Over the last year, Canada’s federal government has been more than happy to force resolutions in collective bargaining disputes before the parties have had much chance to settle their disputes on their own. Using the rationale of avoiding damage to the Canadian economy, the government has intervened to end strikes at Air Canada, CP Rail, and Canada Post. So it’s more than a little surprising to hear Labour Minister Lisa Raitt continue to claim that the federal government prefers to let parties settle disputes themselves. And it’s especially surprising to hear this claim in the context of an unresolved dispute with potentially huge economic implications.
On July 9, nearly 800 workers at Candu Energy went on strike. Candu used to be the reactor division of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL); it was sold by the federal government in 2011 to the multinational engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. The workers on strike are represented by the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates (SPEA), which is one of Canada’s independent unions, unaffiliated with any larger parent organization. Perhaps the government is betting that an independent union won’t last long against the corporate resources of SNC-Lavalin and the dispute will quickly be quashed. However, while the union might be independent, it is not alone. The dispute has received a fair amount of media attention, and SPEA is doing an excellent job of regularly updating its website with strike news to keep he interest going and to maintain solidarity among its members.
SPEA’s members, according to its website, are “engineers, scientists, technologists and tradespeople who collectively represent the majority of Canada’s nuclear power design expertise”. According to this story, these employees work on nuclear reactors that supply about half of Ontario’s electricity and about 16% of Canada’s total electricity. So….if the federal government intervenes in a labour dispute when the Canadian economy is threatened, why is the government not stepping into the Candu dispute? Surely a dispute potentially affecting an essential power supply threatens the economy as much as a withdrawal of postal or transportation services. Plus, this dispute also has the potential for much longer-lasting economic damage – if highly trained workers leave Candu and take their expertise with them, or if the dispute makes potential new employees reluctant to work at Candu. However, despite these possibly significant impacts, there are no indications that the government plans to intervene in the Candu strike.
Interestingly, just this past week the Candu workers’ former employer, AECL – a Crown corporation owned by the federal government – settled a new collective agreement with its professional employees at its Chalk River facility, without any strike or lockout action. But even with this example of successful bargaining, SNC-Lavalin is apparently not being challenged on its claims that it wants to “compensate its employees differently from other workers in the field“. “The field” can’t be that big, as nuclear energy is a fairly specialized industry. AECL and its professional employees, in the same industry as Candu, have peacefully agreed to a contract at a time when the federal government is making major staffing cuts to (allegedly) cut costs. SNC-Lavalin is currently having its own financial and ethical challenges, but are we seriously expected to believe that it can’t afford to pay the same wage rates as a company owned by a government with a budget deficit?