I‘VE PUBLISHED academic articles and personal essays and poetry, but a genre into which some of my best effort has gone is the Air Canada Epistolary Vituperation. Last week, in an exercise of covering one’s bases, federal Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to deliberate the question, Does Air Canada provide an essential service? Anyone who has endured Canadian air travel in the past ten years knows the answer to that one: Air Canada barely provides any services at all, and provides them poorly at that. Hence my letters of complaint at their evident indifference and inattention to customers. (I once received a boilerplate response which proved my point in the first sentence — it began, “Dear Mrs. Spear … .” )
You may well ask what this has to do with the grievances of the Air Canada Pilots Association and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace, or with federal back-to-work legislation? The long answer takes some time to deploy, but the short of it is that for decades Air Canada has been the spoiled prince of the crown, too bound up in the precious sentiments of nationalism and politics to be dirtied by the market in which it ostensibly belongs. I cringe every time I’m thanked for choosing Air Canada, when it happens that I never had a choice. All the way back to C.D. Howe, a man whose love of private enterprise is legendary, Trans-Canada Airlines (as Air Canada was then called) received government favour. The feds kept rivals out of the transcontinental market, guaranteeing an air monopoly, and micromanged TCA’s day-to-day affairs.
For reasons having to do with politics as much as with business, Ottawa moved the company’s headquarters from Winnipeg to Montreal. With the passage of the Official Languages and Air Canada Public Participation acts, Air Canada was mandated to provide services in French and English. In the late 1980s, the Crown Corporation was privatized. Nonetheless, federal legislation — the Air Canada Public Participation Act — continues to govern this private company. As a result, the Canadian airline industry has been captive to a kind of wink-and-nudge farce combining the worst aspects of both the private and public sectors. Air Canada enjoys an absence of competition in many of its markets, and now to its undeserved privileges we may add a busy-body labour minister, whose performancer as deus ex machina is doing nothing to address the internal and structural challenges that sooner or later Air Canada will have to face.
Is Air Canada a private player in a free market, or a Crown Corporation? If the latter, and if the Minister has the right to intervene in the private market, then she has also the responsibility better to explain the prudence and necessity of doing so. The short-term non-solution of back-to-work orders won’t do. Indeed, this will only make the future worse. The questions that recent market events and federal interventions force are as follows: Do workers in Canada have the right to collectively bargain, or do they not? Does the public have a right and an interest in preventing strikes and lockouts? What restrictions on labour or management disruptions of business may be reasonably imposed? Notice that, for the most part, these questions do not offer the easy grey-area answers in which the status quo abides.
As with the phony deference to this supposedly all-important question of essential services (the government didn’t even bother to wait for the answer to that one), the labour minister’s evident position on collective bargaining has yielded an instance of equivocation. By this I mean that Raitt’s back-to-work order is a cowardly way out of facing the unavoidable tough questions concerning the long-term prospects of enitre segments of the economy. It’s clear she understands that the economic recovery is fragile. Less clear is her grasp of how to move forward in a way that serves and respects the interests of private business and workers and customers.