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Is Ottawa putting the right to strike at risk?

Without clear guidelines, the government's declaration that a possilbe strike by Air Canada flight attendants would be harmful to the economy amounts to selective meddling.

Della Rollins/della rollings The Globe and Mail

Memo to Canadian workers: if what you do is "significant" to the economy or the general public, your right to strike is at risk.



That, at least, is the message federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has delivered as she prepares to order a quick end to a possible strike by Air Canada flight attendants -- the second time she's threatened back-to-work legislation at the airline this year.



"From our perspective, the government gets engaged when we see that there's going to be a nationally significant effect either on the economy or on the general public," Ms. Raitt told CBC-Television.

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Her remarks pose the question what other workers can't strike in Canada? Just airlines? All workers at federally regulated industries? And is this a permanent ban, or a temporary ban, while the economy remains fragile?



It's worth pointing out here that, however inconvenient or economically destructive strikes are, Air Canada is a private company. It's no longer a Crown corporation. Air Canada has fierce national and international competitors on most routes -- companies that have an economic interest in what Ottawa does.



Does Ms. Raitt's edict also apply to workers at Westjet and Porter Airlines, whose workers may want to unionize in the future?



What about railroad workers, truckers and telecom employees?



And why stop there. The lives of millions of Canadians would also be deeply affected if Tim Horton's went on strike, or Molson-Coors.



What's the value of belonging to a union if the most basic right of employees -- to withdraw service in the event of a contract impasse -- no longer exists?



We don't know the answer to any of these vital questions because the Harper government appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.

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It's not the first time. Last year, the government blocked a foreign takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan in the face of popular anger in Saskatchewan. At the time, then-Industry Minister Tony Clement suggested the company was too important to the Canadian economy to let fall into foreign hands.



It's a defensible position. But Ottawa has so far failed to clarify what's for sale, and what's not in Canada.



It amounts to selective meddling in the economy, without putting in place clear rules of the road. Ms. Raitt and the Harper government owe that Canadian companies and their workers.



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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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