Canada Post workers remain without a contract heading into another busy holiday season – a year after the government legislated them back to work.
The situation demonstrates that while back-to-work legislation may end a work stoppage, it does not guarantee a quick resolution to the underlying issues.
Earlier this month, federally appointed arbitrator Elizabeth MacPherson wrote to the Minister of Labour requesting an extension of her mandate in the Canada Post dispute to June 30, 2020.
Canadian Union of Postal Workers president Jan Simpson said her members are frustrated because, like the Canadian National Railway workers who went on strike last week and struck a tentative deal Tuesday, many of their issues involve health and safety matters such as long hours and overtime.
“With CN, the government stepped in to help both sides reach an agreement. Had they chosen this path for postal workers, we might not be spending our second holiday season without a new deal, working under the same conditions that led us to strike in the first place," Ms. Simpson said. “Both negotiations have health and safety as major issues … Since these issues involve understanding the work process, they are best left to the parties that are negotiating, as opposed to an arbitrator who will not have the same depth of knowledge as the union and management do.”
University of Saskatchewan associate professor of political science Charles Smith, who recently authored a book on unions and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said it is important to understand the limitations of legislating an end to a strike.
“The problem with back-to-work legislation is it doesn’t necessarily address these issues. All it does is get them back to work, so these issues linger,” he said.
The November, 2018, Canada Post case was the only time the Trudeau government approved back-to-work legislation.
Under Stephen Harper, the previous, Conservative government introduced such legislation six times and passed four of those into law, ending labour disputes at Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway in 2012, Canada Post in 2011 and CN Rail in 2007.
Prior to that, Ottawa had gone a decade without introducing back-to-work legislation – not since the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien used it in 1997 to end a labour dispute at Canada Post.
Alison Braley-Rattai, who specializes in Charter and labour law as an assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University, said there are still many unresolved legal questions when it comes to the constitutionality of such legislation.
Dr. Braley-Rattai said a judge reviewing the constitutionality of back-to-work legislation would likely take into account factors such as the urgency of the situation and whether it includes an offer of binding arbitration from a genuinely independent third party.
“One of the main criticisms of back-to-work legislation is that if employers can count on it, this disincentivizes them from genuinely bargaining in good faith,” she said. “That means that if one is genuinely committed to the collective bargaining process – as the Liberals profess to be – then they must resist the temptation to use back-to-work legislation too readily.”