.
When the trains stop, the economy suffers and this is no time for that to happen. When we are struggling with the effects of the global downturn, this is no time for us to gamble with the economy.
The motion before us will not force any member of this House to support the actual back to work legislation, although I certainly hope they will debate it in earnest and keep in mind the larger public interest. However, what it will do is simply permit timely consideration of the 's bill. It is critically important, given the timing of what is happening outside this House. It is also important to know that this House is scheduled to rise in the next short while.
Given the seriousness of this situation, I would hope we would all make the public interest our first priority. I would ask all parties to give unanimous consent to this motion. From the agricultural products in the west and the automotive products in Ontario, to the forestry products in Quebec and the petroleum, chemicals and metals in the east, Canada depends on CN Rail's 20,000 kilometres of track.
Canada is a country founded on the railway. Since 1885, rail has driven our nation's economic engine. The railway has evolved with Canada and CN now facilitates a sophisticated commercial network, transporting inventory from domestic producers and international importers to consumers in Canada, the ports and our American neighbour to the south. Canada's transportation, in Canada 2008, in its statement “An Overview”, illustrates the importance of Canada's rail network. In 2007, railways in Canada transported 66,766 tonnes in essentially six sectors, valued at more than $94 million: the automotive sector, $44 million dollars; the chemical industry, $16-plus million; grains and fertilizers; metals; petroleum products; and pulp and paper. It has a far-reaching impact and far-reaching consequences to many.
I know the Canadian pulse industry, for example, is a world leader in the production and export of peas, lentils, chickpeas and beans, servicing over 150 markets each year. A strike would certainly affect that industry and what it is doing. It would certainly incur a lot of costs that would result in thousands, in fact, millions of dollars if it were to continue for a longer period of time.
Loss of earnings of that magnitude at a time when the downturn in the global economy has produced significant challenges for Canadian businesses, indeed, all Canadians, and the customers around the world, must be avoided. We must do what we can to bridge the gap to bring the two parties together to ensure there is a resolution so the trains can continue moving.
The reason for quick action, of course, given the time of year, the fragile state of the national economy and the serious economic impacts of a work stoppage, are all factors that must be taken into consideration. Businesses from across the country have expressed their concern about this strike. The 2007 strike at CN cost the economy millions of dollars a day. This is a price we simply cannot afford at a time when recovery from the global recession is still so tentative. CN moves thousands of carloads of material across its 20,000 kilometres of tracks every week. Some clients have no other source of transportation for their goods and rely exclusively on the operation of the railway network.
Most labour disputes are basically private matters between an employer and a union. They may affect the public in modest ways but not enough for Parliament to intervene in the collective bargaining process, even when there is an impasse and even when there are work disruptions. Such is the way things work.
However, that changes when a strike or lockout has significant impacts on the national economy or the public health and safety. Then the right of employers and unions to sort out their differences through work stoppages must be balanced against the public interest. Many times, members struggle with the appropriate balance and it can be difficult to reach that balance, but a balance must be reached that takes into account these other interests. It is our responsibility to do that.
As I have said before, federal conciliators and mediators are working with the parties and have been in negotiations since June. The level of engagement has been high for many months. There have been a number of interventions. Mediators have literally been working around the clock since Friday in a last ditch effort to help find a formula that would bring an end to the work stoppage and pave the way for a new collective agreement but these efforts have not yet borne fruit.
The has repeatedly offered, both publicly and in discussions with the employer and union representatives, to appoint an arbiter to resolve all matters still in dispute. This step, by law, requires the consent of both parties and, of course, this matter must be left in the hands of the parties to that extent.
The government has done all that it can do short of introducing legislation. We are always ready to help parties interested in reaching an agreement but sometimes an employer and the union are so far apart that no amount of mediation and support will break the deadlock between them or the impasse that may exist. There is always hope that will happen.
It is true that Parliament should only intervene in work stoppages where the national interest is clearly at stake. Our labour relations system is founded on the principle that employers and unions should be allowed to work out their differences as often as possible and the tool of back to work legislation should be reserved for exceptional circumstances.
Therefore, this motion is an appropriate motion that would allow this matter to be debated in the House in priority to other matters before the House recesses. It is an important issue, a national issue and an issue of national interest that must be disposed of by the House. This motion sets the framework for the House to engage in that debate in a concentrated and concerned way. It ensures that all members who wish to participate in debate on these issues of national importance are able to do so with a view to bringing the matter to a resolution because the parties are unable to do so.
This motion sets the stage for further critical debate that will in fact be launched in the time to come. It is a procedural motion. It is a motion that I would ask all parties in the House and all sides in this debate to support whether they are for or against a particular issue in the debate. It is the responsible thing to do. It is the kind of thing that Canadians would expect the House to do.
All Canadians will be watching with interest the debate that will go forward. All Canadians hope that parliamentarians will get together, notwithstanding party lines, to ensure that the framework is set through this motion to have this matter debated fully and extensively in the House and given the priority that it deserves.
Mr. Speaker, this motion is the government's signal of its intention to move closure on a bill that is not yet before the House. This is a drastic measure which one would generally like to avoid because this is not the way that one would like to do business.
It is important to note that we have a motion in front of us, but we have not yet seen the bill. The House cannot give a definitive answer to the motion until it has at least seen the bill. We are debating a motion without knowing what the legislation would entail, and that is a major concern. Drastic measures are being taken and therefore it is important that we weigh them very carefully.
There is no doubt that all of us in the House are concerned about the disruption in the economy, the disruption of work, and the impact this will have on clients and all parties, including the locomotive engineers and the company itself. This will also impact on the relationship the company has with its employees and the relationship that the employees have with the company.
If both sides could come to an agreement at the table by themselves, it would augur much better for them to be able to have a relationship that would be much more stable in the future as opposed to some solution being imposed on both sides.
All parties need to keep their responsibilities in mind. The minister must ensure that everything possible is being done to ensure that the negotiations continue to take place between the two parties. In her role as minister, she must ensure that we find a workable solution. We must ensure that we all work together to avoid imposing undue hardship on the economy and on the people of Canada.
This is a particularly difficult time in our economy. There has been a lot of talk about the recovery of our economy. There are a lot of people in this country who are struggling and we do not want to cause them more undue stress.
All parties have an obligation. As I said, the minister has an obligation to ensure that the parties are talking, that there is an open line between them. At this point, it is important for all parties to go back to the table and continue the negotiations.
As I said before, it is important that we continue to keep in mind what the ultimate repercussions could be, but at the same time we must keep in mind the importance of maintaining an amicable relationship between employees and employer.
I understand that there are two broad issues still on the table, but there is a great divide on one of them. One of the issues is the money issue and the other is the hours of work or the mileage cap.
There is a huge divide on the mileage cap issue. My understanding is that the company is saying that it would go from 37 hours to 41 hours, and that is not a big shift. The union is saying that it would go from the current 72 hours, which is a much larger number, to 82 hours. This is a huge divide. This is a much bigger gap in the perception of the two.
We do not have the ability in the House to assess what the situation with the hours means and the impact they will actually have.
From everything I have seen and all of the discussions I have had thus far that the money issue may be easier to resolve, although I am not saying it would be easy or that it is unimportant. Certainly the union has indicated that it is prepared to go to arbitration on that issue. The disparity in the hours of work is a much bigger issue and that seems to be the issue at which we are looking.
Given this reality, the House cannot take one side or another on the specific issues that are at stake. I do not think it should be up to the Parliament of Canada or the members of Parliament in the House to try to weed out what the issues are in that area and the impact they may have. However, the House should have presented to it an assessment of the impact they are going to have with respect to the agreements and the issues we are discussing today.
The minister at least needs to ask the deputy minister to do a thorough assessment on the impact of this. There are two very differing sides. As I said, the disparity is quite huge and I do not think the House is in a position to see that, but it is important for the House to know the impacts, to what extent they are real or not, where the truth is and where the reality lies.
It is important for the minister to look at these two dramatically different views and have her deputy or department do a proper assessment on the impact. That assessment should be reported to the House. In fact, if the minister intends to table a bill, which I understand this motion is about, she should put that information in the bill as well.
Before the House gets into debating the bill and finishing the debate on this motion, it should know what these dramatically different views are and the impact of them. A thorough assessment of them needs to be carried out, especially given the fact that it seems to be one of the major contentious issues in this discussion. I know that discussions continued until late last night. Hopefully, today there are still some discussions going on, although I do not know for sure, but we need to deal with these areas.
We are very concerned that this kind of issue does not take over the situation not only in the country but in the House. As I said, the concern is, yes, the fact that thousands and thousands of people in the country rely on transportation. Railways are the backbone, so to speak. I always call them the spine that connects the country and has connected it for many years. It is very critical and important to our economy and to the customers that use them.
We need to remember and keep in mind that there are collective agreement rights in the country and labour negotiations. Employees have rights as well. It is important that the two parties be allowed the time to negotiate and continue their discussions.
I again encourage the minister to bring to the House a thorough assessment of everything I have seen and all of the discussions I have had thus far with the minister and others. This area seems to be dramatically different.
It is important to note that the hours are a result of the increase in mileage. For my colleagues who may not know what that means, it is raising the mileage cap to 4,300 miles per month, which will increase the time away from home and average out to 82 hours per week, according to the union. The company's averaging is different. I think it is at 41. This is really important and it is a huge area that needs to be looked at.
It is important to note that strikes are never the way to go and they are never easy on our economy and on our country, especially in the sectors where a great many people are dependent on the goods and services that are delivered and provided. They are not the best way to go. They create a tremendous amount of negativity and bitterness sometimes and a toxic environment.
The last strike at CN by the conductors lasted about two months. They went back to work when back to work legislation was enacted. In this case I would like to see that not be the case. I would like to see the two parties involved get back to the table to really sort out their differences.
I understand we are debating a motion today, a closure motion, that would essentially put closure on the debate and on the process of the legislation that we anticipate we will see. Not having seen that legislation, I will not make a comment. This is somewhat premature, because we need to see what the legislation says before we can move forward.
I would ask the minister if she would, prior to all of this, ask her officials to do a proper impact assessment on the hours and to explain to the House what the differences are between the information we have received from the two sides and exactly what that means in terms of the impact on the employees and the employer and on the service as a whole. We do not know what this actually means, so it is important we get that information. I would hope to get that soon, because I think it would help us a great deal in our discussion.
I would like to finish by saying a couple of things. First, I would rather not have to take drastic measures such as this one. As I said, we have not yet seen the bill and I do not like this kind of drastic measure. Second, I understand that we all have to take responsibility, the minister as well as the company and the union, to ensure that people and the economy are not unduly affected. We need to ensure this happens and everyone has to take that kind of responsibility.
As I said, it should not be up to the House to make that decision. We should not be trying to figure out what side is where and who is doing what. It is not something on which Parliament should make a decision. It is better that it be decided between the two parties. That creates a much better relationship for the future, a much better environment and better labour relations than would be the case if the House got involved.
Finally, it is important that the minister table, if it is possible, the assessment I referred to earlier. It seems to me that those are the two major issues left on the table, one being wages. However, from what I have seen, the issue of hours and the mileage cap is the more serious issue. I would like to see the minister table that in the House as soon as possible so we can a see what has caused the major concerns in this area.
Mr. Speaker, of course, the Bloc Québécois is currently against any motion that would restrict debate on a bill to implement back to work legislation for Canadian National strikers, since the Bloc Québécois believes that at this stage, such a bill is premature.
We would rather that the parties continue talks. As a number of my colleagues have mentioned, the parties are currently in talks, and the issues continues to evolve. It is important to keep up this pace of negotiations and continue to recognize a union's right to strike. The right to negotiate a collective agreement has been recognized for many years, was even recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, and is also protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
For a number of years in Canada and Quebec, more and more collective agreements have been negotiated without strikes or lockouts. That is a sign of a radical shift in the past few years, and it is a sign that employers know they are better off sitting down at a negotiating table than sitting down and trying to have the government implement back to work legislation.
Long-term collective agreements have been negotiated for some years now. In many cases, agreements are negotiated every 5, 10 or 15 years. Now, imagine if we were to intervene in a case like this. Workers would not be able to protect their legitimate rights in the collective agreement, in order to significantly improve their working conditions or to change existing conditions, if changes are deemed necessary by one of the parties.
Employers now know that they must negotiate long-term agreements because everything changes quickly: technology changes quickly, and labour relations change quickly. Employers need to be more flexible and need to be in partnership with workers. It is more profitable for companies to work this way.
Thus, employers are changing their way of doing things, while the government is still in the same place, with back to work legislation that never fundamentally resolves the problems or the main issues in a collective agreement, because a third party is asked to resolve the problems. When a third party resolves the situation, labour relations between the parties are not based on mutual trust, and that does not help improve or strengthen labour relations.
I would like to quote Ron Lawless, who was the president of CN in the 1990s. What he said then still holds true today. Mr. Lawless said that government intervention in collective bargaining interferes with good business practices. In addition, back to work legislation and arbitration do not help the parties properly address the main issues. This sort of legislation prevents the parties from taking collective bargaining seriously.
The president of CN said that some years ago, and it could still apply today. This is a regressive law from a regressive government that persists in using this sort of legislation even though, a few years ago—I am thinking of 2004, for example—labour disputes at the federal level were settled without back to work legislation. There were strikes, but they were settled and the parties eventually reached an agreement. Today in those groups, management and labour get along well.
Regarding CN, in 2007, the Conservatives, who had come to power the year before, had already started introducing back to work legislation that benefited employers, but not necessarily workers.
But essentially, the problems are never resolved with this approach. Frustration and bitterness remain, and the parties are never able to build good labour relations.
Looking at the current situation at CN, we can say that labour relations have been unhealthy for some time now. It started in 2007, when the Conservative government passed the first law to force the conductors back to work. The union at the time was the same. The same labour relations problems exist today: grievances, disciplinary action, suspensions, layoffs. All the rules for implementing the collective agreement are being challenged in all their forms. How can healthy labour relations be established under such conditions?
Once again, this employer is expecting the government to pass back to work legislation and abolish the workers' right to negotiate a collective agreement. But the right to strike is recognized as a fundamental right. What is happening is that employers like CN are sitting back and waiting for the Conservative government to legislate employees back to work.
Let us take a look at other CN groups. Labour relations were starting to get established. The 2004 strike was settled after 30 days and activities were resumed. I am referring to the carmen and other tradespeople. I am not saying that everything is resolved, but the two parties began working together to establish good relations.
CN's collective agreements have a long history and they allow problems to be resolved. Significant precedents have been built up.
In the matter before us, CN has taken every measure possible to exert pressure on the engineers. It now wants to force them to increase their hours of work, even double them, which is more than the Canadian average. It wants these workers to do more for less, which would put lives in danger.
For decades, the current system has never been challenged. Today, that is what CN is doing. It wants to use the Conservative government for its own purposes, namely to increase the hours of work of the engineers who drive the locomotives.
Earlier the parliamentary secretary spoke of the economic crisis, saying that this will cause significant losses. I do not know where he is getting his information from because we were told that CN has been training its management and a large group of non-unionized employees for months in order to maintain over 60% of its service.
Canadian Pacific, which has two parallel lines all across Canada—one is CN's the other is CP's—could cover the other 40% of the service CN claims not to be able to provide.
Let me take this even further. There are truck drivers who can step in, not to mention the short lines in the regions that can be used to serve the Canadian public. For the Montreal region, for example, AMT signed an agreement and passenger service is still running, such that we now have roughly 120% service.
Given all these possibilities, I wonder why the Conservatives think there is a crisis and a need for additional service. We have to allow the negotiations to continue in good faith between the parties and force them to agree on a collective agreement.
As I mentioned earlier, that is not what we are doing. We are telling them that every time they go to negotiation they will get legislation. This type of legislation has reappeared significantly since the Conservatives came to power in 2006.
Earlier, I was talking about various strikes. I will digress for a moment. Services do not require back to work legislation. According to CN, and based on existing options, service will be maintained. In 2004, a strike was settled after 30 days. Since that time, working relations have been different but some things have been resolved. In 2007, after the arrival of the Conservatives, there was the dispute with the conductors and a law was imposed after two weeks. The bitterness remains. When the same people involved in a disastrous conflict are seated around the negotiating table for months and months, mutual trust will disappear and it will be difficult to rebuild it. It rarely happens. That type of situation requires mediation and conciliation. I have always said that, if necessary, it takes an army of mediators and conciliators.
It has been proven in the past that it is possible to resolve disputes, to move things forward. Also, progress has been made. On Friday, they were saying that there would be no arbitration. Today, they are talking about arbitration for some aspects of the collective agreement. There has been progress.
Why would we want to stop these negotiations after three days? That is the Conservative practice, which they applied in 2007. They stopped negotiations. That did not improve employer-employee relations, which remain strained to this day. If we look at the Conservative approach to employee support, for example, in the auto sector, we see they wanted to impose wage cuts. I am not quite sure that it was in the workers' interests. Fortunately, the union found other solutions.
With regard to collective agreements in the federal public service, where there have been significant cutbacks and the erosion of pay equity, I am not sure that it is a pro-worker approach. The Bloc Québécois' Bill , to exclude the employment insurance waiting period in the event of a work conflict, was also rejected.
Given all of these stances, which are not pro-worker, it should come as no surprise that we are considering back to work legislation today, but unfortunately, not for the right reasons.
That is why the Bloc Québécois will not vote in favour of the motion and will not support such a bill. We have to make it possible for these CN workers—like the other CN workers who were able to participate in good-faith negotiations between the parties—to resolve the existing issues between the parties. This is not just about resolving economic and salary issues. This is also about using these collective agreements to resolve grievances and the issues arising from these grievances and coming up with a labour relations framework to resolve these issues.
Imposing legislation like what has been proposed ignores all of these issues. Of course, the Conservatives have been accustomed to doing that for some time. They ignore the issues, and when it comes to labour, they have been doing that for a long time, and been standing in the way of resolving problems through collective agreements.
Nothing was resolved in the federal workers' collective agreement. There are ongoing talks with employees under federal jurisdiction, federal government employees in particular, and the issues are not being resolved. The same thing will happen with the rail sector and CN.
These are the reasons why we intend to vote against this motion, which is premature.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to a motion that seeks to limit, in a very draconian way, the length of time the House of Commons can deal with a bill that we have not even seen yet. This is not only absurd but it shows contempt for the institution of Parliament, for members of Parliament, for labour laws in this country and for the safety of both locomotive engineers and Canadian rail passengers.
All we know is that some bill will be introduced sometime this afternoon that will be back to work legislation. Therefore, I must focus my comments on the issue in general, rather than the specifics, because we have not yet seen the legislation.
I want to be clear from the outset. New Democrats will not be supporting this draconian measure to end the labour dispute at the Canadian National Railway.
I will begin by laying out the principles behind our position, and it is the principled position. We once again find ourselves in the position where the federal government is violating Canada's international labour obligations by calling on Parliament to end a legal labour dispute. We have a duty, as a country, to honour the conventions and treaties that our governments have signed over the years with both the United Nations and the International Labour Organization.
The current Conservative government is behaving in the same old discredited way that governments in the past have behaved by violating our international obligations to respect the rights of workers.
In the last 25 years, the federal government alone passed 15 pieces of back to work legislation. Oftentimes, this legislation not only forced workers back to work after taking strike action, but also arbitrarily imposed settlements on the striking workers. This makes an absolute mockery of Canada's signature on international labour and human rights conventions and treaties.
It is not like collective bargaining is a flawed process. Eighty-five per cent of the time it works without a work stoppage. It works for both parties.
I want to take a step backward because I suspect some of the viewers who are watching the proceedings in the House right now may not fully understand the background to the current debate, so I will take moment to fill them in.
At issue is the government's intention to end a legal labour dispute at CNR through back to work legislation. I do understand those who are concerned about the economic impact of the strike and the need to get our freight moving. However, we need to understand from the very outset that the collective bargaining process is about two parties. This is a negotiation process whereby two parties try to arrive at an agreement that they will have to live with day in and day out for the term of the agreement.
For the people who work in rail and the people affected by this collective agreement, workplace issues come up from time to time over the course of days, weeks, months and even years and there is only one opportunity for those concerns to be addressed in a democratic fashion, and that is through their elected representatives in the bargaining process. The representatives take the concerns to the bargaining table and, in a meeting of equals, representatives of both labour and management try to resolve their differences. This is a process that is defined by law. It has been defined over a period of decades and, indeed, generations. The rights that are enshrined in the collective bargaining process are rights that people have fought for. They were not just given by a government or by the employer. These were rights that people had to organize and fight for, and sometimes they were terrible fights, in order to achieve that basic opportunity to sit down with the employer, to raise the issues of the day and to resolve those concerns in a democratic fashion.
Usually when there is some kind of dispute in bargaining, the focus of the media, and therefore the public, is automatically on wages and they become the central issue. Yes, wages are often a part of the concern but they are rarely the entire concern. Issues that are negotiated include wages, benefits, working conditions, relationships in the workplace, particularly in terms of how disputes will be addressed, and how concerns will be dealt with. As part of the working conditions, the most important are those of the health and the safety of the people who work in a given environment.
However, when a government comes with ham-fisted back to work legislation, it pushes the democratic process off the table and, instead, it imposes a solution. Yet, when agreements are imposed, whatever the method of the imposition, they often end up being less satisfactory than if they had been negotiated and agreed to by both parties. That leaves unresolved issues to fester, regardless of whether they are issues on the side of the employer or on the side of the workers.
Collective bargaining is a pas de deux. It, is or at least ought to be, a negotiation between two parties that both wield power in the process.
The employer, of course, has a great deal of power in the workplace. Employers decide who to hire, who to fire and who to promote. In addition, employers decide what their product or service will be, how they will manage that product or service and what equipment they will invest in. They decide the advertising and how they will market their products and services.
For people who work for the employer, the only opportunities they have to give their input and to exercise their rights in the workplace is through the collective, through collective bargaining. The power that workers bring to the table is the ability to withhold their labour. That is the counterweight to the immense powers held by the employers. It is the tool that provides the impetus for negotiations at the bargaining table.
When the government steps into that process by bringing in back to work legislation, it undermines the democratic legal rights of the people in the workplace. It is a heavy-handed or, as I said earlier ham-fisted way of forcing a resolution to a legal dispute that ought to be resolved between the two parties at the table.
What is worse, when the government prospectively signals its willingness to proceed with back to work legislation, it removes any incentive for the employer to participate in the bargaining process. That is exactly the situation that has evolved in the current dispute between the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference and the Canadian National Railway.
Having learned from past experience that the Conservative government is not likely to allow a rail strike to continue, CNR has been able to inappropriately use Parliament to abrogate its responsibilities, vis-à-vis the teamsters union, and the right to collective bargaining. It is an absolute disgrace.
I am not sure whether I am more disgusted by CN or by the government for allowing itself to become CN's patsy. There was absolutely no need for this to happen. My goodness, the government gave notice of its intention to table back to work legislation when the strike was less than 12 hours old. How bizarre is that when, in another labour dispute at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum, workers have been on strike for 72 days and the government has idly stood by washing its hands of any responsibility.
Nothing illustrates more clearly the significance of placement in the economy. There certainly is no consistency in the government's action on labour relations.
All through bargaining, CN has been able to use back to work legislation as a bargaining chip in order to move the union off its issues but, thankfully, the teamsters did not care because at stake is nothing less than worker safety and railway safety. I am glad to say that the teamsters did not cave.
A few years ago, Transport Canada released a study highlighting serious concerns in rail safety. Top of mind was the slew of derailments that had occurred. I remember one period in 2007 when there were seven derailments in just over two months.
On January 8, 2007, 24 cars of a 122-car freight train derailed at Montmagny, Quebec, 60 kilometres east of Quebec City. On January 14 of the same year there was a derailment near Minisinakwa in northern Ontario dumping more than 30 cars, one containing paint supplies, into the water.
On February 28, 2007, hydrochloric acid spilled from cars on the CP Rail line that went off the tracks in the Kicking Horse Pass canyon.
On March 1, 2007, a CN freight train derailment in Pickering disrupted VIA service on the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor and commuter service into Toronto.
On March 4, 2007, grain was spilled near Blue River, British Columbia, two hours north of Kamloops, when 27 cars on the westbound train fell of the track.
On March 10, 2007, rail traffic along CN's main freight line through central New Brunswick was disrupted until the next day by a 17 car derailment in the Plaster Rock area.
On March 12, 2007, 3,000 VIA passengers had to board buses on the first day of the March break after train service in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor was disrupted after a CN freight train derailed near the station in Kingston. That was quite a sorry and quite a high profile record for such a short period of time.
Suffice to say that when workers argue that there needs to be improvements to rail safety, they certainly have empirical evidence to support their concerns.
Among the solutions to improve rail safety and security are things like improved maintenance, better track conditions and better rolling stock conditions. Another part of the solution is related to staff. On most trains, which can be anywhere from a few to 100-plus cars, there are two workers. There is an engineer and a conductor. We have two people running a train who are responsible for cars that are 130 tonnes each, in terms of loaded freight cars, and engines that are capable of producing anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower.
The safe operation of these trains rests in the hands of two people, the conductors and the locomotive engineers. The engineers are represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference and they are the ones who are on strike against CN. The reason they went on strike was to fight for improved railway safety. CN wanted to raise the monthly mileage cap by 500 miles to 4,300 miles. That would require some locomotive engineers to work seven days a week with no time off. Talk about undermining the safe operations of our railways. The teamsters are determined to resolve these safety concerns at the bargaining table.
Are we here in this House going to deny them the right to resolve issues that put their very lives at risk? What right do we have to do that?
Let us make no mistake about it, the implications of the health and safety issues at stake here are enormous, and not just for the railway workers themselves. They are enormous because health and safety issues in the context of rail travel have the potential to translate into serious threats to the travelling public. Even more broadly, they pose considerable threats with dire consequences in the event that failed health and safety practices result in train derailments and in spills of toxic chemicals. They literally can affect not just families who are living immediately adjacent to rail lines but whole communities that have railways passing through them or running nearby.
These are serious issues. I obviously do not know them as well as the engineers themselves but that is why the process of collective bargaining works so well. The two parties, which know the workplace best and know the issues and concerns best, may come at them from a different perspective in the bargaining process but they have to sit down and hammer those issues out and come to a mutually agreeable solution. That is how we best protect the safety of both workers and Canadians at large.
We all have a vested interest in the outcome of these negotiations and because of that we all have a vested interest in the process for arriving at solutions. The government has tried to minimize the safety impact by focusing almost exclusively on the economic impact of this labour dispute. Yes, the continued transportation of goods is important but it needs to be the safe transportation of goods to have an economic benefit. The economic consequence of a derailment, for example, is profoundly negative and its cost may be measured not just in dollars but in lives.
We have an obligation to mitigate against those circumstances. We cannot sacrifice safety to the bottom line. It is only through collective bargaining that we will arrive at the proper balance. If, through that process, we can address some of the safety and infrastructure concerns of the railway system, then it will be good for the economy too.
In the brief time that I have remaining, I will speak to the issue from one last perspective. CN as a whole used to be a key part of our national identity. It was part of our history, our tradition, our heritage, linking this country together from sea to sea and it was a symbol of our greatness. Sadly, that symbolism and the pride we felt in what truly was a national institution has deteriorated badly since it was privatized and sold off.
I remember when Mr. Gordon Rhodes, who was a long time locomotive engineer and the only survivor of one of the most egregious accidents where two CN employees were killed due to CN's more safety management practices, was at the transport committee in 2007. I remember him saying this in his testimony:
I'm not American, I'm Canadian, and I used to be proud to call my company Canadian National Railroad back in the 1980s. Now I'm not even allowed to do so. I'm supposed to say CNR. What's this?
I would encourage all members of this House to go back and remind themselves of Mr. Rhodes' testimony before they vote on the bill that is before us today. He spoke to what should be important to every member of Parliament here, and that is the safety and the continuation of our rail system and not allowing CN management to decide what the rail system is going to look like. He said:
--CN has gone in the opposite direction. They're very adversarial. I call it the poisoned work environment, because that's what it is. Nobody wants to go to work there. Everybody's counting the days, the months, and the years until they're gone, until they're out of there. That's not the way it was...The way I look at it is this: CN is a big multinational corporation with railways going from Mexico to Canada; they have bought and absorbed many railways into their system, and they're experts at doing that. The problem here is that they absorbed one railway they had no expertise in. They thought they did, but they don't. Their arrogance is what happened, in the sense that they came in and took our GOI, general operating instructions, of probably some 50 years of railroad knowledge on how to run trains on that track, but they were going to do it their way because they wanted it all homogenized. They wanted it all one way, and that was it. They didn't listen to anybody, but just plowed ahead with their system.
Referring to American management, he said, “They're telling us how they're going to run things”, and then he made an impassioned plea to the government and to members of Parliament. He said, “I think it's time you guys tell them how it's going to be run”.
That was part of the message from Mr. Rhodes, the only survivor of one of the many accidents that CN has had. On behalf of the locomotive engineers, he was saying that we have to help them. Communities are being devastated, environments are being destroyed, lives are being lost, and we as parliamentarians have to help.
However, instead of responding to that call to action, the government is saying that it does not care about the employees. It is not going to address the safety issues. It does not care about the communities that are being devastated. It certainly does not care about the shipping problems that happen as a result of the devastation of these derailments, collisions, fires and explosions. It is not going to address any of those issues.
It is going to toss the entire weight of the government behind a plan to simply hand a blank cheque to CN management. That is not good enough. It is not good enough for rail safety in Canada, it is not good enough for protecting labour rights in Canada, and it is not good enough for the NDP in Canada.
I would urge all members in the House to join us in opposing this draconian piece of government legislation, stand in solidarity with the members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, and stand up for the values and principles on which our country was built. It is a vision of Canada that is worth fighting for.