Alex Binkley on Harper labour relations

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This issue in ...

The Binkley Report

A lesson probably not learned

01 March 2015
By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

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Labor Minister Kellie Leitch’s response to the strike by CPR train crews was a classic political fail.

In the wake of the breakdown in contract negotiations between CPR and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, she fired off a press release vowing back to work legislation, hardly a surprising move. Then she went off the rails by heaping all the blame for the impasse on the union.

Any mature adult should know there are two sides to a dispute and leadership comes from helping them reach an acceptable compromise.

In the end, Leith caught a break as the union, having made its point, agreed to binding arbitration with CPR and sent its members back to work. While she probably paid no attention, the NDP, Liberal and Green MPs gave her a well-earned dressing down when the bill came up for debate.

If Leitch had paid attention to her officials who had been assisting the two sides, she would have known CPR was pushing for serious concessions on rules designed to prevent fatigued train operators from being on the job. This is supposed to be a Transport Canada priority although you didn’t hear anything from Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

It’s understandable that a government facing an election wants to dodge a prolonged strike that would damage the country’s shaky economy. However CN reached a tentative settlement with the same union just days earlier.

When the talks broke down, Leitch said she was incredibly disappointed in the union and added it was “incredibly frustrating that the union continually stifled progress for both parties.‎”

Basically CPR has decided that if the government is willing to build its popularity with Prairie voters on ordering minimum grain transportation movement by the railways, then it can try to bully its employees into contract concessions knowing the government will back it up.

What Leitch should have done is ignore the bully boys in the Prime Minister Office and acted like a proper labour minister. She should have known the contract talks were falling apart because of the differences between CPR and the union and urged arbitration to resolve the dispute.

An agreement requires both parties to make compromises and she didn’t help the process by taking sides. The arbitration process is far from perfect, and Leitch only made it worse by handing the company a loaded gun. With arbitration agreed, Leitch’s bumbling had a short public display.

Well before the strike, CPR was training management personnel and office workers to run trains. Meanwhile CN was negotiating.

There is a case to be made that Canada needs a new way of collective bargaining in the federally-related sector because a work stoppage has such a widespread impact. Think of what a strike at the major airport and ports does to the economy.

The federal government certainly should not be taking sides. How is it fair to single out the railway workers when Kellogg’s, Heinz, General Motors and Target shut down their operations with impunity?