When Doug Young became federal human resources minister last January, he received a note from Canadian Labour Congress president Bob White. The message: let’s talk. White never received a reply. In case the labor leader missed the point, there was Young’s comment a month later, at the height of union demonstrations over changes to the Unemployment Insurance program. The minister, who has since taken charge of Defence, said he would not speak to White even if the CLC chief had a glass of water and Young had been “riding through the Sahara on a thirsty camel for three weeks.” Young’s antipathy to unionists is well-known. But his attitude
speaks volumes about labor’s declining influence in Ottawa. The low level of interest among Liberals in labor issues, some observers say, may also explain Ottawa’s refusal to cave in to demands for a cash bailout for Canadian Airlines International Ltd. “There is a startling lack of understanding within the government of the Canadian Airlines situation,” says one high-ranking labor leader, Not that the process began with the Chrétien Liberals. The Trudeau govern-
ment’s wage and price controls of 1975 set labor and government at loggerheads. Relations between Ottawa and the union movement may initially have been better under the Tories—then-CLC head Dennis McDermott enjoyed a personal friendship with Brian Mulroney. But things deteriorated with labor’s battle against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Later, Kim Campbell’s shortlived government scrapped the labor department, folding it into the human resources ministry.
Since February, 1995, Canada has again had a federal labor minister: first Lucienne Robillard, and, as of last January, Alfonso Gagliano. But it remains a junior portfolio, and insiders say that Gagliano’s appointment was in large part due to Chrétien’s desire to reward the Liberal stalwart from Montreal, who previously held the lowly post of secretary of state. Gagliano disputes that, and notes that “relations between the government and labor are back on the right track.” But although labor leaders say relations are indeed better, they complain that they are rarely—if ever—consulted on major labor-related issues. "It just never happens,” says Robert Baldwin, the CLC’s director of social policy.
Will things change? Labor leaders should not hold their breath.
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