Labour ministers in a Conservative government are seldom seen or heard from. So Lisa Raitt’s recent speech on Cooperative Labour Rel­ations to a Chamber of Marine Commerce luncheon in Toronto should have been a real eye-opener, except it attracted little media attention.

In her speech, Ms. Raitt bluntly challenged employers and employees in the federally regulated sector, which includes transportation, telecommunications and banking, to look at the their national importance when they’re in the midst of contract talks. Left unsaid was what the government might contemplate if they don’t.

Work stoppages in the federal sector have the potential to do great damage to the Canadian economy, many other sectors and the public at a time when the economy is still struggling to recover, she noted.

“Free collective bargaining is the best method of arriving at a collective agreement,” she said. “It’s always better when the two sides can reach an agreement on their own. However, when a strike or lockout has significant impact on the public interest or the national economy, other means to resolve the dispute must be considered.”  The government has to balance the rights of employees and employers – to sort out their differences through work stoppages – against the interest of all Canadians.

It’s obviously in the interest of companies and labour to find better ways to reach agreements than to leave the government to decide for them, she added. While Canada’s record work stoppages and person-days lost in the federal jurisdiction is improving, it’s still high compared to other countries.

“The real cost of a work stoppage in the federal jurisdiction often goes far beyond lost profits and wages for the parties involved in the conflict,” she said. It can disrupt commerce and production, tie up transportation and communication networks, threaten bus­inesses not involved in the dispute, and cause temporary, or even permanent, job losses.

The problem appears to lie with worker resistance to organizational change when employers restructure to improve productivity, she pointed out. This makes it hard for unions and employers to make compromises. “We believe that better industrial relations, and specifically a more collaborative workplace, would serve to lessen this problem.”

What’s needed is a healthy dose of mutual respect, she contends. That’s why she intends to continue promoting cooperative labour relations.

To make her case, Ms. Raitt listed a long string of labour talks that ended in new contracts, including the St. Lawrence Seaway, NAV CANADA, Seaspan Marine and the Canadian Merchant Service Guild and B.C. Longshoremen. She did not mention a threatened strike at Air Canada, a situation that is bound to test her department this year.

The federally regulated sector is vital to the health of the economy. Virtually all Canadian exports are channeled through federally regulated ports, airports, railways and trucking companies. These industries account for roughly 10 per cent of our GDP and 12 per cent of the economic growth over the last decade.

The minister said her business experience, including a stint as head of the Toronto Port Authority, showed her that most workers and companies want to cooperate and reach an agreement they can all live with.

However, Labour Canada’s Mediation and Conciliation Service is receiving an additional $1 million to expand its Preventive Mediation Program. It will assist unions and employers to build stronger ongoing ties and more productive relations at the bargaining table, she said.

Over the last five years, the department’s mediators have finalized the large majority of collective agreements without work stoppages, she pointed out. That 94 per cent success rate is outstanding.

“In the years ahead, our country will face many new challenges: the aging of our population, technological advances, and economic pressures that we can only guess of now,” she noted. “But good industrial relations will always be important. And so, we will need stronger partnerships between employers, unions and government. Here in Canada, we enjoy a relatively peaceful labour climate.”

The government will remain focused on stimulating the Canadian economy by creating and maintaining jobs and sustaining and strengthening Canada’s global reputation as a reliable and efficient shipping gateway that businesses can depend on, Ms. Raitt insisted.