March 2013 Archives

Chris Aylward

A visit to Colombia

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With UNW President Todd Parsons, I recently spent ten days in Colombia as part of a trade union delegation organized by the PSAC Social Justice Fund and the BC-based NGO CoDevelopment Canada. The PSAC, along with our sister unions CUPE, CUPW and NUPGE, has been working with sisters and brothers in Colombia since 2004, in an initiative known as Defending Public Services: Canadian and Colombian Workers on the Front Lines.

It was an eye-opener.

Under the new President, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia has been on a quest for international respectability. The death squads and paramilitaries who hunted down and murdered hundreds of trade unionists and indigenous activists only a few years ago have largely disappeared. But one needs to look beneath the fresh-painted facade.

The paramilitary thugs who once terrorized the countryside are now working as private security guards for the multinationals. The military and the police are anything but neutral: the killings continue. Only this past February a young mother of the Kiwe Nasa people was murdered, during the ongoing unofficial campaign by the authorities and the multinationals to push indigenous people off their ancestral lands and open those lands up for mining. In the same month, the president of the sugarcane workers’ union was killed outside his own house.

One of our most emotional experiences was meeting a group of Afro-Colombian women. Six of them told stories of losing family members in the not-so-distant past. One woman spoke of the military breaking into her house, and shooting five of the inhabitants in front of her. She was thrown out of the house, and heard a sixth shot. It was her nine-year-old son. This was a mere seven years ago.

We were told by Kiwe Nasa representatives that the military, who purportedly arrived in the community to defend the people from attacks, deliberately poisoned their freshwater fish stocks, and accused them of stealing their weapons. Moreover, illegal combatants have been sowing forests and farms with landmines, killing and maiming people, and driving large numbers of inhabitants off the land. A major road is being constructed to facilitate the massive export of oil and mineral resources, palm oil, timber, and other agricultural produce to the world markets via the port of Buenaventura: by no coincidence, this road is displacing several indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, adding to the millions of people already displaced in Colombia.

The people we met cited two Canadian mining companies, Pacific Rubiales Energy and Eco Oro Minerals, as among those multinationals disrespectful of indigenous peoples’ rights. However, massive public pressure has forced the Colombian government to bar Eco Oro from expanding its current mining operations in a national wilderness reserve in a northern part of the country. In retaliation, the company has threatened to sue the Colombian government, under the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, signed by Stephen Harper in 2009 with the support of the then-Liberal opposition.

Everyone we talked to mentioned that agreement, in fact, which effectively opened up Colombia to uncontrolled Canadian mining interests. A year later, a Private Member’s Bill that sought to regulate the behaviour of our mining companies abroad was shot down, again with the help of the Liberals.

Colombian public sector workers have only recently been granted the right to bargain collectively, another attempt to give the government respectability without any serious changes. Yes, workers may bargain—but the government has to agree to bargain, and it prefers not to. In fact labour laws, and human rights laws too, all part of that facade of respectability, are routinely ignored.

Public sector unionizing is restricted by law to full-time workers. The government, giving with one hand and taking with the other, has privatized its operations, contracting out most of its operations to “cooperatives” of part-time, casual workers who have no collective bargaining rights. That’s supposed to be illegal now, but the law, put in place as a condition of the US-Colombia free trade agreement, is simply ignored. And there is, perhaps needless to say, no Rand formula in Colombia. It’s as though we were looking at a Conservative vision for our own public service a few years into the future.

Public and private sector workers alike join unions at their peril. We talked to a worker in the health sector who was promptly fired for doing so, and subsequently threatened. We also met with two separate groups of human rights lawyers, who live their lives behind bodyguards and in bullet-proof cars. They get text messages: “Your time is up.” They receive bullets in the mail. The old, bloody days of routine assassinations may be over, the military checkpoints all but gone, but Colombia remains a perilous place.

For me, as a Canadian and a trade unionist, it was sobering to learn first-hand of Canada’s implication in the oppression and misery of ordinary Colombians. Those memorable face-to-face meetings were an education in themselves. But I came back energized and inspired by the raw courage of our Colombian counterparts. If they can join together and stand up for themselves in the face of such unimaginable risk—what is stopping us?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

♫ Accent-u-ate the positive ♪

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A commenter takes me to task for being, as he puts it, too “adversarial.” He wants less “negative rhetoric,” and, by gum, I’m going to give him what he wants.

But let me qualify that just a bit. In the Senate, as I write this, is Bill C-377, a piece of legislation that threatens to sink unions under a mountain of paperwork almost every time we make a move. It deliberately singles us out for this treatment: corporations are not treated this way, nor even charities, which of course have their own problems to deal with.

C-377 is so vindictive that even Conservative Senators are speaking up.

Then we have front-bench Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, floating trial balloons about abolishing the Rand formula.

And of course there’s Tony Clement, heading up Treasury Board, who lashed out at my predecessor John Gordon for having the gall to ask where the looming public service cuts were going to fall. To this date, the government has been so secretive on this issue that the just-departed Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page launched a court case to restore transparency. (Given his departure, the fate of that case is uncertain.)

All this, accompanied by cuts which have eliminated 16,220 public service jobs—and now the threat to sick leave, a negotiated benefit, and to our members’ pensions—could make a public service union leader a tad touchy. My usual good humour, admittedly, deserts me on occasion.

So let me turn quickly to the positive.

Despite the hostility of the present government, we never stop talking to our Treasury Board and departmental counterparts in the federal public service. There are many joint forums in which we regularly meet—such as departmental joint consultation, the Public Service Commission Advisory Council, the Public Service Pension Advisory Committee, the National Joint Council, the Joint Learning Program—and we play an engaged and positive role in all of them, doing a lot of day-to-day problem-solving.

As for employee benefits, we have a long and successful tradition of collective bargaining to discuss those, openly and in detail. We have never shied away from those across-the-table debates. Dark hints of changes leaked to the media and contained in budget documents, however, have no constructive function; they only add to our members’ already high level of stress.

I’m positive about our members and our staff, knowledgeable as they are in the details of public service operations, and committed to quality public services for all Canadians. We have suggestions based upon a wealth of experience to offer—if called upon to offer them.

I’m proud of the union I lead, a fundamentally democratic organization where the needs and the will of the members come first and foremost. The union is, after all, the members, to whom leaders are accountable, and no one can make leaders more accountable than informed and passionate grassroots PSAC members.

Here there is no blind adherence to some kind of party line imposed from above, but debate, differences, a variety of points of view, all kinds of positions and approaches to our common task. In our ranks there is respect for dissent, a willingness to listen as well as speak, and above all an on-going commitment to each other.

The members, one by one, offer ideas and energy to the process. They place their trust in leaders, but have shown, time and time again, that they are willing to do what it takes themselves to defend against unfairness and move forward. There can be no doubt that they will do so again if it’s required.

I feel honoured to have earned the trust of the members. But I am also aware that this trust must be earned anew every day. Having a positive and optimistic outlook goes with the territory. I may react negatively to government announcements that directly affect the well-being of our members, and frankly that should be expected. But I do so, thanks to the members, with a song in my heart and a smile on my face.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

A new workplace program?

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As the latest government grab is all over the media--this time it's our members' sick leave--the online comments are already appearing. You know the ones: pampered, underworked public service workers, big fat benefits, they ought to get out in the real world, etc., etc.

We should be used to it by now, but somehow we never quite are. The public (and of course we're part of that public, and pay our taxes like everyone else, but the pundits always try to suggest we're somehow above and beyond) is full of angry voices. And their two demands are always the same: 1) More services, please, and 2) Cut the public sector, and roll back the benefits of those who remain.

The obvious contradiction never seems to faze them.

The current suggestion, from those who should know better, appears to be that we are abusing our sick leave credits. This would require, of course, that the countless doctors who provide treatment and medical certificates for our members are part of a conspiracy.

More generally, there is resentment, stoked by the current and previous federal governments, that we have achieved wages and benefits through collective bargaining that are superior to those of employees in smaller organizations and in non-union workplaces.  I guess that's one of the benefits of unionizing--if we failed to do better than non-union employees, our members would rightly question what they're paying their dues for. Size also matters: whether its a union or a non-union employer, larger organizations tend to provide better wages and benefits.

But we can come out with dry facts and arguments until we're blue in the face. More seems needed to dispel the false assumptions and misrepresentations that fuel  the ongoing stereotyping of federal public employees.

Maybe a new initiative is called for: Take Our Public to Work Day. "Our" public, because we work for Canadians, providing a vast range of essential services--everything from food inspection and border security to environmental protection, education, search and rescue, old age security and transportation safety.

The program would cost very little, but it would have significant long-term value. We could invite members of the public who have expressed scepticism about value for money to join us in various workplaces to see what actually goes on there. Perhaps a day at an EI office, as our members struggle to clear backlogs and field telephone calls, while staff is being cut back to the bone and offices are being closed. Those with strong stomachs might like to accompany our primary inspectors in a meat-packing plant, and join them on the kill floor. The more intrepid could spend some time at a customs border point, or meet the clientele that our parole officers deal with, or accompany our firefighters out on the job.

The best way to dispel stereotypes is to meet the real people behind them. What better way to educate the ill-informed (and, to be fair, people who depend upon the media and the government for information about us will almost inevitably be ill-informed) than to spend a day, if not in our members' shoes, at least walking close by.

What about it? Something, perhaps, to raise at Joint Consultation?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Fudge-it 2013

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The Harper government appears to have a treat in store for us.

Going forward, the Government will continue to ensure that the public service is affordable, modern and high-performing. To help do this, it will examine overall employee compensation and pensioner benefits and will propose changes to the labour relations regime.

Hoo boy. And this is most of the detail we get from the book-length Budget 2013 document issued yesterday. The thicker the volume, the less information.

Here’s the rest of it:

The Government will work with its employees, bargaining agents and others to identify and implement improved practices and approaches following the lead of other public and private sector organizations. It will also explore other opportunities to further transform and modernize the public service to address the demands of the modern world and respond to the evolving needs of Canadians. These improvements will benefit both public servants and all Canadians.

In addition, the Government will be examining its human resources management practices and institutions in a number of areas, including disability and sick leave management, with a view to ensuring that public servants receive appropriate services that support a timely return to work.

The Government will be consulting with key stakeholders on these objectives over the coming months.

I’m a veteran of this sort of “consultation.” We’re bracing for it, believe me. And the reference to “pensioners” is disturbing, too—could this mean that retirees are about to have their health benefits cut?

But this is typical of the budget as a whole, which reads more like a Conservative political statement than a clear statement of proposed future spending. Everything is rosy and “on track.” It’s all business, all the time, with scarcely a mention of public services, other than various internal streamlining measures and some general chatter about “public-private partnerships.”

It’s not just detail that is missing. It’s vision.

I have no problem with balanced budgets. But a budget is supposed to set out a direction, not just aim at eventually eliminating a deficit. Where are the social needs of Canadians being addressed? There’s a workfare program for First Nations. There’s nothing for seniors struggling with poverty. In fact, there’s little specifically about poverty at all, unless you count a workfare program for First Nations, a few municipal infrastructure initiatives, and further (welcome) funding for housing homeless people with mental illness. Nothing to help university and college students cope with rising tuition costs. Nothing for childcare.

And the fate of the federal public service upon which Canadians depend? You saw it all, above. “Transform.” “Modernize.” “Respond to evolving needs.” What does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine. But we’d better be prepared for the worst.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Public Service ethics: do as I say

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not as I do. But this latest scandal, involving the Canada School of Public Service—-created in 2004 to “foster a common sense of purpose, values and traditions in the public service”—is by now just icing on the cake.

What kind of governance do Canadians want? Over the past several years, the question of ethics has loomed large in what some are pleased to call a “value-driven” Public Service, and in Parliament as well.

In a perfect world, one might have thought this would all go without saying, but that’s far from the case in the here and now. We have, for example, “whistle-blowing” legislation on the books—the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, but it’s gravely flawed, exposing individuals who do come forward to considerable risk, and producing notoriously poor results.

The legislation provided for a Public Service Integrity Commissioner (PSIC). The first appointed Commissioner was Christiane Ouimet, who failed to uphold a single one of the 228 complaints made to her office in a 3-year period. She was a bully who retaliated against her own staff.

In her hands was placed the responsibility of ensuring Public Service integrity. The mind boggles.

Was she incompetent? Maybe she was just doing the job expected of her:

Documents obtained earlier this week by The Canadian Press suggest Ouimet enjoyed a cozy relationship with officials in the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office, and sought out meetings with Treasury Board President Stockwell Day and his predecessor, Vic Toews.

In any case, she was packed off with a cool half million dollars of your money and mine.

Then came Mario Dion. It appears he was cut from much the same cloth. He managed to find one case of wrongdoing in the two reports he has submitted to Parliament since signing on.

Last year, a bungled case set off a very interesting chain of events indeed. First, a scathing article about it appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. Then the public watchdog FAIR sent a letter to the Citizen, stating that this was far from the only case of its kind.

The result? Retaliation, from the Commissioner who is supposed to investigate complaints of retaliation! He promptly kicked FAIR off the PSIC Advisory Committee. Democracy Watch resigned from the Committee in protest.

Oh, we’re in good hands.

And at the government level the same lazy attitude to ethics can be seen everywhere. A fish, as they say, rots from the head.

Arthur Porter, the Harper-appointed former head of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee which oversees the operations of CSIS, is now a wanted man. Apparently he continues to keep his seat on the Privy Council. While chairing SIRC, he was also giving money to the Conservative party.

Bruce Carson is another name to keep in mind. Two previous convictions for fraud didn’t keep him out of the Prime Minister’s Office, with ready access to state secrets. Now he’s been charged with influence-peddling, and will face trial this July.

Are there Parliamentary ethics watchdogs? You bet. There’s Mary Dawson, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. She got lots of mail about Carson, and began a conflict-of-interest probe, but apparently shelved it in November 2011 because the RCMP were doing their own investigation. There’s Karen Shepherd, the federal Lobbying Commissioner, who supposedly completed an “explosive” report on Carson. If so, it still hasn’t been publicly released.

Mary Dawson’s notion of conflict of interest deserves a closer look. Conservative MPs who would benefit financially from the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board, voting to shut it down? No problem, she said. In fact, when Conservatives are involved, she rarely sees problems. Or she doesn’t have enough information. Or the rules aren’t clear enough. Or she just doesn’t feel like investigating.

It’s almost as though the Conservative government doesn’t want unethical behaviour challenged or exposed, either in its own ranks or in the Public Service. Surely not.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

First they came for the scientists...

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…now it’s librarians and archivists—in fact, every employee of Library and Archives Canada, including hundreds of PSAC members—gagged not only on the job but during their personal lives as well.

Free exchange of ideas? Not under the Harper government. A “Code of Conduct” is now in force at LAC that prevents employees even from attending conferences on their own time unless their manager approves.

“As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities,” the code says, adding that public servants “must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted).”

Librarians and archivists, who have colleagues across the country, may only attend professional conferences if a host of conditions are met:

The subject of the activity is not related to the LAC’s mandate or activities; the employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada; the third party that made the invitation is not a potential or current supplier or collaborator with LAC; the third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC and does not receive grants, funding or payments from LAC; and the employee has discussed the invitation with his or her manager “who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.”

The Code also encourages employees to snitch on each other. Needless to say, employee morale, already low after hundreds of affected notices were sent out last year, has dropped even further:

[It] is already having a “chilling” effect on federal archivists and librarians, who used to be encouraged to actively engage and interact with groups interested in everything from genealogy to preserving historical documents, says archivist Loryl MacDonald at the University of Toronto….who is president of the Association of Canadian Archivists, a non-profit group representing some 600 archivists across the country.

The Code of Conduct, in fact, descends into pure paranoia:

“On occasion, LAC employees may be asked by third parties to teach or to speak at or be a guest at conferences as a personal activity or part-time employment,” it says. “Such activities have been identified as high risk to LAC and to the employee with regard to conflict of interest, conflict of duties and duty of loyalty.” [emphasis added]

“High risk?” “Duty of loyalty?” What century is this again? What country?

“Once you start picking on librarians and archivists, it’s pretty sad,” says Toni Samek, a professor of library and information studies at the University of Alberta.

Not “pretty sad.” Pretty frightening.

Larry Rousseau

Well, Happy Saint Paddy's Day to all!

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Many moons ago I read a book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization and it's about how after the Roman Empire completely collapsed about 1500 years ago, it was the monks and monasteries that were located in Ireland that kept records and books and accounts about the ways and progress of the Romans throughout Europe. So by the time Europe had fallen into the Dark Ages within a couple of hundred years after the Roman collapse, secrets kept in Ireland's safest places would form the basis of the Renaissance in Europe that really took hold toward the end of the 14th Century.

We think of Dark Ages as something of the past, as something that could never happen to society today. I beg to differ. Dark Ages start quite imperceptibly. The Conservative Government's policies of the past half-dozen years are part of a corporate agenda that is bent on supplanting the public interest with the corporate interest, which I believe would inevitably lead to at least a much darker age than we know now. For example, today, if a public policy is to be created and implemented, it now seems that increasingly, the "rubber stamp" test is "will this help or hinder corporate economic development?" If the answer is that the policy will help corporations, then it gets the rubber stamp, no "ifs", "ands" or "buts" about it. Previously, under more enlightened times, it used to be that the test was "will this policy help or hinder the public interest..."

Times change, and Jane Jacobs, in her book Dark Age Ahead warned of the signs that a society could be falling back into a dark age. When public services, services to the people, to the community, are withdrawn, the people are that much more impoverished, or made poorer, by no longer having that service. The fundamental debate of course, springs from the notion that taxation is too high. The pundits who preach the corporate agenda state that individuals who pay the most in taxes (mainly the wealthy and well-off), believe that the poorer members of society who pay much less in taxes, should not be "entitled" to healthy doses of public services. They believe as well that the more services you cut, the lower they will pay in taxes.

One way of cutting public services is to reduce the number of public service employees. There are many ways to accomplish this. One insidious way of getting rid of "public servants" is to make their working lives a living hell, so that given half a chance, many would be more than willing to leave the public service. Cutting compensation and benefits is an obvious way to start. One of the most important provisions public service employees have access to under their negotiated collective contracts (collective agreement, or CA) is, of course, sick leave. 

Over the last more than 30 years that I have been in and out of public service, I remember federal government CAs being negotiated. Invariably, since the days of "wage and price controls", it seems that every round of bargaining presented by the employer was to suppress wage increase demands "in order to help the government "control costs" or "reduce the deficit." Therefore, invariably, federal public service employees would see "non-monetary" improvements to their CAs, through improved benefits such as sick leave. 

Sick leave is a "non-monetary" improvement (often referred to as an "insurance") in that you don't receive any money in lieu of sick leave. You can accumulate it, and the more you don't use, the more you accumulate, and the "insurance" factor is that, if you get sick, you have accumulated enough time to get well! Normally, in the time it takes to "get well", the rest of the team back at work pick up the "slack." Of course, if the sick leave is long term, and the employee goes on long term sick leave, management must take measures to ensure that service levels are maintained. But that is what management gets paid for, to take charge of the problems that arise in the delivery of public services.

Sick leave is a sacred piece of public service employees' compensation and benefits. It is made all the more sacred when significant portions of the sick leave provisions represent wage increases foregone in past rounds of bargaining in the name of helping Her Majesty's Government "balance the books." 

So when the Harper Government, IF the Harper Government, considers reducing or taking away sick leave benefits from federal public service employees, it should be no wonder that most of us will put our heads down, and charge like bulls into whomever will be the first to fire that shot across the bow! And if that first shot is taken by the Harper Government, perhaps that is what it will take to awaken a dragon best left alone!

Dark Ages start almost without notice, if you let them.

In total solidarity,


Chris Aylward

Stompin' Tom, February 9, 1936 - March 6, 2013

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All of Canada was Thomas Charles Connors’ stompin’ ground. He was a working-class, no-frills kind of guy, who like to tell stories in song about the country he loved—sometimes pure fantasy, sometimes real people, always Canadian. Here’s his lyrical take on the English-French “two solitudes”:

There wasn’t an ounce of pretentiousness or performer’s ego in the man. With Stompin’ Tom, what you saw was what you got:

The proper venue for a Gordon Lightfoot performance is a concert hall, where the audience connects silently and contemplatively. The proper venue for Mr. Connors was a smoky bar room where people connected by slamming their beer mugs together, hopefully obliterating whatever differences existed between them.

Whether it was slightly cracked love songs or praise of hockey, Saturday night good times and potatoes, Tom’s lyrics seemed to grow right out of the soil of this land.

Tom was also fiercely principled. He thought that the Juno awards were going to folks who weren’t sufficiently dedicated to Canada—and returned all six of his, with this note:


I am returning herewith the six Juno awards that I once felt honored to have received and which, I am no longer proud to have in my possession. As far as I am concerned you can give them to the border jumpers who didn’t receive an award this year and maybe you can have them presented by Charley Pride.

I feel that the Juno’s should be for people who are living in Canada, whose main base of business operations is in Canada, who are working toward the recognition of Canadian talent in this country and who are trying to further the export of such talent from this country to the world with a view to proudly showing off what this country can contribute to the world market.

Until the academy appears to comply more closely with aspirations of this kind, I will no longer stand for any nominations, nor will I accept any award given.

Yours very truly,
Stompin’ Tom Connors

After being snubbed by the smart folks at CBC, who turned down a Stompin’ Tom special and added insult to injury by suggesting he sing a song on the CBC Hockeyville series, Tom’s response was what you might imagine:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CBC, our own Public Network, will not reconsider their refusal to air a Stompin’ Tom Special, they can take their wonderful offer of letting me sing a song as a guest on some other program, AND SHOVE IT.

Way to go, Tom—a round of wild, foot-stomping applause in his memory would be appropriate after that. You’ll be sorely missed, and you took a big hunk of Canada with you.

Now, out of love and respect, or just for the heck of it, let’s sing along as he would have wished:

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Don't fly Porter!

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As we mark the sixth month of the strike by our administration and operational services workers’ at the St. John’s International Airport, let us spare a thought for our 22 sisters and brothers of COPE Local 343 who refuel planes for Porter Airlines on Toronto Island.

This is a young bargaining unit, having organized just a few months ago. In comparison to ours their strike is young, too: it began mid-January. But like many small strikes that don’t attract much media attention,  the members are being tested in the fire. Toronto police have been aggressive, even assaulting COPE Ontario Director Janice Best. And Toronto’s finest have been zealously joined by the Toronto Port Authority’s private security officers in trying to intimidate the strikers.

The Toronto Port Authority is the old stomping ground of our Minister of Labour, Lisa Raitt. Its Board is stuffed with Conservative party stalwarts, including Senator Pamela Wallin. Small world, eh?

The workers’ dispute with Porter is partly over pay, meagre in comparison with other airlines. Porter made an insulting offer of a 25-cent/hour raise for those making $12/hour, and not a cent for those making $14. It hasn’t budged from that position.

But the other issue, or collection of issues, is health and safety—the reason the members joined COPE in the first place. As COPE organizer Trish Qualtrough explains:

One account that resonated with me was that of a worker who was working alone on a night shift in the dead of winter. He had fallen outside injuring himself with no one around. He was lucky only because the next aircraft he was supposed to fuel happened to be an ORNGE Paramedic Helicopter whose medics found and assisted him. Otherwise, he could have been knocked unconscious on the tarmac until the morning shift arrived, five hours later.  He should not be doing his job alone or without any communication device with him.  This is just one of many situations in which these young workers were put at risk daily at Porter Airlines.

She goes on to note the primitive conditions in which these members have been forced to work:

The simple request of proper gloves had to be negotiated. Line service representatives are working with dangerous hazardous materials without proper protective clothing. …When workers have drawn fuel leaks to the attention of management their response has been “put a bucket under it.”

Perhaps it is small wonder that Porter Airlines has gone to court to prevent Transport Canada from releasing safety inspection reports.

And since the strike, ill-trained scabs have been assigned to do the members’ sensitive and hazardous duties. Still feel like flying Porter?

Labour Start has posted a petition to send a message to the airline. Show some solidarity with our sister union and go sign it.


Robyn Benson, PSAC

Shhhh! The ice-caps are melting

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…at an unprecedented rate—and so are Canada’s glaciers.

Let’s have no more nonsense: global warming is not only an established, settled fact, but it’s taking place more rapidly than expected.

Nunavut is a case in point:

Q: How will climate change impact Nunavut?

A: In the Arctic we are already observing changes in our environment, including:

Declining thickness and extent of sea, river and lake ice

Warmer temperatures

Changes in vegetation and wildlife: new species are being observed (moving further north), and well-known species are being observed in new areas

Changes in the permafrost regime and hydrology of the tundra

Increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events

Rising sea levels in certain places

Melting and shrinking glaciers

Meanwhile, the federal government is doing its best to keep a lid on things, by muzzling Canadian scientists. Things have gotten so bad that the Information Commissioner has been called upon to determine if this is even legal. The complaint, from the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, is accompanied by a substantial report documenting the silencing.

Here is a hilarious account of a reporter’s attempts to get information out of the National Research Council about a joint study with NASA on how snow falls. Read it and weep—or laugh hysterically.

But this case isn’t funny at all. Two years ago an international study revealed that the largest hole in the ozone ever recorded had opened up above the Arctic. A Canadian scientist at Environment Canada who took part in the study, Dr. David Tarasick, was prohibited from speaking to reporters about his own work.

Environment Minister Peter Kent was actually caught in a lie about this very matter. The Minister has had nothing to say about the devastation of the environment in the vicinity of the Alberta tar sands either, but don’t expect scientists from Environment Canada to take up the slack anytime soon.

The people, it seems, cannot be trusted with the facts, only pre-approved government talking points.

Meanwhile, the Minister who abolished the long-form census, cutting off at one stroke a vital source of information for decision-makers at every level of society, has been making noise about the need for ready access to information.

George Orwell had a word for that.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Preston Manning's advice

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Preston public domain.JPG The godfather of the present Conservative party has some words of wisdom for his political friends: don’t tell people what you really think. Given the recent unfortunate comments by Conservative guru Tom Flanagan, he may have a point—one in fact made earlier by Flanagan himself: “The lesson for the future: message discipline. You’ve got to stick with the script.”

Well, sure: in politics everyone knows you need to watch your mouth. But that should be true only up to a point. Wouldn’t we all prefer to know where our elected representatives and their allies stand on the issues that matter to us?

Manning’s apparent political common sense may in fact conceal a darker intent. This is a federal government, after all, that operates behind closed doors, a government that prefers to work in the shadows.

In a Globe & Mail column not too long ago, Jeffrey Simpson talked about a typical day in the House of Commons:

“Mr. Kenney declined repeated requests for comment.” (The Globe and Mail)
“The government did not respond Monday to questions about its position.” (The Globe & Mail)
“La Presse posed the question to Mr. Flato [a public servant], but he was bound by strict rules about interviews with journalists so that he had to direct the question to the media relations service of Environment Canada. This service refused to respond to the question.” (La Presse)
“Conservative campaign manager Guy Giorno and the party’s director of political operations, Jenni Byrne, did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment Monday.” (Ottawa Citizen)
“The Defence Department could not comment.” (Ottawa Citizen)

One day, three papers, five no comments, just another day at the ranch for the media operations of the Harper government and Conservative Party.

Then Simpson moves on to governance:

…The communications people are on the shortest possible leash. They say only what the centre authorizes. Civil servants, who actually know things, are gagged. Formal contacts are verboten; informal contacts with media or interest groups are discouraged.

We in the PSAC know about this culture of silence first-hand. Try to present our members’ concerns to the powers that be in this government? They’ll get back to us on that. Don’t call them, they’ll call us. Who’s going to be axed in the current round of cuts? Not telling. You’ll find out.

The independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, not long ago reported that the cuts would directly affect frontline services to Canadians. The government claims the exact opposite, and took to personally attacking him—but it won’t release the data. Page was forced to go to court to try to obtain it. Given that his term of office has recently come to an end, that case is now unlikely to go anywhere.  

Try to imagine a union run like this. Leaders refusing point-blank to answer members’ questions. Staff instructed to repeat their simplistic talking-points, like so many robots, when members bring forward their concerns. Phone calls never picked up, just voicemail, going unanswered.

Silence, from elected representatives, is not golden. It’s just a refusal to be held accountable. In a word, it’s contempt. Our members hold us to a higher standard. Why shouldn’t we all do the same thing with our government?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The best place to be a woman

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Women Day PSAC.JPG

On International Women’s Day it’s a bit of a shock to learn that Canada is hardly on the map when it comes to women’s equality around the world.

Best country overall? Iceland. The best country for sharing the housework? Denmark. Safest place for having a baby? Estonia.

Smallest wage gap? Egypt. Most female politicians? Rwanda. Most women in the workforce? Burundi. Women in positions of power? Jamaica. You can just feel those ol’ stereotypes slipping away, can’t you?

Canada is in 21st place overall. Not something to be particularly proud of.

Then I find myself thinking of Aboriginal women and girls in Canada, and wondering how they would fare as a group in these comparisons. Here’s a new report on Aboriginal Canadians and the prison system, but it makes depressing reading. The context:

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) …provides for special provisions (Sections 81 and 84), which are intended to ameliorate over-representation of Aboriginal people in federal penitentiaries and address long-standing differential outcomes for Aboriginal offenders.

These provisions are now 20 years old. The proportion of federal inmates who are Aboriginal has risen to 21% across Canada—and it’s 55% in the Prairie region. Almost 90% of Aboriginal inmates are denied access to Healing Lodges. Nearly a third of the Aboriginal inmate population are women, an increase of 85.7% in ten years. But:

The investigation found that, as of March 2012, there were only 68 Section 81 bed spaces in Canada and no Section 81 agreements in British Columbia, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada or in the North. Until September 2011, there were no Section 81 Healing Lodge spaces available for Aboriginal women.

I remind myself of the missing Aboriginal women in BC, and yet another damning report. The Harper government defunded Sisters in Spirit, the group of Aboriginal women who had broken the story, investigated, compiled cases and lobbied for action.

Meanwhile the federal government is going to court yet again to block a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal from hearing a longstanding case of federal discrimination against children on reserves. Social services funding for Aboriginal kids is substantially lower than for other children. This shameful discrimination does not equip them for a better future. And the girls on reserves face a double disadvantage as they grow up, too often marginalized, socially and economically, in the wider Canadian society.

Even in that Canadian “mainstream,” women in general are not faring particularly well: for Aboriginal women in particular, the situation is dire. Everyone wants to be optimistic about the future, and I strive to be, especially on a day like today when we celebrate the amazing achievements of women over the past few decades. Yet we still have so far to go: as always, it seems, a woman’s work is never done.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

From Me to You/ Entre Nous

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…and back. With this post the elected officers of the PSAC are opening up a new channel of communication that we hope will interest you, involve you, even occasionally provoke you.

Why did we call this blogsite “Headwinds?” Anyone who’s received an “affected” letter, anyone scrambling to get more work done with fewer resources, anyone aware of all the anti-union initiatives in the House of Commons and elsewhere, can answer that question. We’re in the teeth of an almighty storm.

But perhaps that only half-answers it. Yes, we’re under unprecedented attack from all sides. The Harper government is cutting here, there and everywhere, putting thousands of our members on edge as they wait for the axe to fall. And with those cuts go the services we provide: preserving our security, our environment, our health, our future, our Canadian way of life. 

I know you know all that. But we can also create headwinds of our own. We can slow the hostile progress of the federal government as it moves to take away our jobs, security and rights. We can be a powerful force for positive change, not just regarding members’ salaries, benefits and working conditions, but in our communities and the society in which we live.

For that, the union needs your involvement: your ideas, your creative energies, your passion. Together we have to find more effective ways to operate, to take on the tough old problems and the new ones that keep cropping up, to move ahead instead of being pushed back.

Your elected leaders are here to listen. But we want an on-going conversation, too—just so long as we get down to the serious work ahead of us at the same time. We need less discussion and more decision-making, fewer “action plans” and more action.

I’m going to write about all that, and a lot more besides, and I’m going to get pretty personal about it. I’m from the Prairies, and I tend to speak plainly, maybe even a little too plainly sometimes. I’ve been a union activist for nearly three decades. I came up from the shop floor, my roots remain there, and rank and file members are my constant inspiration. So let’s talk. And let’s work.

I’ve asked my colleagues on the AEC to contribute their own thoughts and observations here, in the language of their choice.

Par ce billet, les dirigeantes et les dirigeants élus de l’AFPC ouvrent une nouvelle voie de communication qui, nous l’espérons, saura vous intéresser, vous mobiliser et même parfois vous faire réagir.

Pourquoi avoir appelé ce blogue « Vents contraires »? Nous pouvons tous répondre à cette question, nous qui avons reçu une lettre nous avisant que nous étions « touchés », nous qui tentons de faire plus avec moins, nous qui savons quel vent antisyndical souffle sur la Chambre des communes et ailleurs. Une redoutable tempête se déchaîne contre nous.

Mais ce n’est pas tout. La tempête s’abat de tous côtés. Le gouvernement Harper coupe à gauche et à droite. Il met nos membres sur les dents, par milliers, à attendre que le couperet tombe sur eux et fasse disparaître les services qu’ils assurent, eux qui préservent notre sécurité, notre environnement, notre santé, notre avenir, notre mode de vie canadien.

Je ne vous apprends rien. Pourquoi ne pas nous aussi faire souffler un vent contraire? Nous pouvons ralentir l’avancée hostile des compressions qui affectent nos emplois, notre sécurité et nos droits. Nous pouvons faire souffler un vent de changement positif, non seulement sur les salaires de nos membres, leurs avantages sociaux et leurs conditions de travail, mais également sur nos communautés et sur l’ensemble de la société.

Pour y arriver, le syndicat a besoin de vous, de vos idées, de votre créativité, de votre passion. Ensemble, trouvons des façons de faire plus efficaces pour aborder les problèmes tenaces, tout en nous ajustant aux nouveaux enjeux. Tenons-nous debout, plutôt que de nous laisser abattre.

Vos dirigeantes et vos dirigeants élus sont là pour écouter, prêts à discuter. Ensemble, attelons-nous au travail décisif qui nous attend. Pour avancer, il faut moins de discussions, plus de décisions, moins de « plans d’actions », plus d’actions.

Je vais écrire sur tous ces sujets, et bien d’autres, et j’y mettrai tout mon cœur. Je viens des Prairies et j’ai mon franc-parler. Je milite au sein du mouvement syndical depuis près de trente ans. J’ai longtemps œuvré sur le terrain et mes racines y sont toujours. Les membres de la base restent ma première inspiration. Nous allons donc discuter ensemble. Et retrousser nos manches.

J’ai invité mes collègues du Comité exécutif de l’Alliance à écrire leurs propres billets « Vents contraires », dans la langue de leur choix.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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This blogsite is intended to be a safe space for everyone to comment on the issues raised here. Spirited debate is encouraged, in the language of your choice, but profanity, discriminatory words and other forms of abuse are not. Feel free to speak your mind, but please keep it civil and respectful.

Ce blogue a pour objet d’offrir un espace sécuritaire où chacun peut réagir aux questions soulevées. On encourage les débats animés, dans la langue de votre choix, mais non les insultes et les propos discriminatoires. N’hésitez pas à donner votre opinion, mais faites-le de manière civilisée et respectueuse.


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