Friday, October 14, 2011

Flying the Flag Ragged

If things in May had gone a bit different, and the map of Canada hadn't been painted quite so blue, Air Canada's flight attendants could well be on strike right now. Whether or not the situation would have hashed out the same way is an academic, but if Canada had continued to be run by a hamstrung minority government the same way it had been since 2006, my own suspicion is that the government would have stood back and let it happen, if only to keep the Liberals and NDP from making noise and possibly precipitating yet another election.

However, this is the world in which the Conservatives have a majority, and so much like Chretien's Liberals from 1993 to 2001, what the Opposition does is irrelevant; they don't have enough bodies to throw into the gears of government. So, as the Vancouver Sun reported on Wednesday, there was really nothing preventing Labour Minister Lisa Raitt from asking the Canadian Industrial Relations Board to take a look at the proposed contract that's the source of the acrimony between the flight attendants and Air Canada management - "to determine whether a disruption of service would pose a health and safety risk to the public," and while that investigation is going on, Air Canada is obligated to continue services "to the extent necessary to prevent an immediate and serious danger to the safety or health of the public."

Which means, in simple English, no strike for you.

I don't like the idea of governments involving themselves in labor disputes, outside of very narrow areas. For issues like transit strikes, like the one the Toronto Transit Commission held back in 2008, I can understand the necessity of government intervention; Toronto as a city literally could not run without its public transit system, and police, fire, and EMS departments provide services so critical that a universal, sustained job action on their part would mean that people would die - but there are ways to square the circle in these cases, to undertake a job action without putting people at risk.

I think most people would agree that Air Canada flight attendants are not in quite the same position as police, fire, and EMS services. No one will die if they don't get their miniature can of pop or package of Bits and Bites at 35,000 feet. Yet, nevertheless, the federal government feels compelled to ride to Air Canada's rescue, to yet again prop up an airline that's built itself with so many tax dollars, it shouldn't rightly be considered a private company.

It would be ridiculous if it wasn't so transparent.

An Air Canada Airbus A321 is ready to take on baggage at Toronto Pearson International Airport in December 2009.

Here's what I think - the Conservatives, flush with a sense of power now that they have the majority they'd been chasing for five years, want to make an example of the Air Canada flight attendants. Remember the postal strike a few months ago? That dragged on seemingly for weeks, and any back-to-work legislation would have needed Opposition support. Well, it's a different world now. What was once an issue between the employer and the workers has now been complicated by the government, that organization that's supposed to represent the interest of all the people, taking sides and standing back-to-back with management.

The Conservatives can spin whatever rhetoric they want about this, but that's all it is - rhetoric. Legislating an essential service back to work, whether or not it's officially called that, is one thing - this is entirely another. Flight attendants do not represent an essential service in that sense of the term. The planes can still be loaded, fueled, and flown. The government has no business sticking its nose into this. The idea that a suspension of Air Canada services would pose a "pose a health and safety risk" to the public is ludicrous - I'm sure WestJet would have loved the opportunity to fill the gap. I have thus far been unable to find an airport where the only scheduled flights are flown by Air Canada; thankfully, our national flag carrier does not monopolize the friendly skies.

I suppose the Conservatives really are friendly to business, all right. From their conduct we can infer that they're also hostile to the workers who make those business work.

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