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

The minister is surprisingly fond of legislative sledgehammers

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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.