Lisa Raitt, the very hands-on Labour Minister, summoned the two principals in the dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants to a private meeting at her Parliament Hill office.
It was Sept. 19, and the 6,800 flight attendants were poised to strike. Ms. Raitt, who was threatening back-to-work legislation, had given the parties the weekend to reach a tentative agreement or she’d call them into her office on Monday.
They didn’t get a deal. Now, she wanted to know how close they were.
At that meeting, according to a senior official, Paul Moist, the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents the flight attendants, and Air Canada’s executive vice-president Duncan Dee, told her a tentative agreement was realistic.
But there was more. Ms. Raitt expressed concern a deal would not be ratified, given that the flight attendants had rejected the one before.
“What are your thoughts?” she asked.
Mr. Moist assured her – twice, according to the source – that if they negotiated a deal it “will” be ratified.
Well, they got the deal, but not the ratification. He was wrong. It wasn’t even close.
With that, Ms. Raitt was vaulted right back into the national spotlight – not a familiar place for a labour minister, but one that is becoming increasingly so for her.
And as she aggressively stickhandles her way through this latest Air Canada imbroglio, she has turned what is considered the dog of cabinet posts into an important economic portfolio.
Although she’s likely made more than a few enemies along the way, she’s carved out a profile in a cabinet full of men in senior roles.
Four times in the past four months, Ms. Raitt has either legislated workers back on the job or threatened to do it. She does so in the name of protecting the country’s “fragile economic recovery.”
“We’re really clear that in the cases where there is going to be national significance and there’s a public interest that we’ll take a look at intervening,” Ms. Raitt said in an interview this week from San Francisco, where she was meeting with the executive of the longshoremen’s union.
She says she is motivated to get involved if “the possibility of a long work stoppage is there and we all know that would have a great strain on the economy.”
This drives the opposition crazy.
“This is just a big excuse. This is a big excuse,” says Yvon Godin, the NDP labour critic, who believes the government’s behaviour is just another expression of its “contempt” for organized labour.
Liberal labour critic Rodger Cuzner accuses Ms. Raitt and the entire Harper government of using the economic argument as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“… for any action they take, the economy is going to be the catch-all,” he says.
Clearly, more is at play here.
In these recent labour fights, Ms. Raitt and her government are distinguishing themselves from their biggest threat, the NDP, by pushing back against the unions.
This is a government, after all, that has gone hard against the NDP, painting it and its principals as being in the pockets of unions.
More than that, the Harper Conservatives are taking a pro-consumer stand. In this latest fight, they seem to have decided they prefer the anger of 6,800 flight attendants to that of the 65,000 people who travel on Air Canada every day. (Multiply that by a 10-day strike and there’s 650,000 upset travellers.)
Accused by critics of launching a full-blown attack on organized labour, Ms. Raitt denies her actions have anything to do with ideology. It’s all about being practical, she says.
“This isn’t about having a fight with anybody,” she argues. “This is about making sure that in the bigger picture, the economy continues to work … and we don’t have any work stoppages that are prolonged.”
In addition, she says many union members vote Conservative.
“They are people to respect and they work hard and they make good wages,” she says.
What’s next? Three more Air Canada unions – the baggage handlers and mechanics, the pilots and the dispatchers – are still negotiating their contracts. CN has contracts expiring in December.
Of course, she would rather have the two sides settle the issues themselves. But, if they cannot, it’s pretty clear what she will do.
Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, says Ms. Raitt’s strategy is working: “The other unions can read the tea leaves… therefore they are more apt to settle just because what’s the alternative?"
Editori's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Duncan Dee's title. This version has been corrected.