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Wage rates pivotal in Parliament's postal debate

Locked out Canada Post workers picket outside Vancouver main post office on June 21, 2011.

JASON LEE/REUTERS

Parliament was preparing for a marathon debate last night over the Canada Post dispute, a debate that could create the first real dilemma for Jack Layton in his role as Opposition Leader on a file - labour - that is dear to New Democrats.

Mr. Layton wants changes to the Harper government's bill forcing postal workers back to work, and if he does not get them, it's possible the House could sit well into the early hours of Friday and even into the weekend. That would set up a conflict, as Friday is St. Jean Baptiste Day, a holiday in Quebec, and more than half of Mr. Layton's 103 MPs are from Quebec. It's important for them to be home for the celebrations.

Still, Mr. Layton has vowed to use every procedural tool available in "the parliamentary tool kit" to make changes. Especially egregious to the NDP Leader is the section in the bill that imposes wage rates that actually reduce the offer that Canada Post had proposed to its workers.

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"That's like trying to poke people in the eye," Mr. Layton told reporters after Question Period Thursday.

Talks broke off between Canada Post and its union Wednesday night. The company said in a news release that the two sides remained far apart on several issues after 72 hours of negotiations.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers says it is doubtful negotiations will resume in the face of the Harper government's determination to impose a settlement in the three-week dispute. The postal workers were locked out last week.

MPs spent Thursday afternoon debating the issue, at times heatedly, and resumed in the evening. And it became clear that if the wage-rate element is not removed from the bill, the debate could drag on. The House was originally scheduled to rise Thursday for its summer break and not sit Friday.

Mr. Layton, however, told reporters he hoped that a resolution would be reached, adding that he preferred to "find some amendments that we can settle on quickly."

For the Harper government, the issue has become one of protecting the economy versus the right to collective bargaining.

Opposition MPs say the back-to-work bill takes Canada's Post side in the dispute by imposing a wage settlement that is inferior to the company's last offer.

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"[The government]is signalling that if employers cannot get what they want at the bargaining table, never mind, Ottawa will legislate it for them. Why bother to bargain? It is a terrible precedent," Mr. Layton said during Question Period.

The legislation, if passed, would also allow an independent arbitrator to choose between the final offer from management and the final offer from the union. The arbitrator's decision would be binding.

Mr. Layton indicated that amendments were being worked on, including one over the issue of wage rates. However, in Question Period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper argued that the wage rate is "fair."

"They reflect what we have negotiated with federal public servants," he said. "The government, unlike the NDP, is not beholden to one of the parties at the table. The government represents the wider interest of the Canadian economy. This strike is bad for the economy and we will act."

The government's legislation calls for wage increases of 1.75 per cent this year, 1.5 per cent in 2012 and 2 per cent in 2013 and 2014. Canada Post, meanwhile, had proposed a 1.9-per-cent increase for this year, next year and 2013. It had offered 2 per cent for 2014.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt suggested she was open to seeing amendments - "if they have real amendments, they should present them to us and we'll take a look."

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There were some signs that the government was fairly confident it would get its back-to-work legislation through sooner rather than later. Mr. Harper is scheduled to be in Thetford Mines, Que., Friday afternoon for St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations.

All parties say they are prepared to keep sitting through the weekend to get the bill passed.

While the Conservatives intended to use their majority numbers to cut short discussion on how the bill should be debated, government House Leader Peter Van Loan said there would be no restrictions on the length of debate on the bill itself.

And Conservative senators were told to expect to sit Friday for votes and Saturday to deal with the back-to-work legislation.

Passage of the legislation could theoretically result in postal service resuming in Canada some time next week. Once the bill is given royal assent, mail service will be restored in 24 hours.



With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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