Back-to-work legislation is a blunt tool that should be used when access to a large, economically vital good or service is jeopardized, with no labour agreement within sight. The circumstances do not yet justify the federal government's apparent rush to deploy it, especially with regard to Air Canada.
To begin with, Air Canada is still flying. The strike has been an inconvenience to customers, but it has not crippled the country's transportation network, nor has it raised the spectre of wholesale disruption that Labour Minister Lisa Raitt says justifies an early intervention. In addition, it is a private company whose customers have other transit options on many routes, including WestJet, Porter and other airlines.
Canada Post is a publicly owned company that serves almost every Canadian, with fewer direct substitutes. But until Tuesday, mail was still being delivered, and the decision to suspend it was taken by the company, answerable to its only shareholder, the government of Canada. We have argued previously that the strike was a tactically poor choice by the union, as mail no longer plays the central role it once had in society. If so, letting the negotiating process - or lack thereof - run its course is the sound choice for the federal government, especially if arrangements to cover essential mail delivery, such as government support cheques, are still in place.
The decision to legislate will not make for a better deal between the companies and their workers. It will mean a sacrifice of labour peace in the longer run. And it will not solve the structural problems affecting either company or its bargaining units - pensions at Air Canada; pensions, and relevance, at Canada Post. The federal government should hold its fire.