Mr. Dale Johnston (Wetaskiwin, CPC)
moved that Bill C-312, an act to provide for the settlement of labour disputes affecting west coast ports by final offer arbitration, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, first let me congratulate you on your appointment as Acting Speaker and Chair of Committees of the Whole. I believe you will do a great job.
Work disruptions at west coast ports have become economically devastating to Canada's economy over the last 30 years. I would like to point out that agriculture has just come through two years of drought and seven months of BSE. Agriculture is absolutely devastated. If agriculture continues to suffer losses unnecessarily and people cannot get their goods to market, there will be a tremendous impact on the entire Canadian economy through a virtual collapse of the western Canadian agricultural economy.
From time to time we have disruptions at west coast ports. The way Parliament deals with this inevitably is through back to work legislation. Of course, back to work legislation does nothing to improve labour management relations or to resolve the outstanding issues. This is a tool that I think can be used equally by both parties, management and labour unions, to settle disagreements.
Some of the critics of the bill have said that it unduly harms labour in that it takes away their right to strike. I would like to point out to them that it takes away the need to strike. There is no need to strike if people can arrive at a negotiated settlement. It also takes away the ability of management to lockouts. It is a fair tool to be used in both situations.
It is something that agriculture needs. It is like a right of spring. Every year we can count on some kind of labour disruption happening at the west coast ports that tie up farmers' grain and other things that are especially significant to Canada's economy.
Part I of the Canada Labour Code does allow for the continuation of grain shipments from the port during a strike or lockout but that only applies to grain that is actually in the port. It has no effect on grain that is arriving at the port or even just a couple of miles away from the port on the train. That is really what the bill would resolve. It would empty the terminal. That is all it would do. There might be enough grain to load part of a ship but there will certainly not be enough grain to have an impact on farmers' livelihoods.
What we are trying to do is come up with a resolution, something that will resolve the dispute that will encourage both sides to bargain in earnest. If final offer selection is used to its ultimate conclusion, the result will be that there will be no need for a strike, that work can continue on and that both sides can continue to negotiate. If they come to an impasse, then they list all the things they agree on, all the things they do not agree on and they agree on an arbiter who takes the final offer and the things that are not agreed upon.
This looks to me like a fairly reasonable compromise. It seems in Canada one of the things we do is compromise. The whole idea behind this is to force a settlement to prevent being locked out or having to strike. I cannot for the life of me believe that anyone would enjoy going on strike or being locked out, or being an employer in a position where it feels that its only alternative is to lock out its employees. I do not think that is anybody's first choice.
Final offer selection puts the onus on both parties to bargain earnestly and honestly and to arrive at a solution.
I think it is interesting to point out that the Canadian government has imposed final offer selection arbitration while it has settled a dispute. It settles a dispute and says we will come back to Parliament. Parliament has even been recalled in order to pass back to work legislation. Part of the back to work legislation, from time to time, has been final offer selection. Workers are ordered back to work and have no choice but to go back to work and put the final offer on the table; matters were settled that way. I would not think that anyone in the government would have any problem supporting this measure today, because it is something it has used in the past.
We are certainly not trying to take anything away from the unions' right to negotiate or to arrive at a good deal, a deal that will satisfy everybody. We are not trying to short-circuit the method here. What we are encouraging is sincere negotiations and negotiations that come to a conclusion. If they do not come to a conclusion, there will be a mechanism put in place to make sure that an agreement is eventually reached.
A big beneficiary of this is the economy of the country, and certainly agriculture, in that the west coast port continues to operate while negotiations go on.
The last time we had a work disruption at the west coast port, it cost us in the neighbourhood of $90 million a day. It is always hard to nail down exactly what these sorts of things cost us in the long run as far as future sales are concerned or customer confidence or any of that. Just in direct costs it was estimated that it cost the Canadian economy $90 million a day. At a time when western farmers have gone through two serious years of drought and have had to sell off their herds at bargain basement prices because of BSE problems, I would suggest that this is a timely piece of legislation which we should consider and pass so that farmers have one less thing to worry about.
I have presented the bill in the House before. I am pleased to see that under the new rules the bill will now be votable. I have not been successful in the past in making my case to have the bill votable. Now it is going to be, so I encourage all members of the House to support this initiative to make sure that the grain movement at the west coast ports has an opportunity to flow and that the people who produce that grain have an opportunity to sell their goods.
Western Canadian grain farmers have been hit time and time again with strikes. Usually it is at a time of the year when they are trying to empty their bins to get ready for seeding that there is some kind of work disruption. Either the employer locks out the employees or the workers decide to, as they say, wobble the job. The result is that workers have to go on strike pay, the employer has to try to get by using managerial staff to load the ships, and the person who really gets hit in the neck over all of this is the producer.
This is a bill that is fair. It gives everyone an opportunity to negotiate. They can even negotiate while the work is carrying on. There would be no work disruption, no loss of revenue to those people who are employed there, no loss of revenue to the port authority, no demurrage charged unnecessarily against the producers, and the producers would have an opportunity to get their grain to market, get it onto the ship and onto the high seas.
In a hungry world, I think it is important that we consider this bill. Also, I point out that the farmers in western Canada are getting a bit hungry these days as well in the way that things have shaped up against them from December until now. Cattle prices in Alberta have declined by almost 50%. There are many people who are hurting very badly over this. We do not need to compound the problem as a result of not taking some responsible action in the west coast ports.
I look forward to hearing what my colleagues have to say in this regard. Again, I encourage them to support western Canadian agriculture and to support the bill to resolve west coast ports disputes.
Subtopic: Final Offer Arbitration in Respect of West Coast Ports Operations Act