September 20, 2011 / 9:38 PM / 6 years ago

Canadian government taking tough line with unions

* Government has forced end to three strikes since June

* Hard line hurts both unions and companies, says expert

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, Sept 20 (Reuters) - A Canadian crackdown on unions is upsetting opposition and labor relations experts alike, amid concern that the hardline stance could backfire on the Conservative government.

The government, elected on a pro-business platform, has proposed three sets of anti-strike legislation in the four months since it won a majority in Parliament in early May.

This prevented large-scale industrial action, but also set the scene for changes that could actually favor unions, said George Smith, a labor relations expert at Queen's University in Kingston.

"We have to look one step beyond the forced back to work (legislation). What's next?" he said. "What's next is some form of binding arbitration and there is a huge preponderance of evidence that binding arbitration favors the status quo ... and in today's environment that favors the unions."

The government's latest action was to promise back-to-work legislation in the event of a strike by flight attendants at Air Canada ACa.TO ACb.TO, the country's largest airline.

The two sides settled on Tuesday, hours before a midnight strike deadline. Labour Minister Lisa Raitt had said she wanted to shield the economy at a time of global uncertainty. [ID:nS1E78J0EG]

"The reason (we acted) ... is to protect the economy, is to protect the Canadian traveling public," she told legislators.

In late June the right-of-center Conservatives pushed through back-to-work legislation to end an 11-day strike by almost 50,000 employees at Canada Post.

Earlier that month, they introduced back-to-work legislation for striking Air Canada call center and check-in staff. A deal was reached before the bill could be passed.

Yvon Godin, labor spokesman for the official opposition New Democrats, said the government was using its new majority position to interfere with the unions' right to negotiate.

Workers had the right to strike and companies had the right to lock out workers if labor talks failed, he said.

"Those are the tools they (both) have, those are the laws of the country, and (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper is taking that away from the workers. This is dangerous because one day they are going to hit a brick wall," said Godin.

"I've said this before ... to Stephen Harper. What have the workers done to him that he hates them so much?"

Smith said labor policy was changing without debate.

"In the private sector you generally think the government will take a little bit of a more arm's length approach ... that's the unprecedented nature of even these threats," he told Reuters.

The government plans to find C$4 billion ($4 billion) a year in savings by 2014-15, about 5 percent of overall spending, prompting public sector unions to that fret their members will suffer disproportionately.

"If I were a public sector worker I would be very afraid," said Smith.

No one from Harper's office was immediately available for comment. Harper was in New York on Tuesday for meetings. (Editing by Janet Guttsman)

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