Hon. Jack Layton (Leader of the Opposition, NDP)
Mr. Speaker, I have to say that we start this debate on a bit of a sad note. We have just heard the Minister of Labour say, in thinking about the situation before us, that there are 45,000 postal workers, though I believe there are more than that but I will use the number she used, and there are 33 million Canadians. In other words, she is dividing the people who provide the mail to us from the rest of Canadians.
First, I find it sad that the Minister of Labour would see the world that way and, second, that we would be approaching this issue on such a divisive basis. I have said in the past, and I was hoping things might have been different, that it is a government that preys on the concept of dividing Canadians, one from the other. Unfortunately, we are starting off in that frame of mind.
I do not intend to use that approach. In fact, when I think about postal workers, the first image that comes to my mind is the postal delivery fellow who comes to my home. His name is Gary and he provides mail service to my house. At my house people are normally home during the day, so it is my 85-year-old stepmother who receives the mail. Like a lot of senior citizens and Canadians, a relationship develops between the person who delivers the mail and families. It becomes quite a personal thing.
When families celebrate the important seasons and everyone wishes each other well, it is one of those cases where the services that government provides comes right up against the public in a particularly intimate and important way. I think we all want to start this debate by realizing that we need to appreciate the work of those who work in the public service.
Second of all, I want to say that we are here to achieve a positive outcome. We are going to propose amendments to this legislation. I want to tell thePrime Minister and the Minister of Labour that my team and I will be available, no matter what time it is, to discuss the possibility of finding a solution to this situation.
We in the NDP do not support the legislation that has been presented and we will explain why. We are here to propose changes, amendments and propositions that could improve the legislation. We are prepared to work with the government to find language that might actually get us out of the predicament that we find ourselves in today.
I simply want to say that we are available, it does not matter what time of day or night, to work with representatives of the government to try to accomplish that goal in the interests not only of 33 million Canadians, but also the people who work so hard to make sure we get mail service in this country.
Ensuring good labour relations in this country depends on the good faith of everyone, and unfortunately, the Conservative government has decided to act in bad faith. Postal workers in Canada's urban centres have been in talks with Canada Post since last October. Their contract expired just five months ago, on January 31. Now, this government, as the owner of this crown corporation that took in revenues of $2.81 million last year, is imposing wage reductions, especially on all new employees. The government is ordering an 18% reduction in the basic wage rate, as well as a reduction in vacation time, in addition to forcing new employees to work an additional five years before they are eligible to receive full pension benefits.
Even so, these workers have bargained in good faith. Throughout all of the bargaining, they made sure that Canadians got their mail and that all social services cheques were delivered on time. That is very important for Canadians to understand.
I think about these folks who work so hard for us. The image I have in my mind right now is visiting the large postal sorting stations. These postal sorting stations are huge operations. I visit them at least once every year to touch base, because it is a huge employer right on the border of my riding. Thousands of people are working there to sort the mail, and it is actually a surprisingly intimate process, despite all the machines.
I am thinking of some of the people who sit in their chairs and have all of these sorting boxes into which to put the mail that we write. Some of it cannot be sorted by a machine and has to be looked at by an individual.
There they are, and looking over their shoulders and talking to them, I have seen mail from all over the world. There are personal stories and messages from one Canadian to another, or from someone beyond our borders who is not a Canadian but is communicating with a Canadian. Chances are it is family related, or maybe it is business related, but there is an intimacy there. The respect with which those workers ply their trade is quite remarkable.
A lot of them, I noticed, wear various forms of braces on their hands and their arms because of the repetitive motions that they do. These motions produce a strain on their bodies to the point moving is painful and difficult. However, there they are, working nonetheless to try to provide a service and also because they have to provide for their families.
Another thing I noticed about that group of workers, at least in the plant near my riding, is the diversity. I do not think a more diverse group of Canadians could be found anywhere. They come from absolutely every background. Maybe that is why there is a certain appreciation of the importance of the mail. In a way it is a part of the democratic communication process that brought them to Canada in the first place, the notion that people can communicate freely, that they can speak their mind and that there is a public postal service to make sure people can communicate with each other.
Many of them will mention the charter of rights and so on that we have here in Canada, and how proud they are to be Canadians and to be working on behalf of Canadians. That is why I found it very distressing to see them being partitioned off as though they were somehow not part of the 33 million Canadians. They are as much a part of the 33 million Canadians as anybody else.
I am very proud of Canada Post and its management and the decisions that have been made there over the years. I have had my opposition, as many of us have had, to some of their decisions. I will speak about that later.
One decision was to turn over of many of the postal operations in the small businesses in my community to Shoppers Drug Mart. I have nothing against Shoppers Drug Mart, but it does not need to be delivering the post. Lots of small mom-and-pop variety stores have had to close because of a decision by Canada Post to give the contracts to the highest bidder. That has been very hurtful.
Nonetheless, I have been very proud of Canada Post as an institution in this country. I think of Purolator, for example. Most Canadians do not even know that it is owned by Canada Post and by the Canadian people. It does a fine job of delivering on our behalf in a very competitive environment and has taken leadership in environmental areas. Purolator has a hydrogen-powered van that operates out of a garage in my riding, and that hydrogen is created by the wind turbine that you see when you come into Toronto along the waterfront at the CNE. That is where the hydrogen comes from. That is a publicly owned postal delivery vehicle that is powered by the wind. I think that is fabulous.
Another reason I am personally fond of Canada Post is that it took a decision--and I appreciate the Prime Minister's support for it along the way--to issue a stamp in honour of the 100th anniversary of services to the blind in this country by the CNIB and by the Montreal Association for the Blind, which was founded by my blind great-grandfather, Philip E. Layton.
As it happens, Canada Post took the decision to put his image on the envelope. When we buy a group of those stamps, his image is there, and I take a lot of pride in that. All of those who have been working with and involved with the blind over the years appreciate that gesture. We could cite many stamps that have been issued and many gestures that Canada Post has made because it is part of the community. It is part of who we are, as Canadians, in many different ways.
I do not want what I have to say today about the legislation to take away from all of those positive things that we have to say, nor from the public services that we rely on, because we do rely on these public services, each and every one of us.
However, I have to speak against the bill. I must briefly explain why, or maybe not so briefly, as a matter of fact, if you don't mind, Mr. Speaker.
Effective labour relations in this country rely on good faith. We have not seen that in the actions of the government here. I too, like the member for Acadie—Bathurst, was quite shocked to hear the labour minister describe the situation facing us as a strike. That simply is not true. It was the most brazen example of propaganda designed to try to turn people against these workers that I have seen, and to see it right here in the House of Commons is shocking.
What we are facing right now is a lockout. If we did not have the lockout, we would not have this debate, we would not have this legislation and people would be receiving their mail.
The workers who provide that service are ready to go to work now, but they are faced with a problem. When they show up for work, there is a lock on the door. They cannot work. They cannot go into that sorting plant. They cannot go into the Post Office. They cannot collect the bag of mail and deliver it to people like my mother-in-law and lots of other people who are waiting for their mail.
There is a simple solution. I have asked the Prime Minister repeatedly over recent days to simply adopt this solution, which I will say again: Prime Minister, take the locks off the door and let us have our postal service back.
It is not a strike. It is a lockout initiated by the management, clearly supported by the government. We say that it is supported by the government because if the government were sincere in suggesting that the strike is causing a problem for the Canadian economy, it would be taking action to ensure that the mail was delivered as quickly as possible. The simplest way to do that is to take the locks off the doors, but that is not the objective, unfortunately, despite what is being said; the objective is to interfere with the process between workers and management in coming to a fair collective agreement. That, unfortunately, I must conclude, is the objective.
The government says it has to legislate the workers back for economic reasons, but if that is the case, why did it shut down the post office in the first place?
I would again ask the government to order Canada Post to take the locks off the doors. It is an agency of the government. Let us remember that. The actions it has taken have compromised the Canadian economy; let us remember that too.
It could be done now. A simple phone call would get that process sorted out within hours. I have no doubt that would happen if the Prime Minister were to call the CEO.
However, by siding with the employer and by pitting the workers against the Canadian people in a blatant attempt to try to divide and conquer, as we have seen the government do before, the government has essentially killed the incentive to bargain.
Let us put ourselves in the position of the CEO of the company. He would have a big grin on his face after seeing this legislation, which essentially tells him he does not have to do anything anymore. He does not have to compromise and he does not even have to talk to his workers, because the government is simply going to ram legislation through.
Can we guess what the icing on the cake will be? The government is going to give the workers less in wages than he, as CEO, was prepared to give them.
Mr. Speaker, do we know why else he would be smiling? It is because the CEO, who I am told is the best paid of the CEOs of the organizations we have in the Canadian government system, is allowed a 33% bonus on top of his salary. If a CEO's bonus is based on the profitability of the enterprise and he has just been told that a reduction of the wages of the workers has been legislated through the Parliament of Canada, can we guess what happens? It is higher profits and a bigger bonus. We know who is smiling now.
This is what leaves us with the sense that the government has essentially taken sides here, and we think in a most inappropriate way.
Let us look at the impact on the average full-time postal worker's family during the four years of the agreement.
It turns out that $857.50 would taken out of the pockets of the postal worker's family. We can understand why people would be upset about this, particularly when the CEO is going to get a bigger bonus by virtue of that very reduction.
If a government is prepared to do that to the postal workers, we have to ask ourselves who it is prepared to do that to next. Who is next?
This is why 33 million Canadians ought to be taking a very close look at this legislation and asking themselves if they are next. Will they be hit next? Will there be user charges to deal with the huge record deficit the government built up?
Mr. Speaker, we are getting commentary from the commentariat over here on the other side. One is tempted to respond by suggesting that the massive corporate tax cuts the Conservatives implemented left them with this deficit. If the government had followed our advice, it would not have this deficit.
A lot of Canadians are going to be wondering what will happen if their employer offers them a certain wage and there is a discussion and negotiation about wages. If the Prime Minister is willing to say to postal workers that the offer they were being given by their management was too high, so he brought in a law to reduce their wages, would that happen to them also?
I do not think there would be any reason to think it would not happen. In fact, I think there is every reason to be fearful that the government might well do it, and that anyone could be next. Who would that be?
The government will protest and say that it would never do that to anybody else, but there is a question of trust here that is going to be challenged by the legislation we see in front of us. The government is willing to do that to 55,000 Canadians, the very people who deliver the mail, usually with smiles on their faces no matter what the weather, and people will ask themselves if they could be next.
There is also the question of pensions.
Yes, many do not have a pension plan, so we need to strengthen the Canada pension plan to help all these people.
However, anyone who does have a pension plan for when they retire is looking at a government that is willing to impose restrictions on them. It is telling them they can't retire with the full pension they thought they had, the pension they told their families would be available for retirement and on which all family plans were dependent, the plan that kept workers going on some of the worst-weather days when their job involved going door to door or when their arms hurt as they were sorting the mail.
At the end of the day, that worker was probably thinking that he or she could retire with a certain pension and would not live in poverty, that the work would be worth it and would allow them to spend more time with their family, because a lot of this is shift work and workers do not have much time to spend with their families. So workers make promises to their spouses and kids that they will eventually spend more time with them based on their having a pension.
However, this legislation tells those workers they will have to work five years longer than they planned. That is not right. It creates further problems, which I will speak about in just a second. Sure, it would be a big saving for Canada Post, yet we could do all kinds of things if all that we wanted to do was to save money. Let us just cut everyone's salaries down to size, let us not have pensions, let us forget about health care. We could save money in all kinds of ways. Saving money is not, by definition, the best thing to do in all circumstances. It is a question of balancing things, and that has not been done in this legislation.
Canadians should therefore be forgiven for doubting Canada Post's claim that it is going to be in financial trouble if it does not squeeze the workers, the same workers who helped Canada Post make $1.7 billion in profits over the last 15 years. That was done by hard work, because the postal system did not make money years ago, as that was not how it was set up, but it has been structured that way for a number of years. Those workers have helped to create that profit, but now they are being punished for having done it. How do people get motivated when they are faced with that situation?
Canada Post made $281 million in net profits in 2009 alone, the last year for which we have the full numbers. Let us remember that the government gets a chunk of that money, so I suppose this is one of the ways that it is going to reduce the debt. To reduce its debt, the government is going to extract $857.50 from the average full-time postal worker's family. It will take that money and put it against the national debt. That is not right and it is not fair. The national debt is something that we all have to shoulder together, all 33 million of us, not just the 55,000 workers in the postal system.
The company does not need a bullying big brother to support its demands against workers who just want to support their families. This is really reprehensible legislation because of the way it tries to push people around, and it is not done in good faith.
Let us talk about the contract the government wants to impose. The contract divides workers into two categories: new versus old, young workers versus more senior workers. By asking new workers to accept lower wages, less secure retirement benefits and less vacation time, the government is turning them into second-class workers. I admire the workers for rising up against this injustice, even though it is not necessarily their rights and benefits that are in jeopardy, but those of future employees. The workers have stood up to protect the next generation, upholding the tradition of the labour movement. That is also a tradition of the NDP, one we are proud of.
It is linked to a broader value that we hold, a fundamental Canadian value, that no one should be left behind. That means that we do not create two classes of workers in a place like Canada Post.
The government actually wants to impose a contract that takes that very value and turns it on its head. It says that some should be left behind and says who they are going to be, essentially structuring it to give one generation of workers an inferior arrangement. This invites resentment in the workplace, which is only human. Over time the younger workers are going to resent the older workers and the better deal they have. How can that be positive for the morale of a workplace or the efficiency or quality of life of the workers?
It is really quite a negative a thing. It is dividing people once again. It weakens the bonds that can exist in a workplace between people working together. It pits worker against worker, and worse, in this context, a generation against another generation. I think that is a very dangerous situation.
It weakens their collective voice because to the extent they are not working and feeling like they are part of the same team but are feeling that there is a conflict within, their collective voice is not going to be as strong or as effective as it could be. Maybe that is what the government wants. Maybe that is what is really going on here, amongst other things, to try to weaken the voice of working people at their workplace. Certainly, if we look at this legislation in its many dimensions or the actions of the government in recent days on both of the strikes we have been dealing with here, people would have to come to the conclusion that this could be part of the strategy
From the perspective of some employers and governments, maybe this is somehow seen to be a good thing, to divide and conquer in a race to the bottom, except for those at the top who do better and better. In fact, the statistics in our country should be alarming for all members of Parliament, because the inequalities that are growing in our society are the kinds of inequalities that ultimately lead to a reduction in quality of life, a reduction in the sense of well-being. There are lots of measures of this.
The societies that have a greater level of equality, where the distance between the top and the bottom is not as great as other societies, have all kinds of advantages when it comes to the well-being of their citizens, everything from lifespan to measurements of disease and happiness, and the list goes on and on.
There has been a lot of work done on this. In fact, I know that a lot of parliamentarians of all political stripes are starting to pay attention to the work that is being done on the growing inequality and how that needs to be challenged.
Unfortunately, the policies of the government, piece by piece, have actually helped the inequality to grow. So there are cases where, for example, if someone is not a taxpayer with a decent income, some of the tax credit approaches offered by the government are not available to them.
Many of the tax reduction strategies have ended up benefiting those at the top, to a greater extent. Or, some of the measures that have been offered up are really only workable for people who have extra money at the end of the month or end of the year, when there are a lot of folks who do not have that.
The result is that we are going to see a step-by-step growth of the distance between those at the top and those at the bottom. What are we looking at here but a piece of legislation that actually makes that the case within this group of 55,000 employees, creating a distance within the workforce and, of course, the distance I spoke about earlier between the CEO with that whole bonus system and the workers. There are probably other upper echelon managers who get some kind of a bonus as well.
So the inequalities within that workplace are going to increase. That is a reflection of a pathology that is afoot in our society right now. This legislation runs counter to the sorts of initiatives we should be following to deal with that pathology.
It also undermines the workers' voice. Now some people perhaps think that is a good idea. I was doing an interview earlier today with Mr. O'Leary of The Lang and O'Leary Exchange. I had challenged him in an earlier interview, taking issue with that quote of his that “greed is good“. I took him on and said that I did not think that greed should be considered a good thing. I just needed to go on the record saying that on the public broadcaster.
I had the opportunity to be interviewed by him on this very topic this afternoon. He asked me, “Wouldn't we be better off if we just simply didn't have unions at all, Jack?” He used my first name. I hope I can use it in that context. In responding to him, I pointed out that he had just saluted the very successful economy of Australia, which has a labour government and a strong union movement.
The fact is that the union movement in our country has given us and working people wherever unions are allowed to form a dramatically improved standard of living. We could go through the list of the things that have been accomplished by trade unionists over the years. Most of them were negotiated, perhaps in labour contracts to begin with, but became sufficiently popular with all Canadians that they became the law of the land.
One could start with child labour. Had we not had the union movement, we would have child labour. If we have any doubts about that, we should go to the places where there is child labour and find out how easy it is to organize a union there.
We could also take a look at things such as weekends off. We would not have weekends off if it were not for trade unionists organizing for the right of working families to have a little time together once every seven days.
We would not have health and safety committees in our workplaces, which sit down and talk about how to make working conditions safer and better for workers, without unions. However, we still have three workers a day dying on the job in Canada. We have an awful lot more work to do in these areas. We passed the Westray bill. That never would have happened, had it not been for the union movement. Here I refer to the steelworkers and all of those who supported that strong legislation we now have, which is being brought to bear in appropriate circumstances. I know there are corporations, large and small, that have changed their practices as a result of that bill.
I had the privilege of sitting on the board of directors of the fourth largest energy utility in the country, Toronto Hydro, and we did not. When I joined that organization, we did not have anywhere near adequate workers' health and safety. We had the worst record of any public utility in North American. This bill came in. We were all briefed on it as board members. I do not mind saying I had been pushing for change there, but it was that bill that ultimately said to the managers and directors of the board that they could be criminally liable if they knew that a situation was dangerous and did not do something about it. That snapped everyone to attention darn quickly.
I want to salute Toronto Hydro, because within six quarters it went from having the worst quarterly record of injuries and those sorts of situations on the job to having zero injuries a quarter, and it was because of that legislation.
I am really trying to make the point that the unions we are talking about here perform an extremely important service in our society. People are frustrated when something they were counting on is not available. When people's mail is not delivered, it is tough and it is very tough for small businesses.
I had a small business once and I would pay my contractors, but if the cheque had not arrived from the person I had the contract with, it was tough. Some small businesses right now are struggling because of that situation. Other business owners rely on the mail as fundamental to their business.
We all know about those kinds of businesses. That is why, if we were serious about these businesses, we would take the locks off the operation and let the workers get back to work.
I would like the government to understand how important it is to build bridges between generations and between different groups of workers. I would like the government to agree to work with us to defend the rights of workers and to secure a better agreement for their families. That is why we are proposing to work with the Prime Minister and his team to come up with acceptable amendments to this bill in order to improve the situation.
Let us be clear: this bill violates the rights of workers to negotiate a collective agreement in good faith. It also weakens the collective bargaining rights of all 33 million Canadians; their right to work together with their co-workers to secure better conditions, a right entrenched in section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These are the facts. This legislation sends a message to employers across the country that the government is prepared to side with employers against employees every time it has an opportunity to do so.
Why should employers bargain in good faith if they can count on the government to step in and impose what they cannot get at the bargaining table? Where is this going to end? Once we allow this sort of thing to get started, who knows where it could go?
That is why we propose that the laws be changed and why we cannot support the legislation. It encourages employers everywhere to go out and test the waters. Look what they got at Canada Post. Maybe we can manoeuvre into a similar position. Who do we have to call in the government to get it on side? Who do we check in with? I guess we will start with some of those consulting companies that seem to be populated by former members of the party. Maybe we will get some advice there, but that is a topic for another day.
By sending a message that back to work legislation could be the new norm for labour negotiations in our country, the whole notion of good-faith negotiations really goes out the window, and it is a slippery slope that the government wants to force Canadians to go down. I simply ask the government if this is really where it wants to go because it will be very dangerous.
It is important for us to understand that the benefits provided by collective agreements go beyond a mere contract. The added benefits negotiated by workers over the years have helped to raise the standards for all Canadians. Unionized workers fought for rights that we now take for granted: a decent wage to raise a family—the salaries of unionized workers have a positive upward effect on the salaries of non-unionized workers—plus occupational safety and health standards, the 40-hour work week, weekends, protection against harassment, vacations, workplace pension plans, and the list goes on.
Hand in hand with progressive parties like the New Democratic Party, collective bargaining has been one of those engines for progress for working people. I see this as a legacy to build upon, not something to be torn down.
We are celebrating our 50th anniversary as a political movement. At our convention, we reflected on our achievements over those years. It was always with one goal in mind, which was to make life better for working families. That was and is what we are.
At our convention, we reflected on our achievements over those years and we paid a special tribute to our founding national leader, Tommy Douglas, the father of medicare. Public health care was his signature achievement for all Canadians. Public pensions were another achievement, working with Lester Pearson. However, Tommy Douglas accomplished so much more, including rural electrification, universal access to education and income stabilization for farmers.
Tommy also knew that securing workers' basic rights was a key to a just and prosperous Saskatchewan and Canada. Therefore, as premier of Saskatchewan, he passed legislation, and we are going back many years, guaranteeing a minimum wage for working people. He passed legislation establishing a 40-hour work week, paid vacations and full collective bargaining rights for all workers.
Tommy gave credit to where credit was due, which was to the ideas that had come from working people. They were bargained into existence by working people. Tommy's job, as he saw it, was to extend those most basic protections to all working people through legislation in his province and in his country.
When we see legislation in this Parliament, we hope for the kind of legislation that would accomplish those kinds of goals. Instead, we are seeing legislation today that goes precisely in the opposite direction, for several reasons that I have touched on already. Other members of our party in our caucus will speak about other dimensions of this in the debate.
Tommy's legacy was extraordinary.
Sixty years ago, Tommy Douglas was instrumental in bringing in Canada's first real labour code.
Topic: Government Orders
Subtopic: Restoring Mail Delivery for Canadians Act