May 2013 Archives

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The strike against Porter Airlines by 22 sisters and brothers of COPE Local 343 who refuel planes on Toronto Island has now entered its fourth month.

As I noted back in March, this is a young bargaining unit, having organized just last year. And they have been up against formidable odds.

The Toronto Police and the Toronto Port Authority’s private cops have harassed the young strikers. Their attempts to rally, picket and leaflet have been met with force—two arrests—despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that airports are public places for picketing purposes.

Porter Airlines and the Toronto Port Authority have also attempted to use the muscle of the courts to shut down the strike. In April, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to win a far-ranging injunction against leafleting at the airport and picketing in a public park by the ferry docks where passengers leave for the Island Airport.

Carrie Sharpe, who has been helping coordinate the strike, is clear about the abuse of the injunction process:

This is an attempt to shut down dissent. Porter is trying to discourage dissent at a time when they have an application to have jets fly out of the airport and to fill in some of the lake. This injunction process has already had a chilling effect on mobilization, there will be people afraid now to protest island expansion. The very ambiguity of the injunctions is in itself a weapon. They are doing all this in order to shut down protests over use of public assets for profit.

And it gets worse. After their April defeat in court, Porter immediately launched a $4 million lawsuit against the union for alleged “defamation” in the social media. They are particularly upset with the union’s inventive use of the social media—like Twitter (@porterstrike).

Porter wants to squelch the union with what is commonly known as a SLAPP suit—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The intent is to use corporate deep pockets to intimidate ordinary people from exercising their legal rights. Renowned civil rights lawyer Clay Ruby will be defending the union against this serious attack on free speech.

Meanwhile, are Porter and the striking workers negotiating? Nope. Last week the union made a proposal to get the workers back on the job. It was flatly refused.

It would have cost $20,000 to settle the strike. But Porter would rather spend many times that to smash the union. The company refuses to negotiate, preferring to waste its considerable money on expensive legal games and blatant attempts to remove the union’s Charter rights to freedom of expression.

But by the sounds of things, all of this attempted intimidation is only making the workers more determined. We had better realize, however, that this fight is our fight too. If the people we confront across the table only have to call on the courts to muzzle us instead of negotiating in good faith, then we no longer have collective bargaining, but dictatorship.

Don’t fly Porter. Keep up the solidarity. And speak your piece on Twitter and elsewhere.

Don’t let these people shut you up. A lot more is up for grabs here than the struggle of one small bargaining unit in Toronto. Our hard-won union rights are at stake. Exercise them!

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The spectre of Walkerton

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Obviously I was pleased and proud when PSAC Communications won a “Stroke of Genius Award” the other night for our on-going “Food for Thought” campaign, which, along with Food Safety First, we’ve been carrying on jointly with our Agriculture Component. But I’m also deeply worried—and you should be, too.

Our campaign has been putting a human face on the food inspection activities that our members carry out on behalf of all Canadians. It’s important, in fact vital, work, but it’s being endangered by on-going cuts.

Bargaining with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been proceeding at a glacial pace. That’s symptomatic of the contempt in which these inspectors, technicians and support workers—as is the case with other public workers—are held by the Harper government. Meanwhile, key food inspection services continue to be slashed. Bob Kingston, President of Agriculture Component, explained the dangers on national television just a few weeks ago.

Why am I worried? Because I remember Walkerton. That was a tragedy caused by a blind program of deep cuts imposed by Ontario’s then-Premier Mike Harris as part of his so-called “Common Sense Revolution.” 2,500 were made ill, and seven people died from drinking tainted water. An inquiry subsequently found that deregulation of water testing and cuts to the Environment Ministry by the Harris government were contributing factors.

Now “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Old familiar faces from the past rise to greet us—John Baird, Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty, all heavyweights in the Harris administration at the time, and now part of Stephen Harper’s inner circle. And it doesn’t seem like they’ve learned a thing from the past.

CFIA is already stretched to the limit in terms of its capacity to monitor the food we eat, and ensure our safety. But the cuts go on and on.

I note that some nay-sayers have been making that old moth-eaten claim that unions are alarmists—that it’s all about keeping jobs, nothing to do with risk to the public. It’s time to face that criticism squarely, and that brings me back to the excellent “Food for Thought” campaign.

Our members on the ground are all too aware of what cuts to food inspection can mean, and they’re speaking out, but you don’t have to take their word for it. Instead, just apply a little of that common sense that Mike Harris talked about without knowing what it was. Look at the faces of the members on the job, and read what it is that they do. Are those really the kind of services we should skimp on, or even do without?

I think we all know the answer to that one. Don’t we?

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Cheap labour games: victories

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The Royal Bank of Canada is doing a one-eighty on its offshore hiring policies. This follows hard on the heels of the Harper government announcing reforms to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which among other things does away with the right to pay imported workers 15% less than the median rate for Canadians—so the RBC may have been making a virtue out of necessity.

But, whatever the bank’s motives, it’s clear that a modest victory against exploiting cheap labour has been won. The government backtracked fast after a national outcry right across the political spectrum. And the labour movement was front and centre in that battle.

The United Steelworkers has played a prominent role, with its “Give Everyone A Chance” campaign. And they have also had a hand in another dispute, against a Chinese mining firm, HD Mining International, Ltd., which received the federal go-ahead to import most of its labour force from China to work in a BC mine. A qualification for the job? Fluency in Mandarin.

That seems rather blatant, but a federal court didn’t see things that way, and ruled last week against two other unions, the Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union, Local 1611, and International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 115, who were seeking judicial review of the federal decision to permit the offshore hiring.

An analysis of that decision is here: much depended, it seems, upon evidence that the judge decided to strike from the proceedings. The unions were challenging what appeared to be significant misrepresentation by HD with respect to the skills that their employees would need. Relevant documents were withheld by the BC government, and the federal government refused to force the company to produce the résumés of Canadians who had applied for jobs with them.

BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair was blunt:

When the court determines, that despite the lack of full disclosure of documentation by the federal government, that the company followed the rules, the only conclusion fair-minded Canadians can make is that the deck has been stacked against Canadian workers by the very governments purporting to represent them.

If the company followed the rules, despite piles of evidence showing not only willing Canadians ready to take these jobs, and evidence the company and the government had no intention of training Canadians for years to come, then clearly the rules do not exist in the interest of Canadian workers.

…Whether it’s the Royal Bank, HD Mining, or Tim Horton’s, Canadians want to know that they will have access to these jobs. Canadian also support continued immigration to Canada, not the recipe for exploitation that the Temporary Foreign Worker program has become.

The cards were indeed stacked against them. But there was a victory even in defeat. This case gathered national attention as a classic example of abuse of the TFWP, and became tethered in the public mind with the RBC case. Some changes, and these couldn’t have come easily to it, were made by the Harper government in direct response.

Perhaps even more importantly, these cases put the workings of the TFWP—however the government tinkers with it—in the media spotlight. There is a new public awareness and a heightened concern as a result. Brother Sinclair rightly reminds us that the war against a national cheap labour strategy is very far from over, but Canadians have shown that it’s actually possible to push back and win. And that’s a lesson that won’t soon be unlearned.

Chris Aylward

The gift goes on giving

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One tries to avoid pleasure in another’s misfortune, but it’s hard to keep a slowly spreading smile off my face with this week’s developments in the Duffygate/Harpergate scandal.

That the Senate audit committee whitewashed Mike Duffy’s improprieties is now beyond any doubt. The relation between that attempted coverup and the Wright/Duffy agreement (which appears now to have vanished) is still unclear, but the media have their teeth in this thing now, and delicious anticipation reigns.

Stephen Harper is unhappy, but he somehow failed to mention either Nigel Wright or Senator Mike Duffy by name in his statement to his caucus. He did answer some questions, finally—4,000 kilometres away from the House of Commons. He spent much of his time claiming that he was unaware of what was going on in his own office.

Government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton is unhappy, and blames the media. And the Duffster continues to dig.

Meanwhile, according to Noel Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, the RCMP has begun to probe Senate expense claims. Sleep tight, Mike.

Maclean’s Aaron Wherry tells us why this affair is not like all those other scandals, and will have staying power:

This matter of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy is not a matter of simple pork (the G8 Legacy Fund), nor complicated accounting and procurement (the F-35), nor electioneering (In-and-Out), nor the conditions of third-world prisons in a war zone (the Afghan detainee controversy). It is neither arcane (prorogation), nor legislative (omnibus budget bills), nor parliamentary (the 2011 finding of contempt), nor merely a matter of expensive orange juice (Bev Oda). It is, instead, the stuff of primetime television drama: the allegations are the stuff of entitlement, privilege, corruption and the evasion of justice.

And with Wherry, I would give the last word (so far) to Pat Martin, whose legendary gift of gab has obviously not deserted him:

They rode into Ottawa on their high horse of accountability, and all we have to show for it is the mess that horse left. They should take their Federal Accountability Act and run it through that horse and throw it on their roses for all the good it has ever done us.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Political dry rot

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As the clouds continue to gather over the Prime Minister’s Office and the Senate, it comes as no great surprise to learn that 20% of supposedly impartial chairpersons on the Employment Insurance Boards of Referees have been improperly making political donations—all but one to the Conservative Party of Canada.

Recently we have also learned that the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency rigged competitions to favour former aides of Defence Minister Peter MacKay. It’s an appalling story: qualifications were blatantly tailored to fit pre-chosen individuals, including a failed Conservative political candidate.

Then there was the unlamented departure of Daniel Caron from Library and Archives Canada—a Harper appointee who had no training in either library or archival matters, and who was found to have been living rather high on the hog.

Numerous other names of senior federal public sector officials implicated in ethical breaches also spring rapidly to mind.

Why do they think they can get away with it?

One need look only to the political culture that Stephen Harper has built around himself. He rewards blind loyalty. He punishes dissent—even by ordinary citizens—ruthlessly. Franke James, a Canadian artist who happens to oppose development of the Alberta tar sands, had a show cancelled in Croatia after the direct intervention of the Canadian Ambassador there. Cindy Blackstock, an activist for First Nations children, was stalked by government operatives for more than two years.

This sort of thing sends messages throughout the system. Would-be dissenters keep their heads down, encouraged to do so in the federal public sector by draconian Codes of Conduct, not to mention a still far-from-functional Office of Public Service Integrity. Loyalists, on the other hand, are implicitly encouraged to feel that they can do anything they wish so long as they don’t embarrass the government by getting caught at it.

Political behaviour, in other words, is a model for behaviour elsewhere. Former Minister Bev Oda’s $15 glass of orange juice, or Peter MacKay’s appropriation of a Canadian Forces helicopter to carry him back from a fishing trip, are symptomatic. If these and other abuses hadn’t been uncovered by the media, they would have gone on unchecked.

This poisons the workings of governance as a whole. In the case of MacKay’s expensive flight, DND officials, whether under orders to do so or not, spent time checking into opposition MPs’ use of military aircraft, but found nothing. Here’s a government department doing partisan political dirty work—on our nickel.

The federal public sector has, in other words, been tainted by advancing political dry rot. Its impartiality has been compromised. Malfeasance in the highest offices of the land, now very much in the news, doesn’t stop there. It extends far beyond the walls of the Senate and the PMO—and the long-term consequences are, I fear, just beginning to be felt.

[Photo: Adrian Wyld/ The Canadian Press]


More than half of Canadians have no workplace pension, according to this newspaper report. In fact, the rate is closer to two out of three: eleven million Canadian workers.

Think about that for a moment.

Besides Old Age Security—for which Canadians will have to wait longer to qualify, thanks to Stephen Harper’s 2012 budget—the Canada Pension Plan/Quebec Pension Plan is all that might conceivably stand between many Canadian seniors and destitution. These days it hardly does that: the average CPP/QPP payout is about $500 a month.

In June, federal and provincial finance ministers will be meeting to discuss the future of the CPP/QPP.

The Canadian Labour Congress and our sister union, CUPE, make a strong case for doubling the current amount. Expansion of the pension is a must, in fact, to provide retirement security for all Canadians.

But expect the same voices that have been screeching about the cost of public service pensions to raise their voices once again. Why, there’s Catherine Swift, former head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. And the Fraser Institute! When you see these folks point in any direction, best go the other way.

The indefatigable Catherine Swift—now a spokesperson for the rabidly anti-union Workplace Democracy Institute—is no stranger to us, by the way. She claims the cost of public sector pensions is unsustainable, and, naturally, blames the unions—who in the federal sector aren’t even permitted to bargain pensions. The average federal public sector pension is currently about $25,000: $40,000 for those who put in all of the 35 years of service required for a full one. This isn’t poverty, but it’s hardly “gold-plated,” either. And federal public workers contribute handsomely to their retirement fund: 5.8% of salary up to $48,300, and 8.4% above that amount.

You have to dig fairly far down in this article to find the appropriate rejoinder to the naysayers, and it applies as surely to CPP/QPP reform as it does to public sector pensions:

Linda Duxbury, of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, said private sector critics like Swift seem to be arguing that all Canadians should be dragged down to the level of private sector workers, who in many cases have no employer pension plans.

“I get tired of the groups who go, ‘Look at how well public servants are being treated.’ They seem to be saying, ‘We should treat everybody badly,’” Duxbury said.

The current CPP/QPP benefits both union and non-union workers, including the majority who have no workplace pension plans—but not very much. Rather than letting the likes of the CFIB and so-called pension “experts” (who have the gall to accuse us of using “inflammatory” language) pit Canadian workers against each other, we need to pull together to improve retirement security for everyone. Our rank and file have, in fact, been active on this file for some time: in 2010, a petition with 100,000 signatures, demanding pension reform, was presented by our members to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

A majority of Canadians supports expanding the CPP/QPP, and is willing to pay the increased premiums to make it so. It makes sense from all sides, in fact: an enhanced CPP/QPP helps to level the playing field for employers, and it makes good fiscal sense for the provinces and the federal government, who otherwise end up paying social assistance and GIS respectively to retirees unable to make a go of it.

Provincial politicians have been lobbied hard up to now by special interest groups like the CFIB, and have been dithering and delaying. No more of that: these reforms are long overdue, and it’s time, at long last, for federal and provincial governments to act.

Let’s keep up the pressure. Canada’s seniors deserve no less.

Chris Aylward

The Wright thing

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I could hardly let the events of the last few days go by without mention—although almost everything that needs to be said has already been said.

The Senate as an institution has been dealt a devastating blow by some of its own members, led by Senator Mike Duffy. In the normal world, you can’t live in one province to qualify for office, then admit you don’t qualify for a housing allowance that you would indeed qualify for if you actually lived in that province. And continue in office as an Independent, while your Conservative friends tell the world that you showed “leadership” for paying back monies that you would, as noted, have every right to keep—if you actually were a resident in the province you had to be resident of to be a Senator in the first place.

Confused? Yeah, me too. I did my best there.

Then we have Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Harper’s right-hand man, who, as it turned out, wrote a personal cheque for $90K to cover off the good Senator’s improper claims, allowing the Senator to tell the auditors to take a hike and the Conservatives to declare the matter closed. And for good measure, the first audit report was suppressed by the Senate audit committee, because—and here we have to pause for a laugh—it would have made the Senator in question look bad.

Besides tersely accepting Wright’s resignation, the Prime Minister of Canada has had nothing to say. Nothing.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are pressing ahead with Bill C-377, which would “force” unions to disclose financial statements that are already available to their own members, bury them in an avalanche of paperwork every time they make a move, and violate the privacy of countless individuals doing business with them.

“Accountability,” the Conservatives call it. “Transparency.” With straight faces. As the Duffy/Wright scandal, with its cover-ups and a mysterious resignation, continues to unfold.

And where is that Bill now? Why, in the Senate. And Harper has indicated he wants it passed fast, or no summer off for the Upper Chamber.

A story is building here that should pique the interest of even the most irony-challenged. Voices from pitch darkness are demanding that others switch on hot and blinding lights in their own houses.

One thing you can say about the Conservatives—they have standards. Lots of them. More than enough for everyone. Too many even for the Ottawa SUN. Take that, Skippy, for uttering some of the most inane lines in defence of Wright/Duffy that you are ever likely to read. (Well, in fairness he’s got competition.)

Could this be the tipping point for the current government, when even normally supportive media are becoming bluntly mocking and critical? An election is, after all, two years away, and that’s a lot of breathing room for recovery.

But this time something seems to have shifted: the supposed iron competence of the Prime Minister, almost a given in Canada’s recent political narrative, is now in serious question. And so is his personal credibility.

“Bend the rules,” said Harper in 2005, “you will be punished; break the law, you will be charged; abuse the public trust, you will go to prison.”

Short memory, or a change of heart? The spreading stain in the Upper House, with its exodus of Senators from the Conservative benches, reflects a culture that Harper helped to build. He personally appointed a majority of the current sitting Senators.

The rules, and very clear rules they are, haven’t merely been bent. They’ve been shattered. No one is being punished. Now the spotlight has been turned on, everyone’s scuttling for cover. And the same goes for Wright’s resignation, which Harper reluctantly accepted after first claiming Wright had his “full confidence.” Transparency? Accountability? Not on your nelly.

Harper is a micromanager who spends millions tracking his own MPs—yet we are expected to believe that he had no idea of what was going on in his own office. He didn’t have any idea what his own Chief of Staff was up to? Or that, as revealed last night, his then special counsel, Benjamin Perrin, inked the Wright/Duffy deal in February? Really?

And if he did…

Well, let’s not speculate. The truth, we hope, will out. In the meantime, I spent a pleasant long weekend, I hope you did too, and let’s stay tuned for the next installment. Is this better than Game of Thrones, or what?


"Never a dull moment in BC politics."

Truer words have never been spoken - this time by Adrian Dix, leader of the BC NDP, in his post-election speech to supporters on Tuesday night.

Along with just about everyone else in the province I was left almost speechless by the outcome of our provincial election, as the BC Liberals defied the pollsters and the pundits and were re-elected.  

 Much has been written (and much will be written) about the election. How did the polls get it so wrong? What can we do about low voter engagement? Where did the BC NDP go wrong?

But the fact remains - British Columbians are faced with four more years of a majority Liberal government.

Warren Bell, of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, put it best when he wrote.

We now have a return to the status quo ante in BC - a majority Liberal government that cannot be stopped, slowed down, or modified in its pursuit of a public policy agenda that is a "carbon" copy (and I use the phrase advisedly) of the Stephen Harper approach to governance.

Make no mistake, there's a pipeline directly from the Premier's Office in Victoria to the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa.

Just like the federal Conservatives, the Liberals ran a relentlessly negative campaign of seemingly endless radio and TV ads, including a $1,000,000 pre-election advertising blitz, led by a shadowy group calling themselves the Concerned Citizens for BC.

And, taking a page out of the Economic Action Plan playbook, the Liberals spent millions on self-serving BC Jobs Plan advertising.

Stephen Harper's government will continue to exert an influence in Victoria, and will no doubt be pushing harder for the kind of anti-worker, anti-public services, anti-environment, anti-everything policies we've come to expect from Ottawa.

But what can people who care about social and environmental justice do here in BC?

Well, there's only one thing to do: it's what we've always done - educate and mobilize, stand together, and work hard - harder than we've ever worked - to push our agenda forward.

I'm confident that change is coming - it just might take a bit longer than we thought.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

More on cheap labour games

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, events have moved swiftly since I first posted on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) a few weeks ago.

First, a study was released last week from the University of Calgary, which called for a significant scaling back of the program (downloadable here). There is no general labour shortage, declared researcher Kevin McQuillan, but a “labour mismatch,” one which has seen a flood of temporary foreign workers arriving in parts of Canada with high local unemployment.

Last year alone, 213,516 of these workers were admitted to Canada. In New Brunswick, unemployment since 2002 has oscillated between 30,000 and 40,000 workers. During that same period, McQuillan notes, the number of temporary foreign workers brought to the province has increased from 500 to 3000.

In fact the disconnect (or “labour mismatch”) that researcher Kevin McQillan describes has been known to the government for some time. Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley was alerted last year, but little concrete action seems to have been taken to resolve the issue.

But that was then, and this is now. A rising public outcry has finally forced the government to trim substantially a program that has become a cheap foreign labour pool for Canadian employers, open to scams and abuses by offshore labour brokers.

On April 29, Minister Finley and Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, announced changes to the TFWP that will make the hiring of workers under the program more difficult to use, to the benefit of Canadian workers.

Employers are now no longer permitted to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15% less than the prevailing wage in a region. The issuing of Labour Market Opinions (LMOs)—the process by which temporary foreign workers are admitted—will be considerably tightened up through measures in the current omnibus Bill C-60. They will give HRSDC and CIC considerable control over LMOs, including the ability to refuse, suspend or revoke them based upon Ministerial instructions (although those instructions, unfortunately, are not subject to any kind of review or public discussion).

LMO applications will from now on require answers to further questions about outsourcing, and whether Canadian workers are being displaced. Employers dependent upon temporary foreign workers will have to provide a plan to transition to a Canadian workforce.

As soon as the media tore the lid off TFWP abuses, it became impossible for the government to tough it out. There was something here, after all, for almost everybody to dislike. Those who believe that workers—Canadians or exploited foreign ones—do not benefit from these cheap labour schemes were joined by the anti-immigration crowd who form part of Harper’s base. Something had to give, and it did.

So what now? Canadian workers will no longer be so easily passed over by employers. Unemployed workers will have better chances of becoming re-employed. That’s all to the good. But reforming the TFWP is not a solution to the problem of unemployment and underemployment all by itself. Employer attitudes have to change.

The former Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, was forthright on the subject:

“There are some signs of skills mismatches (but) we do believe employers play an important role to ensure life-long skills development is a part of the nature of business in Canada….”

He added that the program should concentrate on shortages of high-skilled workers, and not on service jobs and other lower-wage categories that critics say are now being filled by foreign imports. The solution to that, said Carney, is for employers to pay higher wages and improve productivity.

“One doesn’t want an over-reliance on temporary foreign workers for lower-skilled jobs, which prevent the wage adjustment mechanism for…making sure Canadians are paid higher wages, but also that the firms improve their productivity.”

Labour, it has to be said, has been a little slow to rise to the cheap labour challenge, although that is changing. The labour movement in Canada, in fact, has long championed raising the minimum wage, and with some success. But we—and by that I mean organized labour, including our own union—need to do much more to take on the cheap labour strategies of employers, of which the abuse of the TFWP is but a symptom. Take the low-paid, dead-end jobs that mark the service industries, for example. While fast food workers in large American cities have engaged in sporadic strike action with the strong support of the labour movement, we have barely lifted our collective voice.

Yet dealing firmly with this cheap labour syndrome is crucial, particularly when we look at diminishing opportunities for Canadian youth these days. For whatever reason, employers appear more and more reluctant to invest in on-the-job training for those just entering the workforce—in fact McQuillan reports “disturbing evidence” that such training is in steep decline. That shuts off untold opportunities for these young workers.

I think we can all agree that giving our youth a shot at decent employment should be everyone’s priority. Perhaps the new restrictions on the TFWP will help to remove the temptation to choose cheaper alternatives. Perhaps not. It’s something that bears watching—if not for our own sake, then for that of our children.

[Photo credit: Vancouver Sun, April 18 via Olivia Chow]

Robyn Benson, PSAC


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It's been a little over two months now since I told big tobacco to butt out, and the same amount of time since I hit the publish button on my first Headwinds/Vents Contraires post.

It hasn't been a lot of time, but I'm a convert. And the reason is to be found in the title of this post.

Since Headwinds/Vents Contraires started up, the blog has already received more than eleven thousand page views. The announcements of posts on Twitter and Facebook have generated visitors and commenters, and those on Facebook have sparked vigorous discussions there as well.

One word that has cropped up over there a few times is "engagement"--a fancy word for talking seriously with each other about the issues that collectively concern us. For me, the excursion into blogging by the Alliance Executive Committee has already proved to be a pretty good example of it. Our various posts have, I hope, put a human face on that sometimes abstract concept of "leadership." Rank-and-file members get to see who we are and what we think, and, believe me, we in turn learn from the members who have taken the time to offer their opinions.

Not all of those opinions are uncritical, to put it mildly. The frustration that we feel in trying to arrive at decent collective agreements with the current government are more than shared by the people who are directly affected by the long delays and demands for concessions by the employer. Sometimes "the union" is blamed. Obviously we need to talk more.

And debates that we have had for years on such issues as political involvement and social justice initiatives rage on. This, in fact, is the real meaning of engagement: airing our differences, and respectfully working towards mutual understanding.  Solidarity doesn't mean unanimity!

In that spirit, let me thank everyone who has taken part, in one way or another, in this new project, whether as writers or readers. Communications in an organization as large and complex as ours are key. There can never be enough updates, never enough discussions at all levels of the PSAC, never enough interactions between the members and their elected representatives and staff. Headwinds/Vents Contraires is one modest initiative to encourage membership involvement, an involvement that is absolutely essential for the success of any union. So here and elsewhere, let the discussions continue.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The Nasty Party

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I don’t always agree with Postmedia’s pundit Andrew Coyne, to put it gently, but he’s onto something with his post this past weekend, “Conservatives’ reputation as the ‘Nasty Party’ is well-deserved.”

Coyne is asking what is, I guess, a rather obvious question. The economy is struggling out of a deep recession. Although not everyone is benefiting from the “recovery” by any means, inflation and unemployment have dropped across Canada. That sort of thing normally spells good fortune for governments, who tend to pick up the credit when the economy improves. So why are the Conservatives, and Stephen Harper himself, plummeting in popularity instead?

As Coyne points out, Harper’s numbers began to fall before Justin Trudeau became Liberal Party leader, so neo-Trudeaumania seems to have little to do with it. He suggests instead that it may—just may—have something to do with the government’s whole approach to governing:

When they are not refusing to disclose what they are doing, they are giving out false information; when they allow dissenting opinions to be voiced, they smear them as unpatriotic or worse; when they open their own mouths to speak, it is to read the same moronic talking points over and over, however these may conflict with the facts, common courtesy, or their own most solemn promises.

Secretive, controlling, manipulative, crude, autocratic, vicious, unprincipled, untrustworthy, paranoid … Even by the standards of Canadian politics, it’s quite the performance. We’ve had some thuggish or dishonest governments in the past, even some corrupt ones, but never one quite so determined to arouse the public’s hostility, to so little apparent purpose. Their policy legacy may prove short-lived, but it will be hard to erase the stamp of the Nasty Party.

It’s hard to argue with that, much less improve upon Coyne’s plain-spoken commentary. But let me add a couple of my own thoughts.

It’s not a pleasant task to work for an employer who shows such flagrant contempt for its own employees and their representatives. From the workplaces where our members have been left to wonder for many months where the axe will fall next, to grossly overreaching Codes of Conduct, to arrogant moves that make a mockery of the collective bargaining process, to punitive, discriminatory anti-union legislation and gratuitous insults from the likes of Conservative Pierre Poilievre, the government has demonstrated a consistently negative, bullying attitude.

We’re only a small part of the population, 7 out of 10 of whom now oppose the government and the Prime Minister. Harper’s “strong, stable mandate,” never actually that strong at the best of times, is withering away. Unlike Coyne, I suspect that the nastiness he describes may be part and parcel of Conservative ideology itself, not just an unnecessary add-on. But whatever the cause of it, most would agree that Harper seems to govern by deliberate provocation. Like most of our fellow Canadians, then, consider us provoked.


Restrictive Codes of Conduct are now springing up all over the federal public sector. I wrote about the Library and Archives Canada one back in March—a remarkably intrusive document that regulates both on- and off-duty conduct of its workers.

Now it’s Stats Canada’s turn.

This paragraph gives the flavour:

Employees are expected to wear appropriate clothing and shoes for a business workplace and should be neat, clean and well-groomed…. Employees may be asked to return home to change or wash if their attire or hygiene is considered unsuitable for the workplace. This includes wearing items that are revealing or soiled, or that bear inappropriate messages.

What’s next? Having to put up your hand to go to the washroom?

Look, I have no problem with a values and ethics code that clearly sets out what is to be expected of all federal public sector workers, and is reinforced by an effective system for dealing with whistle-blowing complaints. In practice, however, we don’t have any such thing.

Instead, these workers are being treated like unruly children. Elaborate conduct rules being churned out by departments and agencies seek to regulate just about every aspect of their employees’ waking lives. They go far beyond what is reasonable, demanding a robot-like loyalty to the government, and stifling the right to free speech. They are so broad and overreaching, in fact, that they have created a chilling effect—a culture of fear.

These codes of conduct are obviously open to wide interpretation as well, which is problematic in itself. What constitutes “inappropriate” messages, for example? “Unsuitable” clothing? Doug Marshall, the President of the Union of National Employees component, rightly calls those rules a “sword against employees”—one that could be too easily wielded by a bullying manager.

In a truly “values-driven” workplace, to use that already overused jargon, public workers would be treated like responsible adults. Their professionalism would be assumed. But not here, not now. Just what is this government so afraid of?

Bob Jackson

Standing Up For Salmon

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cohen.jpgAs we enter the last week of BC's provincial election campaign, much has been written about the BC NDP's election platform.

There's a lot to be said, all of it good - the NDP are committing to expanding skills training, reducing poverty and inequality, improving healthcare, protecting the environment, improving protections for workers, and a whole lot more - and I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more as the campaign winds into its last days.

But something that has attracted little media attention is the BC NDP's commitment to protect wild salmon stocks by working with the federal government to implement the recommendations made by the Cohen Commission.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River (as it is officially known) was created in 2009 and presided over by the Honorable Bruce Cohen of the BC Supreme Court. It was tasked by the federal government with investigating the cause of the disappearance of millions of salmon from the Fraser River, reporting back, and making recommendations on the related economic and environmental issues.

PSAC BC and the Union of Environment Workers were joint participants at the Commission's hearings, representing workers at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

It took a while but Justice Cohen submitted his final report in 2012. The report was very well received by all interested parties, particularly the PSAC.

The report contained 75 recommendations and clearly stated that one of the DFO's primary mandates, as outlined by government policy, is to conserve and protect wild salmon in BC.

In order to do this the Commission recommended that the Department be given more authority over fisheries conservation and management and that DFO funding in the Fraser River area be restored to pre-2010 levels or even increased in some cases.

Of course, that's the exact opposite of what the Conservative government is doing at DFO. Fisheries' spending was cut by $80 million in 2012 and the 2013 budget cuts another $100 million over three years.

As anyone from the West Coast will tell you, salmon occupy a huge place in the cultural, economic, and environmental landscape of our province.

I'm happy to see the NDP recognize that and I know Adrian Dix will hold Harper's feet to the fire when it comes to the health of our salmon.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Stakeholders (Updated)

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collective agreement illo.jpeg

Here comes Bill C-60, cited predictably as “the Economic Action Plan 2013.” At 125 pages, it pales in comparison to the 452-page monolith that was, yup, the Economic Action Plan 2012. Shorter, than, but not necessarily gentler—at least not for the many, many thousands of Canadians who work for Crown Corporations, including the CBC and Canada Post. Bill C-60 extends Treasury Board’s jurisdiction as wages and benefits police, not just for workers whom it employs, but for as many as 200,000 other workers as well.

Bargaining, never easy in any sector, just got way more complicated, and likely more confrontational as well, because a third party with no day-to-day understanding of the workplace or its culture will get to pull the strings during the collective bargaining process.

Perhaps emboldened by its new-found role Treasury Board, has given the Canada Border Services Agency the authority to usurp the normal, proper and appropriate bargaining process, and email a “Final Offer” to PSAC members employed in the FB bargaining group. That this was done in the dead of night on April 29th added insult to considerable injury.

final offer.png

The documents tabled in the House and emailed to our FB members on Monday simultaneously indicated what Budget 2013 as tabled in the Commons on March 21 really means for federal public workers, and put to the test the government’s flowery assertion that it “will be consulting with key stakeholders.”

It’s just a guess, but maybe unions and union members are not really seen as “stakeholders” when it comes to dictating terms and conditions of employment and the contents of collective agreements. Or at least not in the usual sense. It’s as though the Harper government speaks a language that only it can understand.

UPDATE: (May 8) Last week we received word that Treasury Board and the Canadian Border Services Agency were planning to ask Minister James Moore to order a mandatory membership vote on its “final offer.”

This would be unprecedented—we are still awaiting a report from a Public Interest Commission, which heard from both sides last December. Our members aren’t even in a strike position until this Fall.

I spoke with Treasury Board President Tony Clement last Wednesday, and obtained agreement for a meeting of the two sides, on May 6, to attempt to move forward. We met, and the management side did make some minor modifications to its “final offer.” Details of their position may be found here: our response to their list of takeaways is here.

A clear indication was given to us that the government will indeed force a vote at this point, without further negotiations, or the report of the Public Interest Commission. This isn’t bargaining in good faith. It’s naked contempt—for the hard-working bargaining team, for our FB members, for our union, and for the collective bargaining process.

Yesterday I wrote to Minister Moore asking for a chance to be heard before this extreme measure is considered.

But such threats are part and parcel of how this government does business. Everything is about power and control. The effective seizure of collective bargaining from Crown corporations is a further example, addressed in this excellent editorial. Want a political CBC, rather than an independent one? You’ve got it.

We, and our sister unions in federal departments and Crown agencies, will continue to speak out and keep our membership fully informed. But what we do about this assault on labour rights will, in the final analysis, be up to you—the members.

“I am not here to take marching orders from union bosses,” says Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the transport minister. Well, neither are you. Our union history proves that PSAC members have been more than capable of marching all by themselves when they deem it necessary. And by the looks of things, you may find yourselves deciding one of these days that you have to do so again.

Chris Aylward

Mr. Harper, tear down this wall!

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It hardly came as a surprise to learn on World Press Freedom Day that in Canada only 20% of Access To Information requests are answered in full. Ever since the Harper Conservatives won power in 2006, they have preferred to work in secrecy, going so far as to refuse to release documents to the House of Commons—our elected representatives—until ordered to do so by the Speaker of the House.

The government fell in 2011 after refusing to provide information to the House about the costs of the F-35 fighter jets (small wonder, as it turns out) and new crime legislation. The Opposition was simply expected to vote with its eyes shut. More recently, we have seen huge omnibus bills steamrollered through the House, whose ill effects don’t become clear for months.

Kevin Page, until recently the Parliamentary Budget Officer who was appointed amid much fanfare as an independent watchdog, has been red-lighted at every turn by the government, denied the data he needed to do his job. Armed with a favourable court ruling, his successor has vowed to continue the fight for budget transparency. But why should she have to fight?

Keeping us all in the dark seems to be a way of life for this government, and it extends deep into the public service as well. The muzzling of scientists is by now old news—in 2006, shortly after the Conservatives came to power, Mark Tushingham was forbidden to attend a book launch for a science-fiction novel he wrote on global warming, and it’s been all downhill since then.

Transparency in the public service? Guess again. The first so-called “Integrity Commissioner,” whose job it was to look into allegations of wrong-doing in the public service, simply turned a blind eye to most complaints, and never upheld a single one of the handful that were actually investigated.

More recently, we have learned that senior RCMP officers have been forbidden to meet with our elected representatives unless cleared to do so by the government.

All this secrecy, and yet the government is trying to jam an anti-union bill through the Senate in the name of “transparency”—a transparency that already exists. If unions ever attempted to operate along the lines of this government, their members would soon take the swift and vigorous action needed to put a stop to it.

But government secrecy is only half the story. Those who speak out are also targeted and intimidated. You may not approve of all of the issues that Conservative backbenchers want to raise in the House—I don’t—but the heavy-handed government response to crush their dissent is all too typical. Environmentalists are denounced as “radicals.” Charities are threatened with loss of their charitable status if they criticize government policy. Write to the Prime Minister expressing concerns about global warming? The RCMP may pay you a visit. Even advocating for the rights of First Nations children can get you into trouble: just ask Cindy Blackstock, shadowed and intimidated by government officials.

Not content with building a wall around its operations, in other words, the Harper government is attempting to impose silence on our side of the wall as well. High time, I think, for Canadians to tear the wretched thing down.


Chimo! It’s taken only fourteen years, but on April 1 the Inuit language Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun was recognized as an official language in Nunavut—where nearly 70% of the population speak it.

English (26.75%) and French (1.27%) have been official languages since Nunavut became a territory in 1999. Their status was inherited from the Northwest Territories, which recognized seven Aboriginal languages as well, including Inuktitut, but with a lesser set of rights.

Nunavut began the process of official recognition of its primary language in 2008, passing legislation to that effect. Because of its status as a territory, not a province, this legislation had to be approved by both houses of Parliament, and received royal assent in 2009. Since then, the Nunavut government has been working on detailed implementation plans. The work of preserving Inuktitut/Innuinaqtun—which have experienced a decline in recent years—remains a work in progress: official language status will certainly be helpful.

A large proportion of our members in Nunavut are Inuit. I’d like to offer those sisters and brothers in particular my warmest congratulations. About time!

[illustration credit]

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