As Air Canada battles its union, Lisa Raitt comes out swinging again

The minister is surprisingly fond of legislative sledgehammers

by Charlie Gillis

When only a sledgehammer will do

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Dos and Don’ts of Labour Relations, if there is such a volume, would surely recommend against it. By dogging Lisa Raitt through the corridors of Pearson Airport last week, slow-clapping the federal labour minister as they went, three Air Canada groundworkers cost their union dearly in the court of public opinion. So did those who staged a wildcat strike to protest the trio’s suspension: Within 24 hours, more than 80 flights had been cancelled due to the job action. Passengers—already cranky from long lineups—began venting their frustration on employees trying to manage the mayhem.

Raitt’s office denied claims she had escalated the confrontation (“Arrest these animals,” a union official claimed she told police officers). But the incident illustrated how Air Canada’s parlous negotiations with its workers have been eclipsed by union antagonism toward the minister, whose fondness for legislative sledgehammers has caught many by surprise. In the last seven months, Raitt has moved four times to head off labour disruptions at the airline, using either the threat of back-to-work legislation or referrals to the federal labour board, to the outrage of union leaders. “Every time Air Canada sneezes,” grumbles Bill Trbovich, who speaks for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, “this government gets out the Kleenex and tries to correct the cough.”

Raitt, 43, has never been known for delicacy. She developed a taste for full-contact politics in the early 2000s when, as head of the federally appointed Toronto Port Authority, she waged a battle to expand the city’s island airport over the objections of then-mayor David Miller. At one memorable event in May 2003, she stood on a chair and shouted back at anti-expansion protesters who had crashed a Port Authority open house—the beginning of a campaign that saw her savaged in the local media. But ultimately she prevailed. The island has since become a business travel hub, with more than 1.5 million people using the airport each year.

Nor is she a model of humility. In 2009, as natural resources minister, she laid bare her ambition during a conversation about problems at the nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont., which had caused a shortage of medical isotopes. Musing that the issue involved “sexy” elements like “radioactive leaks” and “cancer,” Raitt suggested that it could advance her career. The remarks, alas, were recorded inadvertently by her former press secretary, who then left her recorder at an Ottawa media event. The tape wound up in the hands of a Halifax newspaper columnist.

Embarrassing, but in politics ruthless ambition has its place. In June 2010, when Raitt took over the labour portfolio, the ruling Conservatives faced a gathering storm of expiring contracts in federally regulated industries, from the postal service to the national airline. The Tories, who make little secret of their distaste for labour action, wanted to keep disruptions to a minimum, and Raitt’s implacability seemed well suited to the task. One year later, she tabled legislation that forced locked-out postal workers back on the job, ignoring accusations by labour leaders that she was trammelling their bargaining rights.

So do Raitt’s interventions boil down to crass politics? Not exactly, says Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. Over the last 60 years, federal governments of all political stripes have cut short strikes that disrupted key transportation or communication networks, he notes. “The only difference with the Conservatives is that they don’t wait until the workers have been out on the picket line for three or four or seven days.” That polls suggest most Canadians support those moves is, for the government, an added bonus.

At the same time, says Lee, who has studied government intervention in federal labour disputes, Ottawa faces growing pressure to allow greater competition in Canadian skies, as recommended by a government-appointed competition panel in 2008. Few experts think Air Canada would survive long against foreign-backed competitors, given its bloated cost structure. So Lee thinks the government is merely “buying time” in heading off financially crippling labour disruptions at Air Canada. “I don’t think they’re doing this as a favour to Air Canada,” he adds. “They’re doing it to give themselves time to figure out what they’re going to do.”

Raitt, meanwhile, is sticking to her guns. While her office declined an interview request, she has been using her Twitter feed to fight her critics, slapping down posts or tweets about the Air Canada conflict which she deems inaccurate. In an email response to questions, a Raitt spokeswoman described the union’s account of the Pearson incident as “irresponsible, even defamatory,” but said it was one affront the minister planned to let slide. At least one party in this messy dispute, it seems, has read her Dos and Don’ts.




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As Air Canada battles its union, Lisa Raitt comes out swinging again

  1. It’s pure politics – the CPC has decided to break unions, and have chosen Raitt as their enforcer. I’m pretty certain that the disciplinary action that led to the AC wildcat strike was made at Raitt’s behest.

    • There’s no chance that the disciplinary action was an obvious thing to do by an embarrassed employer?  I don’t work at an airport.  My job has nothing to do with air travel.  But if *I* happened to do exactly what those guys did my employer would be within its rights to impose the same disciplinary measure, or worse, because my actions will reflect poorly on my employer’s image.

      • Are u for real ??? What employer’s image? Are u kidding? A miss-managed business as AC does not have an image my friend. At least not the image u would like to be associated with. Jesus,man.

        • I beg to differ.  Air Canada has an image…an airline with the worst customer service EVER.  You can blame mismanagement and you would be right but it is mismanagement of front-line staff who regularily treat paying customers with disdain.  Now some people would claim that this poor treatment of customers by staff at Air Canada is just a trickle-down effect of staff’s poor treatment at the hands of upper management.  I argue that poor morale among front-line staff does not equate with lousy service, a bad attitude or out-right rudeness.  As proof, I point to overworked, over-stressed, under-staffed front-line healthcare workers in ER rooms in major cities across the country.  They continue to provide excellent care despite overcrowding, understaffing, underfunding and outright intimidation by employers. 

          • Not too long ago (several weeks) I read a report regarding the very well-known cleaning problem of many hospitals around the country. Many big hospitals are so mismanaged in this respect that a patient has many chances to get sicker inside than he was outside. I don’t have time to look up the report, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. And your problem (since you are healthcare insider) can kill people (c-difficile etc. etc.). So actually you don’t provide and excellent service, as you claim, far from that, but that’s another story and I got bored.

          • You don’t have to look up the report…I am well aware of the contents….the problem is due to a “shortage of cleaning staff”.  You are right.  Hospitals are mismanaged but are frontline staff rude, arrogant and dismissive of people who come to the hospital for treatment….NO!   Despite morale in hospitals being at an all time low, staff continue to do their best.  At Air Canada, the staff treat the customers like crap.  The resources in the hospitals are stretched to the limit but the front-line staff try to give the best service possible.

          • Whenever I get consistently poor customer service, it speaks volumes to me about the corporate culture at that company.  What it tells me is that the company does not treat their employees well and does not care about the way their customers are treated. Good customer service starts at the top, not the bottom. 
            And while I know that healthcare work is always difficult & challenging for the reasons you mention & that the majority of front-line healthcare staff perform above & beyond the call of duty, I’m also quite sure there are lots of instances where patients receive “lousy service, a bad attitude & out-right rudeness” in some of our healthcare institutions.

          • While there are cases when frontline healthcare workers aren’t as kind as they should be, it is not as though they have a reputation for “bad service”.  When the recession hit, Alberta RNs agreed to a pay freeze.  In the past, they have taken roll backs.  If your employer cannot pay, you have to face reality.  My point is that you do not take your bad morale out on your customers because that definitely will not solve anything and in the business world, that is a sure fire way to end up out of a job.

        • Grow up pal!
          Get a life!

          •  We speak what we think, so getting a life seems to be your problem, sorry.

      • Raitt, if she has any clue, would be well aware that AC union members would harbour animosity toward her. The airline should also have been aware of how coworkers of the employees would react to disciplinary measures against these employees.

        I’m not condoning the behaviour of the employees, but it seems to me that AC and Raitt took advantage of that behaviour. A wildcat strike was an easily foreseeable reaction to disciplinary action – and something that would, from a public relations perspective, fit neatly with the objectives of both the airline and the government.

        If the wildcat strike were not the desired outcome, Raitt could have ended it quickly by publicly saying the airline had no need to take disciplinary action for the public expression of political opinion, and encouraging the airline to rescind the suspensions to bring an end to the walkout. That she did not do so immediately speaks volumes.

        • Agreed!

      •  disciplinary action was not the  obvious thing to do, the three guys  were suspended  without an investigation , one of them was not even there he was in the break room having lunch, he got suspended just because he was on the same crew as the two that did the clapping .

  2. I can’t wait until these union workers demand so much they send AC into bankruptcy, oh wait its happening now. When it finally happens the employees will get nothing as there are many debtors and creditors.

    I really don’t understand the twisted logic of some of these unions. Do people really believe baggage handlers should be unionize making $15—$20 per hour? It’s a minimum wage job and kids who bag for groceries have it more difficult to

    • you wouldn’t last an hour out there in minus 20 temps. lifting 70 pound bags into cramped
      spaces for 8 hours. so if you don’t know what goes on where I work don’t speak

    • Yeah, I’m sure there’d be a HUGE line-up of people able/willing to do that job for less than $30K/year. 

    • You try it for a day and then make that stupid comment

  3. What most people overlook about the incident at the airport with the minster and Air Canada eoyees is wether or not they were working or on their own time. They were on their own time! The fact they are employees has no bearing on what happened. They have the right to voice their opinions! They have the right to voice their displaeasure to a system that is clearly not on the side of the people but the company. To discipline people for voicing their right to free speech, is wrong! It does not reflect on the company they make it out. It is plain and simple vindictive action by the Minister and Air Canada. Was their a better to handle the situation. There damn well was one. However, the company choses to ignore and deal with employee without regard for the hardships they are facing. Our governments! Need to all smarten up! They are fortunate we Canadians do not take violent action. We are still using common sense. They need to grow up.

    • So politicians can get heckled in the house of commons but not anywhere else?
      She represents us, an opinion was expressed to her.
      Isn’t that part of her job?

  4. (Bonnie) Raitt’s inexperience just like her inexperienced boss Harpo, proves it’s time to dump this gov’t.

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