Ottawa labour clampdown may hurt workers, employers

New government legislation worrying, says labour relations expert

(Reuters) — A Canadian clamp-down preventing labour action in the private sector is unprecedented and not in the best interests of either workers or employers, according to labour relations experts.

Canada's House of Commons passed a bill overnight that prevents both a strike and a lockout at Air Canada, the country's biggest airline, and it should become law by the end of the week.

It's the fourth time that the federal government has stepped in to stop a strike or lockout since it won a majority in Parliament last May.

Three of the interventions were against Air Canada and its unions, after the government argued that a shutdown would hurt the domestic economy. And, unusually, two of those interventions took place even before a strike had started.

"I would go so far as to say there is not another single example where it has been pre-emptive," George Smith, a labour relations expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said of the government's quick fire actions.

Announcing her decisions to act, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has said it is Ottawa's duty to protect Canadian businesses and families.

But David Doorey, a labour and employment law professor at York University in Toronto, said the new legislation was worrying in that it grants Raitt the right to select an arbitrator without input from the parties, and takes away their right to challenge her choice.

The arbitrator will weigh up competing proposals from the union and company, and choose a contract to impose.

"This is disturbing, given that Minister Raitt has a history of choosing arbitrators who have no experience in labour relations and are objectionable to one or both of the parties," Doorey said.

The union at Canada Post, where striking employees were legislated back to work by Ottawa last June, later challenged Raitt's appointment of an arbitrator in their dispute arguing that he had no labour relations experience.

More recently, a mediator appointed by Raitt to reach a settlement between Air Canada and its pilots quit after friction with the pilots' union.

This week's bill also lays out terms and conditions for the arbitrator to consider in selecting a final offer, "which just happen to be those which Air Canada would like to be emphasized", Doorey said.

"The government's deep involvement in this private collective bargaining process is unprecedented," he added.

In making her case to Parliament this week, Raitt said various Canadian governments, and most frequently the now opposition Liberal Party, had used back-to-work legislation more than 30 times since 1950.

But Smith said that generally came after prolonged labour stoppages at ports or railroads.

The government's involvement at the bargaining table is not good for either workers or employers as it takes away the need for either side to compromise and may result in an agreement that is skewed to one party.

Collective bargaining causes both parties "to put a little water in their wine and agree on something that they can both live with, short of inflicting economic Armageddon on each other," Smith said.

The government had already temporarily staved off a simultaneous strike this week by Air Canada's mechanics and a lockout of its pilots by asking the Canada Industrial Relations Board to determine if the airline is an essential service.

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