Third reading of Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the resumption and continuation of operations at the Port of Montreal.
On the Order: Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Gold, P.C., seconded by the Honourable Senator Gagné, for the third reading of Bill C-29, An Act to provide for the resumption and continuation of operations at the Port of Montreal.
Hon. Tony Dean: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in favour of the bill in front of us. I speak in support of Bill C-29, which proposes to end the ongoing work stoppage at the Port of Montreal and would, in the alternative, put in place a neutral mediation/arbitration process to resolve the dispute and put in place a new collective agreement.
Like many of you, I do this reluctantly. Like many in Parliament and outside of it, I support free collective bargaining because it reflects the reality of workplace conditions and leaves the responsibility for bargaining outcomes in the hands of employers, unions and workers.
For these reasons, governments should only intervene in labour disputes when it becomes absolutely necessary in the public interest. This is the fulcrum of decision making and policy making in these relatively rare occasions where government intervention is being considered. I say “rare” because the vast majority of collective bargaining disputes in Canada are resolved by the parties. Indeed, we have heard that many collective agreements in the Port of Montreal have been resolved by the parties. This is because of the balanced nature of Canada’s collective bargaining regimes. It’s because of the sophistication of our employers and unions and because of the skills and perseverance of government-provided mediation services.
We have well over 90% of collective bargaining outcomes resolved by workplace parties, up to 98% in some sectors, sometimes with the assistance of federal or provincial mediation services. In the relatively rare cases in which bargaining becomes bogged down, government mediators are available to assist. In the present situation, experts from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service have been involved for some time. They don’t take this work lightly. It goes to the core of the mediation profession, and no stone is left unturned in providing support and advice to the workplace parties. Colleagues, that’s particularly the case where there’s a public interest component to this.
We’ve heard in the current situation that negotiations had spanned 30 months, with over 100 bargaining sessions, many supported by federal conciliators and mediators and in some cases, as the minister put it, a couple of super mediators. This doesn’t come close to describing the intensive effort, much of it quiet and informal, made by federal mediators to resolve this dispute. I know you’ll join me in thanking them for their efforts and I also extend thanks to Minister Tassi.
Colleagues, when we confront an impasse like this, we are instinctively driven to ask what more can be done to sort this out. It’s in our instinct to say there must surely be something more we can do. I know that feeling; I’ve been there many times, both as a bargaining agent, as a mediator and as the head of a mediation service, the head of a labour ministry.
Based on that experience, I can tell you that if there were any hope of getting an agreement here — in the short or medium term — the conciliators and mediators involved with this process over the past couple of years would have obviously put up their hand, cautioned the government and said, “You’re moving too quickly.” Believe me, they would say, “Let’s give this more time.” And governments take this sort of advice seriously.
After 30 months with the parties, the mediators know what’s doable and what isn’t. So it’s possible that this dispute could drag on for several more months and we would be right back here having the same discussion. In the interim, the flow of $270 million in cargo a week would be halted with a knock-on impact on the 19,000 Canadians whose jobs, we hear, are tied to the operation of the port.
Now, I’m not a Charter expert; I listen to those who are. But from a Charter perspective, we’ve also heard that we are not looking purely at the economic impact of the dispute here — the government’s Charter Statement — and we’ve heard witnesses tell us today that the port is a key gateway for the import of containerized essential products such as critical medical goods, pharma products, food and critical inputs for the farmer and food industries for the Quebec and Ontario markets. So the impact here clearly extends beyond straightforward economic damage.
I don’t find this easy. I would always prefer to see a negotiated outcome because these are the best for all concerned. But colleagues, this doesn’t look very likely here. So, in the alternative, Bill C-29 would create a balanced dispute resolution process in which an effort would be made to find consensus between the parties and a mediator-arbitrator, and we hoped that they would do that. But failing that consensus, the minister would appoint the mediator-arbitrator, likely from a list jointly developed over time by employers and unions, who would then have 90 days to complete the process with the possibility of extension by the minister.
We would all like to see this dispute settled and, indeed, a mediated settlement — while I agree is unlikely— is not completely out of the question.
I note that final offer selection was an option available to the mediator-arbitrator in the original version of the bill, and it was removed by an amendment in the House of Commons.
I’ll end by commenting that final offer selection takes away a bit of the predictability in normal arbitration processes. It introduces some additional risk and it gives the mediator-arbitrator some additional leverage in finding a deal or at least narrowing the range of issues in dispute. It’s worth a try as part of a suite of tools available to independent third parties.
But I’m not about to extend this discussion any further than is absolutely needed. The bottom line is I’ll support the bill as amended in the House of Commons. Thank you.