Come fly with me
// Samantha Thompson

Strikes have been an important factor in Canadian history, particularly with the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, which saw approximately 30,000 Canadians walk off the job. It began as various industries attempted to negotiate a wage increase with the city. Instead, City Council refused the wage increase and went on to disallow workers from striking, which only further exacerbated the conflict. The Winnipeg General Strike included many civic unions, but also employees in both the private and public sectors – and as a result of their strike, they set the stage for future Canadian labour negotiations.

As of late, however, it seems as though the Canadian government is trying once again to take away the worker’s right to strike – particularly if they work in a sector that is of importance to the “Canadian public”, such as air transportation.

At a recent press conference, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Air Canada employees needed to come to an agreement with their employer without impacting the Canadian public by striking.

“My concern is not management or labour, my concern is the broader Canadian public, and I think the broader Canadian public overwhelmingly expects the government to act,” Harper said at an event at Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport.

It is with this sentiment that Harper is justifying Bill C-33, the “Protecting Air Service Act”, which will forbid the employer (Air Canada) from locking out its employees, and its employees from striking. It will also call for an arbitrator to provide a final offer selection. The concerning thing about a final offer is that both sides state the reasons for their requests, and the arbitrator chooses one case over another to create a new agreement.

The Act was rushed through Parliament and was passed on Mar. 15 – a mere three days after it was first introduced in the House of Commons. This type of reactionary legislation is particularly awful because it never looks at the bigger picture. Laws should be made because they hold true for a plethora of situations, and will stand the tests of time as a result of significant debate; laws should be made to last.

Air Canada was planning on locking out their employees at the same time that the employees, including 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground crew, and 3,000 pilots, were planning on striking. “We’re not saying the employer is correct and we’re not saying the union is correct,” said Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, in Ottawa. “What we’re saying is the Canadian public is caught in this and we’re going to act because of them.”

What we have to realize, however, is that inconvenience is not an excuse to prevent a group of people from continuing negotiations, including going on strike if necessary. People don’t go on strike because it’s a fun thing to do, or because it’s a pseudo-vacation. They go on strike because they believe they deserve better – because we all deserve better. We deserve to work in conditions that are healthy and safe, and to be paid for our labour with wages that allow us to live comfortably. We are justified in our desire to be respected members of Canada’s labour force.

Among those who identify as right-wingers, unions often have a bad reputation. They are known for causing havoc, allegedly harming the economy, and impeding society’s ability to carry on with business as usual. What seems to be the lesser-known perspective is that unions also advocate for fairer wages, and help to ensure that working conditions are safe and just. They also work to guarantee good benefits like health and dental, and ensure wages increase with inflation.

Certainly, unions are the only bodies you ever hear about in relation to strikes. They strike because they have the strength to – their numbers are greater, and when their members work together, they can advocate for a cause and have the chance for a legitimate discussion without intimidation from those in positions of power threatening their job security.

“It’s a sad day for any federally-regulated worker in Canada because this legislation says you do not have the right to strike, period,” Dave Ritchie, head of the Canadian branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers, told the CBC upon Bill C-33 passing. “This will undermine free collective bargaining and poison labour relations across Canada.”

In Feb. 2012, Statistics Canada reported that 4,570,000 Canadians were either a member of a labour union or covered by a union contract or collective agreement. The average hourly wage for these members is $26.86; those who are not covered by a union have an average hourly wage of $21.99.

When the Conservative government argues that they are enacting legislation against striking for the benefit of Canadians, this justification does not ring true. Although your initial reaction may be relief that your flight is not cancelled, in the long run, this legislation will have a negative impact on Canada. By passing this bill, the government is making it okay for a governing body to legislate in matters that are typically restricted to the employer and the union. They are instilling fear, and setting a precedent that if a contract negotiation is not going well, there is no reason to strike because the government will simply intervene (we see this happening repeatedly in B.C. whenever the teachers’ employment contract comes up for negotiation).

Harper has also said that “the position of Air Canada is different,” and that the bill was only proposed because Air Canada is “the largest airline in the country and a shutdown of service … would have significant impact not only on airline service to Canadians, but on the transportation system as a whole, and potentially on the economy.”

What is overlooked is that unions, too, can benefit the economy. By fighting for secure jobs with fair wages, unions are ensuring that people are comfortable and safe in their employment. As a result, people will have extra money that they can recycle back into the economy by buying more goods and services. In fact, the World Bank released a statement saying unions are good for the economy, because they result in lower unemployment and inflation, higher productivity, and speedier recovery from economic shocks.

Just because something is inconvenient doesn’t mean that we should implement legislation to stop it from happening. Canadians have a right to speak up about their concerns and be heard without it instantly being made illegal. This legislation is actively trying to limit the rights of employees to advocate for fairness and taking away any chance they had to negotiate a better contract.

When we allow the government to intervene in this manner, to make reactionary legislation that is being implemented only because something would be inconvenient for the economy, we are allowing them to take over and think on our behalf – and too often with this government, what is best for Canadians has been overlooked for what is, supposedly, best for the economy. Time and time again, however, we have seen that this not true, because other, more important things have been sacrificed instead. We must speak up and let Harper know that this kind of rushed legislation is unacceptable.

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: