Could the Harper government’s Bill C-4 conceivably be named after the explosive? Because, with no exaggeration at all, it could blow labour-employer relations in the federal public service to kingdom come. But Treasury Board President Tony Clement calls it “fair and balanced.” (Heard that phrase before?)
The gutting of workplace safety and health provisions for 1.2 million Canadian workers, both in the public and private sector, was covered by National Vice-President Chris Aylward in his blogpost on Monday. But the new legislation specifically targets federal Public Service workers and their bargaining agents as well. Proposed changes to the Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSLRA) would make a mockery of collective bargaining, wiping out decades of established labour relations—however imperfect—with a new regime that does away with any pretence of fairness.
Here are a few of the lowlights:
In a strike situation, the two sides have traditionally negotiated an “essential services” agreement that keeps some employees on the job to preserve the safety and security of the public. Where no agreement was possible, the matter was referred to the Public Service Labour Relations Board (PSLRB). The government now proposes that the employer will unilaterally designate workers as “essential,” with no appeal to a third party—and that, during a strike, it can designate new “essential” workers at will.
Binding arbitration would be abolished—except in the case of bargaining units with 80% or more of its employees deemed “essential” by the employer, when it would be mandatory.
Where arbitration is permitted, it would be loaded against public workers to the point of absurdity. Arbitrators would be legally required to take into account retention requirements and the ability of the government to pay—as defined by the government. An arbitration board or Public Interest Commission (PIC) would have, therefore, little room to move to award fair compensation and reasonable working conditions. As if that weren’t enough, the chairperson would now be a political appointee, with the unilateral power to order a review of an arbitral award not to the government’s liking.
The government wants to eliminate alleged compensation differences between the public and private sectors, but it doesn’t want to rely on actual evidence. Compensation analysis and research services, key functions of the PSLRB, will be eliminated. Arbitration Boards and PICs will no longer have access to these services to guide them in their decision-making.
It doesn’t require enormous imagination to see how such unfettered powers could and would be abused. If members voted to strike, they could find themselves almost alone out there. But if somehow they looked like they were winning anyway, the Minister could just order more of them inside. No argument, no appeal.
Binding arbitration all but abolished, the conciliation/strike route neutered. The “strike weapon” reduced to a Halloween plastic sword, except that they could take that away too. If the government preferred to avoid the shreds of the arbitration route remaining, it could put 79% of a bargaining unit on the “essential services” list—maybe making sure that it scoops up all the known union activists and Local leaders in the process.
A few bargaining units still finding their way to arbitration? Government doesn’t want a decision in favour of the workers? Under the new legislation, it just has to tell the arbitrator it can’t afford any more than its initial offer. End of meaningful arbitration, in practical terms.
The employer wants to keep peddling the myth that public workers are privileged fat-cats? Get rid of the compensation analysts at the PSLRB, with their pesky facts and figures that show no such thing.
Media are asking Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, what consequences the new legislation would have. He simply refuses to answer, no doubt on the grounds that it might incriminate him.
But let’s not dwell on the negative. In fact, we’ve made a very positive counter-proposal, which we discussed with Tony Clement yesterday afternoon.
In a nutshell: if the aim of the government really is to align the public sector with the private sector, as it claims, then let’s all sit down and design a piece of legislation that gives public workers the same rights and protections as private-sector workers have under the present Canada Labour Code. That’s consistent with the government’s expressed intentions, and is far more constructive than tinkering with the present legislation to make things worse.
But if the government simply bulldozes ahead with this appalling legislation, as it seems to have every intention of doing, we shall have to fight back with everything we have. We have no choice. So we’ve been meeting with the bargaining agents to form a common front, we’ve consulted with our legal team, and we’ve spoken at length with the Official Opposition. We’re working with our members, and we’re ready for whatever comes.
We prefer, even now, to assume that we’re dealing with reasonable people on the other side, even when they have their positions and we have ours. We would like to sit down with the employer as we have done for decades, and see what we can come up with in a spirit of fairness and cooperation. But our meeting with Clement yesterday, it must be said, was not a very promising first start. It proved to be little more than being on the receiving end of a government fait accompli.
We’re still open to productive discussion, as we have always been. After all, that’s what healthy labour relations are all about. The question now, though, is whether the Harper government has the same interest, or, like a schoolyard bully, is simply spoiling for a fight.