Federal government shows impatience with labor laws

Mon Oct 17, 2011 5:24pm EDT
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By Allison Martell

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Conservative government is increasingly showing impatience with federal labor laws as it seeks to prevent strikes that it says would damage the economy.

The government has threatened or used anti-strike legislation three times since it won a majority in Parliament in May's general election.

Last week, in an unusual effort to prevent a strike, Labor Minister Lisa Raitt asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to consider whether an impending strike by flight attendants at Air Canada, the country's biggest airline, would pose a health and safety risk.

The immediate effect of Raitt's request was to stop the strike from starting because no labor actions can occur while a health and safety issue is before the board. The more normal way for the government to prevent a strike, passing legislation, was not available because Parliament was not in session.

The longer-range effect of Raitt's action, however, was to shine a light on what may be a broad disconnect between the government and the industrial relations board, which is charged with enforcing the Canada Labor Code, a document that governs labor relations in banking, interprovincial transportation and telecommunications.

"The purpose of the code is to promote collective bargaining. Part of the problem we have is that we have a government that's opposed to (collective bargaining), and legislation that promotes it," said Mary Cornish, labor lawyer and partner at Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP.

The preamble to the labor code describes a Canadian tradition of promoting "free collective bargaining and the constructive settlement of disputes," and that preamble guides the actions of the quasi-judicial CIRB, whose members usually come from both unions and business.

"The CIRB is not expected to be completely unbiased when we interpret the Canada labor code," CIRB Chairwoman Elizabeth MacPherson said soon after her 2008 appointment.   Continued...

<p>Canada's Labour Minister Lisa Raitt speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 19, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>