Janet Dassinger | CUPE Research

The former Conservative government’s review of the Canada Transportation Act contains deeply flawed and sweeping recommendations for federally-regulated marine, rail and airline transportation.

Written by Conservative insider David Emerson, the report reads like a corporate blueprint for continued privatization, deregulation and business-friendly policies. As the report baldly states, Canada must modernize its transportation system in order to be a “global competitor” and to be consistent with free trade agreements.

The report does make some good recommendations, such as developing high speed rail, improving infrastructure in the North and creating a passenger bill of rights. However, there is almost no attention paid to the consequences of these policies for workers’ job security, working conditions and health and safety.

None of this is surprising, since Emerson chose to consult only minimally with unions representing airline workers.

Unfortunately, the current Liberal government has shown support for two major recommendations that pose a serious risk to workers’ job security and working conditions: privatizing airports and increasing limits for foreign ownership in Canadian airlines.

The report recommends a series of options for the privatization of airports (currently run by local municipal authorities), claiming that services will become more efficient and that costs to passengers will be reduced. However, as many CUPE members know through bitter experience, privatization invariably raises rather than lowers costs, with investors looking for profits by cutting labour costs and increasing customer fees. 

Many airport workers are already precariously employed, with contracts routinely flipped to the lowest bidder for services like baggage handling, ground transportation, parking and wheelchair services. Unions representing these low-paid workers have no successor rights, and must often renegotiate an entire collective agreement with a new contractor, sometimes at lower wages and with even poorer working conditions. It seems clear the current government views airports as one of many potential cash cows to fund its proposed infrastructure program.

Alarmingly, Liberal Transportation Minister Mark Garneau recently decided to increase foreign ownership thresholds for Canadian airlines from 25 per cent to 49 per cent. Clearly responding to industry pressure, Garneau has already exempted two airlines seeking foreign capital to start up “ultra” low cost carriers, claiming greater competition will lead to more routes and lower fares. But experience suggests something very different will happen. The past 40 years of increased competition has led to airline bankruptcies, mergers, hostile takeovers and the gutting of collective agreements and pension plans. Efforts to reduce labour costs also mean reduced safety for both passengers and crew.

CUPE is fighting back by mobilizing members in the sector. The recent National Sector Council Conference in Winnipeg brought together transportation workers in airlines, urban transit and provincial roads and highways to identify shared concerns and strategize about solutions. We are also working closely with other unions in the sector to protect our members’ jobs and defend their rights. And the CUPE airline division has recently mounted a “Safer Skies” campaign to lobby the Liberal government about safety issues, including the recent regulatory change allowing fewer flight attendants on commercial flights as well as other emerging safety hazards.

Because when bad Conservative policy becomes bad Liberal policy, CUPE is there to push back and protect workers and transportation safety.