Canada’s Federal government announced yesterday that it would refer two labour disputes – one involving 8600 ground staff, the other involving 3000 pilots – to the Canada Industrial Relations Board. The move that was widely expected and which prevents a strike or lockout by either side, preventing a disruption during the busy March Break holidays. Ground crews had threatened a strike, while management had issued a lockout notice to pilots.

The government once again invoked it’s right to refer labour disputes that could effect the health and safety of Canadians to the Board, according to the Globe and Mail:

[Minister] Raitt asked the labour board to “determine the activities that Air Canada may be required to maintain as relates to the health and safety of Canadians.” Industry experts said her decision amounted to a legal tactic to prevent any disruption to Air Canada’s flights, buying time for management and union leaders to find a way to break the impasse or potentially face binding arbitration.

“Our government is concerned that the work stoppages are going to have an effect, both on our national economy and of course on the Canadian travelling public,” said Ms. Raitt, who relied on a similar referral to the labour board last October to prevent 6,800 flight attendants from walking off the job.

The Minister was not clear as to how economic damage or travelling disruptions threaten health and safety, and some observers are concerned about the collective impact of this kind of decision on collective bargaining.

Labour lawyer Howard Levitt told CTV that “There may already be a deal that’s already happened, the problem is everyone doesn’t know that and my concern is these constant interventions are the death knell of serious collective bargaining in this country.”

Capt. Paul Strachan, President of the Air Canada Pilot’s Association, was more direct in his comments to the Globe: “[Ministerial interference] does affect the bargaining landscape, absolutely,” he said. Dave Ritchie, Canadian general vice-president for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, noted that the union had asked the Minister to stay out of this dispute. “I’m not too happy about it,” he added.

In the author’s view, parties to a labour dispute must be allowed to negotiate within the constraints of the Act: referring such disputes to arbitrators as a matter of course weakens collective bargaining, discourages good faith negotiation, reduces the apparent risk of intransigence, and results in compromise outcomes that will not satisfy either side and may serve to paper over legitimate industrial concerns.

In the present case the ‘health and safety’ justification for the exercise of Ministerial power is clearly political, and accordingly this particular interference also seriously damages the position of the government as an independent and honest administrator of the public trust. On the other hand, the move will be popular with nervous travellers and families, who expressed relief yesterday that their holiday plans would be unaffected.