October 2013 Archives

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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.

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Another session of Parliament, another everything-but-the-kitchen-sink omnibus bill from the Harper government. This one, the Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-4), is 322 pages long, amending dozens of acts and containing several non-budgetary items. But the Conservatives are allowing only four days for the Opposition to discuss it before it moves on to the committee stage. Proper Parliamentary scrutiny is impossible in such a short time frame, and critics are, rightly, calling this an attack on the democratic process.

In all the commotion over other aspects of this Bill, the gutting of the health and safety provisions in Part II of the Canada Labour Code isn’t getting much press as yet. But it should. 1.2 million workers, including the vast majority of our own members, are being put at serious risk by this government. Isn’t that worth a little media attention?

There are two major changes proposed that will detrimentally affect these men and women in their workplaces.

The first is a restricted definition of the word “danger.” Compare the two wordings for yourselves. Here’s the current one:

“danger” means any existing or potential hazard or condition or any current or future activity that could reasonably be expected to cause injury or illness to a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected, or the activity altered, whether or not the injury or illness occurs immediately after the exposure to the hazard, condition or activity, and includes any exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to result in a chronic illness, in disease or in damage to the reproductive system.

And here is what the government proposes to replace it with:

“danger” means any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered.

By removing the concept of potential or future hazards, the government would be forcing workers to put themselves in actual harm’s way before they could establish that their working conditions are dangerous. The word “illness” has been taken out of the definition as well, and the right to refuse work that poses a danger to the reproductive system is specifically eliminated in the new wording. Put together, these omissions likely mean, for example, that workers would not be able to claim protection from potential chronic or slow-developing illnesses based upon exposure to substances that over time could cause cancer or birth defects. Under the new definition, how many workers would confidently exercise their right to refuse dangerous work based upon the potential impact of such exposure?

What we are seeing here, in fact, is not a new definition at all, but the return of an outmoded definition of danger, one changed in 2000 because it was considered too restrictive to provide full protection to employees. That change was seen to be more consistent with the purpose of Part II of the Code, which is to prevent accidents and injury arising out of employment. Changing it back in 2013 substantially increases workplace risk by making it significantly more difficult to refuse dangerous work. And that in turn reduces the incentive for employers and managers to maintain safe and healthy workplaces.

The second major change is a significant relaxation of health and safety enforcement standards. Currently, professional health and safety officers have broad powers to inspect workplaces and enforce safe working conditions. But the new legislation abolishes them, replacing them with political appointees. Comparing the wording is instructive. Under the current Code, health and safety officers must be “qualified to perform the duties of such an officer.” But the proposed replacement legislation leaves the word “qualified” unqualified, merely referring to “any qualified person.” The Minister would decide what that means.

The right to refuse unsafe work would effectively become a matter of Ministerial discretion. Currently, an employee who has refused work that he or she believes to be unsafe may disagree with the employer’s decision, after an investigation, that no danger exists, and continue to refuse. This triggers an immediate, mandatory investigation by a health and safety officer. If that officer’s report finds no danger, the employee must return to work, but has the right to appeal.

Under the proposed new legislation, however, the Minister, who replaces the health and safety officer, can simply refuse to investigate. If the Minister claims that a complaint of unsafe work is “trivial, frivolous or vexatious,” that’s where it all ends. The employee must return to work, and there is no right to appeal against what is, in fact, an untested opinion.

Health and safety has in the past always been deemed everyone’s priority, and that’s just good common sense. It’s been presumed that everyone, management and labour alike, had a stake in keeping their workplace safe. Ensuring healthy workplaces has depended upon consultation and joint participation. When that on occasion fails to resolve disputes about the impact of the job on a worker’s health, a system of monitoring and enforcement by trained and professional health and safety officers is brought into play.

But this bill changes everything. For the first time—unheard of in any other jurisdiction in Canada—workers would be vulnerable to discipline even if they genuinely believe their working conditions are unsafe, and exercise their right to refuse. A cooperative approach that has worked well in the past would now be replaced by an antagonistic system in which unfettered ministerial power could be used to shut down serious workplace health and safety concerns. What on earth is the point?

This government has introduced an unprecedented number of criminal laws, all supposedly in the name of making our communities safe. So why does Harper’s safety agenda stop at the workplace door? Why should our members—or any workers—have to risk their health and even their lives to earn a living? Perhaps that’s a question the media should put to the government. I, for one, would be very interested in the answer they’d get.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Off the rails

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Think of a tanker train as a mobile pipeline. After the Lac-Mégantic disaster, we’d all hoped for a breather. But trains carrying their lethal cargo as they roll through Canada’s little towns are, it seems, an ever-present threat. 100 citizens of Gainford, Alberta, remain evacuated from their homes while a propane cleanup continues.

There will be those who argue that these trainwrecks bolster the case for pipelines. But this isn’t really a matter of choosing the lesser evil. We’re really dealing with two variants of the same thing: highly polluting and dangerous substances, inadequate safety protection, and a regrettable tendency to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In his recent Throne Speech, Stephen Harper promised “measures to protect against spills and other risks to the environment and local communities.” How would this be done, exactly? By setting higher safety standards for pipeline operators, and “act[ing] on advice from the Expert Panel on Tanker Safety, to create a world-class tanker safety system in Canada.” And by adopting NDP proposals for a “polluter-pay” system, by which companies that pollute will pay for the clean-up, as well as requiring an increase in liability insurance.

Fine words. But there are practical problems with all of them.

First, in a period of radical deregulation and public service cutbacks, how will higher safety standards be enforced? Then, what advice will the government be getting, and precisely how does it plan to act on it? What happens in the meantime? Finally, shouldn’t prevention be the main target here, not cleaning up after massive spills?

Make no mistake, those spills will keep on coming. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that 275,000 barrels of crude oil per day are now shipped by rail, while the budget of Transport Canada’s Dangerous Goods division has remained miniscule. “It has only 35 inspectors, the equivalent of just one inspector for every 4,000 tank carloads of crude oil transported in 2013. In 2009, when the oil-by-rail boom started, there was one inspector for every 14 tank carloads,” says the CCPA’s Bruce Campbell. As far as real inspection and enforcement goes, the CCPA notes that Transport Canada ignored repeated warnings from the Transportation Safety Board about unsafe tanker cars and other serious hazards until the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

How, practically speaking, is any of that about to change? Where are the resources to make change happen?

Turning to pipelines themselves, which Harper has been pushing, even to the point of telling the United States that he won’t take no for an answer, once again massive spills in Alberta demonstrate that they are far from safe. Indeed, while spill rates may be less than that of railways, those spills, when they do occur, leak three times as much oil. Here’s a sobering record of pipeline ruptures in the US since 1986.

The real problem with the pollution caused by these accidents is that the technology simply doesn’t exist to clean it up. Ask folks living near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Three years later, Enbridge is still trying to clear up the mess. The people living around Mayflower, Arkansas report that, contrary to what Exxon claims, their water and air remain polluted, and the pollution extends geographically much farther than the oil company admits. The pollution around Lac-Mégantic is worse than originally thought. How will they restore all that contaminated soil, water and air?

Polluter pay? Sure. Liability insurance? Why not? But you can’t just rinse the environment in the sink.

The answer isn’t to oppose fossil fuels, or rail transportation, or pipelines. It’s to pour our efforts into prevention instead of cure. It’s to improve the safety technology, and to build and maintain a strong, properly-resourced federal regulatory system that can guarantee the health and safety of Canadians. It’s not to mouth empty words in a Throne Speech while the government lets the disasters continue as the inevitable price of business as usual.

[Photo credit: Dan Riedlhuber, Reuters]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Channel surfing

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When you’re buckling under a load of scandals—massive voter fraud still being investigated by Elections Canada, improper doings in your Prime Minister’s Office, possibly criminal activities by your appointed senators, and new questions arising about what your former right-hand man, Nigel Wright, was up to in your own office), what to do? Find a squirrel, or a bright shiny object.

When even veterans, generally a fairly conservative lot, are in an uproar against you; when a lacklustre Throne Speech has even some of your staunchest media supporters questioning your conservative credentials; when a clumsy attempt to set up the media for a fund-raising drive results in the inevitable public mockery—just look away. To Europe, that is. Get some kind of an agreement, or a declaration at least, for a big free trade deal that’s been in the works for four years. A deal that isn’t even written down, the details of which nobody knows, and which wouldn’t come into effect for another couple of years even without opposition.

You’ve changed the channel, to use the political jargon of the day.

Harper seems to have taken a leaf from the playbook of PQ premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois. Mired in scandals of her own—crumbling infrastructure, massive criminal activity in the construction industry implicating senior PQ officials—she brought in the hugely controversial Charter of Quebec Values. This seems to have backfired, creating somewhat of a backlash, with even PQ elder Jacques Parizeau weighing in against her, but she did manage to change the channel.

This is Harper’s strategy, and so far it seems to be working. Skipping the first day of Parliament, he ran off to Brussels to declare a free trade victory. The corporate media have duly declared victory for him, going so far as to call the ill-defined EU package, Harper’s “legacy.” The man who led the negotiations for the first-ever such deal, the Free Trade Agreement with the US, was unimpressed: he pointed out that there is no actual deal as yet, and that if signed and ratified, the Canada-EU pact would not be the biggest ever, as some are making it out to be. But never mind this voice of reason, and never mind Canadian health care plans and consumers who will pay another billion dollars or so annually for drugs, thanks to a major concession made to Big Pharma to give them extended patent protection. The media love this “deal” already. Cheaper wine and luxury cars! More cheese!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a Conservative omnibus motion set the tone for the new session of Parliament. It would have forced the Opposition to resuscitate all the bills that died after Harper prorogued Parliament as the price for new rules on MP expenses, and recreating a special committee looking into murdered and missing Aboriginal women. Right after the Throne Speech, NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen raised a question of privilege, demanding that the motion be split. Lo and behold, the motion proved too much even for the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been less than impartial with his rulings in the past. He ruled in favour of the NDP.

The Senate scandal grinds on. The hapless Senator Mike Duffy, facing suspension from the Senate with his erstwhile media colleague Pamela Wallin and bad boy Patrick Brazeau, has applied for sick leave. He’s just thrown a very large cat among the pigeons—almost a tiger, by the looks of it. Conservative pitbull Dean Del Mastro is facing charges for breach of the Canada Elections Act. Former PMO Chief of Staff and convicted fraudster Bruce Carson (remember him?) is facing a criminal trial in the Spring for alleged influence-peddling.

The clouds seem to be gathering. But maybe there’s a ray of sunshine from Europe.

Big new EU free trade deal!

Keep your hand on that TV clicker. High time to hit the “previous channel” button.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Speech from the Throne

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Like a government Budget, a Throne Speech is always stuffed with three things. First, visionary rhetoric—not to be confused with actual vision. Second, nuggets of good stuff for various constituencies that need to be brought, or kept, on-side. And finally there are cryptic hints and signals of forthcoming action—left to the pundits, and others, to interpret until actual legislation is introduced later in the session.

This Throne Speech had a boastful, even vainglorious feel about it, but also, as conservative columnist John Ivison put it later, more than a whiff of desperation. It was a scattershot speech, by and large unfocused, the agenda of a government galloping off madly in all directions.

But one thing attracted a very clear focus indeed: the federal Public Service. The tried-and-true public worker-bashing that has served politicians well ever since I can remember was very much in evidence.

Here it was done skillfully, by implication rather than direct accusation. A “competent and committed public service” is wanted: suggesting that our members and other federal public workers are neither. Pay and benefits “will be reasonable, responsible, and in the public interest”—meaning that they are not presently.

Disability and sick-day entitlements are to be “reformed,” to get employees “back to work as soon as possible.” Once again, the implication is plain: public workers are abusing the system, and need to be reined in. This is reinforced by the promise to “increase performance accountability in the Public Service to provide better service to Canadians, at a reduced cost.” This in the wake of thousands of cuts—people who were delivering that service, but are no longer around to do so.

Finally, without warning, the government is going to amend the Public Service Labour Relations Act—it appears unilaterally. We have no idea what changes are intended. To say that this will damage already frayed labour-management relations in the federal Public Service would be putting it mildly. Let’s have a look at those changes, and have the opportunity for meaningful dialogue between Treasury Board and the federal public service unions. That’s how civil folks behave, and how civil society should work. It’s also how positive relations are established and maintained.

. . . . . . . . . .

I read the Throne Speech as a union leader, but I also reacted as a Canadian citizen. It doesn’t take a union activist to find the endless self-back-patting throughout the Throne Speech a tad obsessive. The Harper government—in case you haven’t already received the message countless times on your nickel—boasts of its management of the economy and its “decisive and pragmatic leadership.” But economies are bigger than governments; they have a life of their own. It’s common for politicians to claim credit for the good times, and for their country getting off lightly when the world economy dips, but there is something particularly overblown about the Harper government’s claims in this respect. And if a million new jobs have really been created since the depths of the recession, as the Throne Speech asserts, that needs to be balanced against the rising tide of precarious, go-nowhere employment. Things are far from rosy out there in the real world.

The Conservatives are presently at 26.1% in the polls. And so, unsurprisingly, they suddenly want to be all things to all people—at least on the surface. The speech is packed with measures aimed at a diverse number of constituencies, including progressive ones. Discrimination against workers on the basis of genetic testing will be outlawed, for example. Many will welcome the government’s pledge to protect the rights of Canadians abroad, especially after its shameful treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazkik and others. There will be much support for awarding the heroic Malala Yousafzai honorary Canadian citizenship. A promise of economic partnership with the Inuit has already been warmly greeted by the top Inuit leadership. Youth unemployment will be tackled. Money will go into all sorts of training and job schemes. $70 billion over the next decade will go towards building Canadian infrastructure.

But let’s take a closer look. Somewhere in the speech we are urged to consider actions, not words, and I suggest that we do just that.

One constituency that Harper is particularly eager to please is his own “red-meat” base, and there’s plenty for them to munch on in the Throne Speech. Our national crime rate continues to drop, but somehow even tougher measures are allegedly needed, including American-style life imprisonment without parole. There’s a handwave or two about the victims of crime, but the real emphasis here is all on punishment.

Safe injection sites, a proven harm-reduction measure, will be subject to new restrictions, and legitimate medical uses of illegal drugs will be curtailed. Social conservatism is still front and centre: for all the noise about helping women abroad, for example, some serious scepticism on that score is called for.

Nor are the more positive measures in the speech as substantial as one might have hoped. The much-ballyhooed consumer focus, for example, turned out to be cheaper cellphone charges, a mild trimming of bank fees, unbundling cable television channels and eliminating “geographic price discrimination” against Canadians—however the government plans to accomplish that. Food and drug labelling will be improved—but the new free trade deal with the European Union will raise the cost of drugs to provincial drug plans and the consumer by a billion dollars a year.

Even the feeble gestures of outreach to the Aboriginal communities—e.g., mentioning the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation that established a relationship between Aboriginal people and the Crown—are self-erasing. Notice that Aboriginal people simply disappear from the face of the earth in this part of the speech: “Pioneers, then few in number, reached across a vast continent. They forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed.” But those pioneers wouldn’t have lasted a year had it not been for indigenous people teaching them hunting and farming techniques, and complex survival skills. Why are they not getting the credit they so richly deserve?

“Our Government will renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,” we are assured. What does this even mean? Don’t make “efforts to address,” Mr. Prime Minister. Address!

Empty measures also have their prominent place in the speech. Part of that sound fiscal management we keep hearing about will include legislation to force governments to present balanced budgets. That will likely be about as effective as the fixed election date law—remember? Legislation that purports to bind Parliament’s hands does nothing of the sort: it stays in force until Parliament decides that it doesn’t. But it does sound tough and no-nonsense, doesn’t it?

Pipelines are needed so we don’t “strand our resources,” but don’t worry, “higher safety standards” are to be set for companies operating them. But who is going to enforce those standards in this era of deregulation and cutbacks?

Descending for a moment into pure farce, changes to Canada’s elections laws are promised, “to uphold the integrity of our voting system.” This from the folks who brought you robocalls and phantom poll booths. What crust! It`s like an arsonist calling for better fire-prevention measures.

The bottom line? It’s all business as usual. Nothing is about to change here, not even the government’s arrogant style. Reporters were barred from Harper’s speech to his caucus just before the Throne Speech—and then publicly attacked for “boycotting” it. The old omnibus ploy was used yet again, this time in a motion, not a bill, but the same contempt for democracy is still at work.

The Throne Speech did cover a lot of ground, and it promised a lot of things to a lot of people, but once the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have been packed away, we’re just left rubbing our eyes. For me, that old sinking feeling, suspended perhaps during that hour or so of pomp and ceremony, is back with a vengeance. Two more years before the next election. Oh, boy.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

To your good health

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Deregulation? Don’t swallow that!

Some scientists at Guelph University recently took it upon themselves to test a number of commercially-sold herbal products from health food stores. They discovered that people were buying additional contaminants and a range of unlabelled ingredients, some of which are toxic or could trigger allergic reactions—if they were even paying for the substances they thought they were purchasing.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Health Food Association applauded Prime Minister Stephen Harper for cutting red tape and “modernizing the regulatory system.” The government, for its part, promised that Canadians would have greater access to natural health products, through a “more efficient” approval system.

There are only two dots here, so feel free to connect them for yourselves.

The Harper government has only one rule when it comes to business: deregulate. If there is to be regulation, then industry is asked to police itself, or buyers are simply told to beware.

We’ve seen the same scenario play out in the past with transfats and salt, not to mention meat. Ideology, to this government, is far more important than the health of Canadians.

Now, to add insult to almost certain injury, we are told that the government is going to make consumer protection a key item in its mid-term agenda. Apparently this means not having to pay for cable channels we don’t want and getting treated better by Canada’s airlines.

All good, of course, although our lives hardly depend on either. But could this new emphasis on the consumer include the stuff that we, you know, actually consume? No word as yet. But don’t hold your breath. It’s bad for you.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Out in the cold

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Parliament is resuming tomorrow, and I don’t have an MP.

I’m one of nearly 300,000 electors in four constituencies whose Member of Parliament has resigned since the 2011 general election, for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not yet seen fit to call a by-election.

Under the Canada Elections Act, when a vacancy occurs, a by-election must be called within six months. In the riding of Bourassa, four and a half months have already gone by. In Brandon-Souris, the MP resigned on August 30. Toronto-Centre was left without an MP since the resignation of Bob Rae became effective on July 31. And my own riding, Provencher, was vacated by Vic Toews on July 9.

Had Harper done the right thing, all four constituencies would have had representatives in the House of Commons this month. His unconscionable delay has made that impossible.

Until he does make that call, and the by-elections are actually held, here’s what’s at stake:

First, we have no representatives to be heard in Parliament or to be held accountable. But just as important, if not more so, is that essential constituency work is not getting done. Need help getting EI, your old age pension, a visa or a passport? Having immigration or tax problems? Members of Parliament routinely deal with many individual constituents who encounter such difficulties, assisting and facilitating. MPs also spend time in their ridings, speaking to media and attending public functions, all part of making themselves accountable.

Let me repeat: nearly 300,000 electors and their families have been cut off. We have no one to represent us in the House or at home.

So what’s the hold-up?

It’s not as though Harper is acting out of some political partisanship. The Western two of the four ridings are safely Conservative. His majority would not slide by calling these by-elections.

I suspect that the answer is simple: he’s just not very interested in the House of Commons. Responsible government, which makes the government accountable to the legislature, is a cornerstone of our democracy. But Harper is already on the public record as being, literally, in contempt of Parliament. In fact, a year earlier, he had shown the same disdain for elected representatives over the Afghan detainee issue, provoking a historic ruling by then-Speaker of the House of Commons, John Milliken.

This article in Maclean’s magazine two years back is worth looking at again. There are many reasons for the decline of Parliament in recent years—tough party discipline that takes away an individual MP’s voice, for example. But the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has clearly allowed this government to ignore Parliamentary debate and carry on as it will—as though the House of Commons didn’t exist. Where actual debate is permitted to take place, it is subject to strict time allocation that doesn’t permit the substance of legislation to be properly reviewed. The introduction of massive omnibus bills, rushed through Parliament and signed into law in the wink of an eye, is an excellent example of the forced irrelevance of our representatives in the House.

So is it too much to suggest that vacancies are simply not that much of a concern to a government that has sidelined the House of Commons in the first place? And to a government that is too remote from the practical concerns of individual Canadians to worry very much about the senior trying to gather documents to apply for OAS, or the new Canadian having a rough time trying to fill out forms online, or the unemployed worker running into problems with an EI claim?

See that picture, above, which accompanies the Maclean’s article? Seems to me that’s the Conservative government’s idea of the perfect House of Commons, one that doesn’t get in the way, what with Opposition MPs wasting valuable if limited time insisting on their say and asking awkward questions. Depriving Canadians of their MPs, though, as I said, isn’t a political ploy or plot. The Harper government really just doesn’t care.

[Photo credit: Adrian Wyld, CP]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

This just in: cats not so fat

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“Those pampered public employees.” Heard that before? Of course you have: we’ve been listening to that guff so long that it’s almost background noise at this point. And ideology-based organizations like the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, not to mention the current President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, have been doing their best to keep that notion alive.

Compared to the private sector, we have been told, public workers abuse sick leave, they get superior wages and benefits, and don’t forget those “gold-plated” pensions. And then there are all these big wage increases that federal public workers keep getting. Unfair!

But one by one, the myths crumble under the weight of facts—for a while, at least, although they keep springing up like stubborn weeds. As it turns out, federal public workers are taking about the same amount of sick leave as their private sector counterparts. Nor has it been proven that public sector workers are more highly compensated than their unionized counterparts in the private sector, as the Fraser Institute claims: as I’ve pointed out before, the detailed job-to-job data required to make its case is generally lacking. But this data is collected in Quebec, and compensation differences there, somewhat surprisingly, run the other way—when public-sector unionized workplaces are compared to private-sector unionized workplaces.

Then there’s the pension issue, which I’ve also written about. Another day, another flawed report from the usual suspects. Yes, public sector pensions are decent and reasonable, especially compared to private-sector workplaces without pension plans, but they’re hardly gold-plated: the average federal public service pension, after a higher-than-average contribution rate, is about $25,000 per year.

And now, thanks to Jean-Denis Frechette, the new Parliamentary Budget Officer whom many expected would be a bit of a disappointment, the myth of those handsome public-sector wage increases is also put to rest. Responding to a request by Paul Dewar, MP for Ottawa-Centre, Frechette looked into labour costs in the federal Public Service for the past decade. And the numbers indicate that real wages have remained at about the same level for the entire time.

What’s interesting—and rather depressing—about the “they’ve got it better than us” line of argument is not only the consistently flawed comparisons that exaggerate differences by comparing apples to oranges one moment and bananas the next, but the underlying politics of division.

Decent wages and benefits usually have to be negotiated, and where there are unions, they will be, despite all the obstacles in the way. The labour movement is also in the forefront of the fight to improve pensions for everyone by expanding the CPP/QPP. Three guesses who opposes it?

Unionized workers do better than non-unionized ones as a rule—of course they do. Otherwise, why do they organize themselves into unions in the first place, and why is the Canadian labour movement growing? We also know that the public sector is considerably more unionized than the private sector at present. Hence we shouldn’t be surprised, or shocked, that many public workers are better compensated than many private-sector workers. But what conclusions should we draw from that?

Supposedly the various levels of government should be cutting down all those tall poppies. But why is that a given? Time to look at things a little differently, I think. Public sector or private sector, I can’t really improve on this comment I saw on a T-shirt once:



“If ye break faith with us who die…”

Reprehensible,” says the Dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, Gordon Moore. I couldn’t agree more, and I doubt that I’m alone. He was referring to the Harper government’s repudiation of a promise made to veterans by then-Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917, just before the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Here is that promise in full:

“You can go into this action feeling assured of this, and as the head of the government I give you this assurance: That you need not fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and Empire in what you are about to do and what you have already done.

“The government and the country will consider it their first duty to see that a proper appreciation of your effort and of your courage is brought to the notice of people at home that no man, whether he goes back or whether he remains in Flanders, will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken faith with the men who won and the men who died.”

Do veterans have “just cause to reproach the government” now?

As noted, the government has had the face to argue in a federal court that it is not bound by Sir Robert Borden’s promise. It is vigorously contesting a class action lawsuit by a group of Afghanistan vets in BC who believe that the government’s New Veterans Charter offers insufficient benefits in comparison to other veterans. (The Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, has outlined serious shortcomings in that Charter in a recent report.)

The government attempted to have their lawsuit thrown out of court. When it was unsuccessful, it launched an appeal, claiming that Borden’s promise has a best-before date.

“Reprehensible?” You bet. But I’m not sure that word is nearly strong enough to cover the other indignities being heaped on our veterans today by this same government.

An early critic of the Veterans Charter had personal information leaked by Veterans Affairs. Then there was the government’s attempt to claw back military pensions. A plan to honour Afghanistan vets has been shelved. Military resources to help returning veterans incapacitated during their Afghanistan service are not remotely sufficient for the job. And now the government is causing further harm by closing nine regional offices across Canada where veterans have been receiving a variety of necessary services from our front-line workers.

It’s difficult to understand why a government that beat the drums to commemorate the War of 1812 and rallied support for our troops in Afghanistan at Red Friday gatherings would be so cavalier and dismissive of our troops who managed to return home. Is Stephen Harper only interested in photo-ops and monuments to the dead, and not the real flesh-and-blood veterans who need help and respect?

“I used to be true blue, through and through,” said retired Sergeant Ronald Clarke at a recent press conference that I attended. One suspects that his political loyalties these days may be wavering.

Bob Jackson

PSAC BC and the United Way

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I was recently honoured to be asked give the keynote speech at the United Way of the Lower Mainland Labour Campaign kick-off and would like to share some of what I spoke about.

I've been a supporter of the United Way's Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign almost since I began working at the Department of Agriculture 34 years ago - as a donor, as a workplace coordinator, and as a Union Counselor. Now as Regional Executive Vice President of the PSAC in BC, I'm honoured to sit on the Labour Committee of the UWLM Board.

I think it's important to be involved with the work the United Way does. Both for all the people the United Way helps in our communities, of course, but also for the PSAC.

In many ways unions, PSAC included, and the United Way share similar visions: we improve lives, build stronger communities, create positive social change, and speak out for those who at times find it difficult to speak for themselves. Our partnership is based on shared values.

One thing that I've noticed, though, is that the public sometimes thinks that our workplace giving campaigns are employer driven. I think they get this impression from the accolades the employer always receives. For the most part it's PSAC, PIPSC, and other union members that do the work in federal government agencies and departments.

Our employers provide time us to work on the campaign, but we organize the events, we fill out the paperwork, and we make the majority of the donations. Then, every year government departments announce how much money they've donated to the United Way.

But it's all thanks to those of us that have worked very hard in our worksites.

Representatives of the United Way, PIPSC, and I sat down with the Pacific Federal Council several times this spring to discuss recognition in the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign. We all agreed that the Union's involvement has contributed greatly to the success of the campaign over the years, and that PSAC and PIPSC contributions should be recognized more fully and visibly.

This is a good thing. By being recognized for the work that we do we show the public that unions are a force for good in the broader community. PSAC members in Victoria are leading the way on this front.

I'd also like to share my thoughts about the United Way's Union Counselor program with you, as my experience with it was a very positive one.

From what I've heard from some people - that the United Way is training our members to be counselors - I think the program may be misunderstood. The training required to be a counselor takes years. We're not counselors.

Members in the Union Counselor program are given the tools and the confidence needed to assist them in pointing co-workers in the direction of counseling services when they needed them. As you can imagine, when someone is having a problem it's a lot easier for them to talk to a person they know. Someone that can help them get the help, whatever it may be, they might need.

I would encourage everyone to take advantage of this training and to give our members a place to turn to in a time of need. I found it very rewarding.

This is also a way of showing our members that we're more than just "the union" - the mysterious organization that they pay dues to. We're showing members that we are a force for positive change in the broader community.

I would like to conclude by offering a reminder.

A reminder of how important it is to recognize that even the smallest of gestures to someone in need can go a long way in providing hope.

Our strength lies in our unity.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The union future

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“If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline.” ~CEP-CAW merger discussion paper

The times are changing around us. Will unions erode in the flow, or adapt?

This long article is good food for thought. So is this one.

There’s a lot of content here, but a few things leaped out at me. First, tactics and strategies need to be new, alive, and precisely targeted. Secondly, the union needs to be a constant presence within its own membership. Finally, we public workers need to forge links with the public as a whole and win them over.

Let me start with the last point. Unionized workers are 31.5% of the total workforce. So we and our families are a pretty big chunk of that “public” whose interests the anti-union commentators and politicians are always going on about. We’re not only union members, but members of our communities, taxpayers, and voters.

This is why I have a little trouble with this kind of well-meaning comment:

To overcome … divide-and-conquer strategies, and defend against further attacks on the rights of public sector workers, unions will require new strategic thinking and modes of action. That means more effectively connecting the interests of public sector workers with those of citizens, by linking contract demands to the enhancement of the quality and availability of public services.

The labour movement is made up of citizens—a whole lot of citizens. Unionized workers in the public sector alone are nearly one-fifth of the entire Canadian workforce. Unwittingly, the authors of a basically pro-union article are contributing to the ongoing myth that we are somehow separate and apart from the people who use the services we provide. Guess what? We use them too.

We know very well from long experience that folks will get upset when they’re inconvenienced during strikes and lockouts—it’s only human. (By the way, a lockout is an employer move—but somehow the unions still get the blame for it.) When we can successfully make our case, especially when we put a human face on these misnamed “labour disputes”—what, are we arguing with ourselves?—public opinion can shift.

What is less easy to understand is that a lot of people cheer the axing of public workers while, at the same time, they get indignant when public services deteriorate. The obvious disconnect here is certainly one of the communications challenges we face.

How do we win over people who are inclined to be opposed to us? One way is by demonstrating that we have common cause with them, and forging strong alliances on that basis. A recent example is the campaign to keep Veterans Affairs offices open: our frontline members staff those offices, and are personally committed to the work they do, while the veterans appreciate the one-on-one attention they receive. Our campaign makes the necessary links between those workers, their services, and the veterans who depend on them.

Now, the recognition that our members are part of the public cuts both ways. Sometimes we fail to reach the very people who are the union that we have been elected to lead. Says Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti, “You have to be responsive to your members all the time. Otherwise, they just start looking at you like an insurance company.” As the author of the article quoting him notes, “No one feels particularly attached to their insurance company.”

Point well taken. We are not an insurance company. We are a union, made up, primarily, of rank and file members. It’s members who have won most of our big victories, with their energy, ideas and commitment. Improving the two-way flow of communications between the elected leadership at all levels and the members is a constant challenge in a large and diverse organization. And it’s not a challenge that we dare ignore.

Finally, tactics and strategy must always change to fit new circumstances. A stirling example was the 2006 strike at the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories. Here was a remote workplace where you couldn’t set up a picket line—you could only reach it most of the time on a company plane, and workers came in from all over. And the company could afford to wait out the strike: diamonds aren’t perishable goods. A year after organizing, the workers still didn’t have a collective agreement

But everything changed on June 13 when some creative thinking was brought to bear:

That’s the day the union ran ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal decrying Canada’s “dirty diamonds” and calling out BHP for using strikebreakers. It was a direct attack on one of the Canadian mine’s principal sales pitches: that its sparkly products were untainted by human-rights abuses associated with diamonds from Africa. The phone started ringing from around the world. Media from Antwerp, Israel, South Africa and Singapore—“everywhere where somebody cares about diamonds”—were calling for interviews, Thompson says. “We had an agreement in two weeks.”

While we’re at it, let’s put another myth to rest—that the Canadian labour movement, like the US one, is “in decline.” Over the past five years we’ve added many, many thousands of members from Canada’s universities and colleges. Unionization in both the public and the private sectors has steadily risen.

The demand for unionization is growing, as one might expect it to do in a climate of precarious work, high unemployment, government austerity measures and increasingly inadequate pensions. Says one young organizer, sidetracked into union activism on his way to law school, “We need good jobs you can build a life on.”

And if we greet new ideas with an open mind, emphasize effective communications, and refuse to allow ourselves to be divided against each other, our unions will be an increasingly effective force for getting and keeping them. We’ll get the future that we deserve, one we have made with our own hands.

Ces jours-ci, quand j’entends le gouvernement Harper clamer le slogan « Appuyons nos troupes », je me sens à la fois triste et en colère. La façon dont il traite les anciens combattants est totalement disgracieuse. C’est une honte, un scandale! Et c’est de pire en pire.

Les anciens combattants sont des femmes et des hommes courageux qui ont fait de nombreux sacrifices pour servir notre pays. Malheureusement, ils n’ont pas tous eu la chance de revenir au bercail en pleine forme. On leur avait promis de l’aide et des avantages.

Mais tout cela a changé.

Aujourd’hui, au lieu d’un système de pension à vie, c’est une Charte des anciens combattants qu’on leur offre. On devait d’ailleurs la modifier en 2011 pour corriger des lacunes flagrantes, mais l’ombudsman des vétérans, Guy Parent, n’est pas impressionné par les changements apportés. Il vient d’ailleurs de publier un rapport dans lequel il compare les avantages accordés aux anciens combattants en vertu de l’ancien système et ceux prévus dans la nouvelle Charte. Et les constats qu’il fait ne sont pas réjouissants.

Les conséquences de la Charte seront particulièrement désastreuses pour les anciens combattants les plus sévèrement handicapés, et ils sont des centaines. Lorsqu’ils atteignent 65 ans, on leur enlève leurs avantages, ce qui signifie que plusieurs d’entre eux termineront probablement leur vie dans la pauvreté. Et leurs survivants ne sont pas épargnés.

On pourrait remédier à cette situation assez rapidement, puisque le nombre de personnes touchées n’est pas si élevé. Mais ce n’est pas tout. M. Parent souligne d’autres failles sérieuses dans cette Charte, qui touchent un plus grand nombre d’anciens combattants. Les paiements forfaitaires qui remplacent les pensions sont inadéquats. Le montant de l’indemnité accordée pour les préjudices et les souffrances causés n’est même équivalent aux sommes accordées par les tribunaux canadiens pour une blessure corporelle. Et c’est sans compter que l’on continue de restreindre indûment l’accès aux avantages.

Au même moment, les services offerts aux militaires malades ou blessés qui reviennent d’Afghanistan sont nettement sous-financés. L’Unité interarmées de soutien du personnel a été mise sur pied précisément pour accomplir cette tâche complexe et difficile, mais elle n’est aucunement en mesure d’offrir des services aux nombreux militaires qui en ont besoin.

Et maintenant, les anciens combattants n’ont plus qu’à attendre la fermeture de neuf bureaux d’Anciens Combattants Canada au pays, de Corner Brook à Prince George, d’ici la fin février. Dans ces bureaux, nos membres au Syndicat des employé-e-s des Anciens combattants offrent aux vétérans et à leur famille des services de première ligne dont ils ont absolument besoin; ils se rendent aussi à leur domicile lorsque cela est nécessaire. Ils les aident à s’adapter au rythme de la « vraie vie » et aussi à remplir les formulaires requis pour conserver les avantages auxquels ils ont droit. Nos membres les aident également à obtenir un soutien essentiel auprès de la communauté.

Hier, j’ai eu le privilège de prendre part à une conférence de presse organisée pour dénoncer ces fermetures. Des anciens combattants et des intervenants de première ligne y ont pris la parole - vous entendrez certains d’entre eux dans la vidéo ci-dessus. Prenez le temps de les écouter. J’ai appris beaucoup en les écoutant, même si on préférerait entendre autre chose.

Qu’est-ce qui attend les anciens combattants qui ont besoin des services offerts dans les neuf bureaux qui sont dans la mire du gouvernement? C’est vrai, ils peuvent téléphoner à un centre d’appel privatisé de Service Canada, où les employés ne connaissent pas les programmes destinés aux anciens combattants. Et, comme l’ont rapporté nombre d’entre eux, ils finiront par laisser tomber, épuisés d’attendre en ligne de parler enfin à quelqu’un qui saura leur répondre.

Ils pourraient aussi se rendre à un bureau de Service Canada, où on leur demanderait d’utiliser une borne libre-service. Mais les anciens combattants les plus âgés ne sont pas habitués aux ordinateurs, et on ne leur offre aucune aide pour remplir les longs formulaires en ligne.

Ou ils peuvent choisir de conduire sur une distance de 1 100 kilomètres pour se rendre au bureau d’Anciens Combattants le plus près. Combien d’anciens combattants blessés ou malades ont la capacité de faire ça?

Le gouvernement justifie ces fermetures en invoquant la baisse du nombre de vétérans de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale et de la guerre de Corée. Mais 680 000 anciens combattants et membres actuels des Forces canadiennes n’ont jamais servi pendant la Deuxième Guerre. Et près de 10 % d’entre eux ont un handicap. Il va sans dire que leurs besoins augmenteront avec l’âge. Déjà, le ministère des Anciens Combattants [a supprimé 470 emplois et prévoit réduire son personnel de 25 % d’ici 2015.

Les commentateurs et les éditorialistes ne sont pas tendres avec le gouvernement. Les gens réalisent de plus en plus qu’il faut agir, et vite. Lorsqu’il s’agit de nos anciens combattants, nous sommes tous concernés; il ne devrait pas être question de parti pris, ni de confrontation. Il est temps de nous tenir debout, ensemble.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Veterans deserve better

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When I hear the Harper government use the slogan “Support Our Troops” these days, I feel only a mixture of anger and sadness. Its continuing mistreatment of our veterans is a disgrace, a shame, a bloody scandal, and it’s getting worse with every passing day.

Veterans are brave men and women who have served our country and sacrificed much. Not all of them are lucky enough to return home in the best of shape. They were promised benefits, and services to see them through.

But that’s all changed.

We have a new Veteran’s Charter now, in place of a pension-for-life system. It was supposed to be overhauled in 2011 to fix glaring inadequacies, but the Veterans Ombudsman, Guy Parent, is not impressed with the re-do. He’s just released a report that compares benefits and entitlements under the old system and the new Charter one. It makes grim reading.

Under the Charter as it now stands, hundreds of the most severely disabled veterans will be hit hard. When they turn 65, benefits will be cut off, and they may well spend the rest of their lives in poverty. Their survivors will take a hit as well.

Perhaps that can be quickly fixed, because the numbers are small. But Parent identifies other serious shortcomings in the Charter that affect far more veterans. The lump-sum payments that replaced pensions are inadequate. Compensation for pain and suffering doesn’t even amount to what Canadian courts award for personal injury. Access to benefits continues to be unduly restricted.

Meanwhile, military services for ailing veterans returning from Afghanistan are grossly under-resourced. The Joint Personnel Support Unit was set up precisely for this complex and demanding task, but is not remotely able to provide care for the flood of sick and injured assigned to it.

And now veterans can look forward to the closure of nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country, from Corner Brook to Prince George, by the end of next February. Our members in the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees have been providing desperately-needed front-line services in these offices and in the homes of veterans and their families. They help the vets adjust to independent living and offer assistance in filling out the endless forms required to keep their benefits. And they liaise with community services to obtain further essential support.

Yesterday I was privileged to attend a press conference called to protest these closures. A number of veterans and frontline workers spoke—you’ll see some of them in the video above. Please give them a hearing. It was a learning experience, and not a pleasant one.

What’s in store for the vets who used to get badly-needed one-to-one services in the nine regions where offices are under the axe? Well, they can make phone calls to a privatized call centre run out of Service Canada, whose employees have no special knowledge of veterans’ programs. Veterans report being passed from person to person until they just hang up in frustration.

Or they can go to a Service Canada office and be told to use a kiosk. Some of the more elderly veterans aren’t computer-literate, but help is not offered in filling out lengthy forms on-line.

Or they can make their way as much as 1100 kilometres to the closest remaining VA office. How many ailing veterans can do that?

The government points to the decreasing number of WWII and Korean veterans to justify cutbacks. But 680,000 veterans and current members of the forces didn’t serve in the Second World War. Nearly 10 per cent of them are disabled. Their needs will grow with age. Yet Veterans Affairs has already cut 470 jobs, and plans to cut 25% of its workforce by 2015.

Commentators and editorialists in the media are not being kind to the government. Right across the political spectrum people are realizing that something needs to be done, and pronto. There should be no us-versus-them in this. When it comes to our veterans, it’s just us and more us. Time to stand together.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Oh, Canada

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Is the “restoration” of our national anthem a big thing or a small thing? A new proposal—an earlier one died more than three years ago—would make a two-word change: from “thy sons” to “of us” in the line, “in all thy sons command.”

What’s now being proposed is not actually a restoration in every respect, which would have taken us back to 1908, when the wording was “thou dost in us command.” That wording seems a little dated now, and should probably be left where it lies. But its gender neutrality, now more than a century old, is what a number of prominent Canadians—including former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, Margaret Atwood, and Sally Goddard, mother of the first female Canadian soldier to be killed in combat—would like to see restored. And so would I.

“True patriot love,” after all, is something that every Canadian citizen, not merely those of the male persuasion, has a right to express. And all of us in 2013 should be able to see ourselves in the song that stands for Canada. So what’s the problem with a two-word change to make that happen?

Ah, say some. Tradition. Don’t mess with it.

Well, then, which tradition? The 1908 gender-neutral one? The version with “sons,” added in 1914? Or the 1980 wording, adding “God keep our land”—the year when “O Canada” actually became our official Canadian anthem?

It’s reasonable to speculate that the wording change in 1914 had much to do with the outbreak of World War One, when Canadian men were starting to go overseas. Could it also have been partly in reaction to the growing suffragist movement? That same year, the Premier of Manitoba infamously said, “The majority of women are emotional, and if given the franchise would be a menace rather than an aid.”

Well, times change. Women got the vote in 1918. We were officially declared “persons” in 1929. Both of those advances were, I suppose, breaks with “tradition.” Not all traditions, obviously, are worth preserving.

Of course, this isn’t really about tradition at all, which we can see has been flexible indeed over the years. It’s about inclusiveness. Those still resisting the equality of women in 2013 will be first in line, guaranteed, to oppose this change. But the time is ripe for it.

My opinion, anyway: you may well have a different one. But do spare a thought for the excluded majority.

manager under stress.jpg

…Federal government employment, that is. You don’t have to take the unions’ word about working conditions in the public service any longer. Managers, too, are in a bad fix, according to a comprehensive study carried out by the Association for Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX). This informative article by the Ottawa Citizen’s Kathryn May is well worth a look, if you haven’t seen it already.

The CEO of APEX, Linda Lacroix, doesn’t mince any words: the workplace, she says, is making executives sick. Mental health problems have doubled since 2007. 20% are on medication for depression, anxiety or sleeplessness.

The workplace is toxic. 22% of managers have been verbally abused by their superiors. 10% report “discourteous behaviour such as not sharing credit, breaking promises, getting angry, telling lies, blaming and making negative comments.”

One major stressor is over-centralization of decision-making under Stephen Harper. It’s making managers feel powerless, says Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration. They’re “frustrated, stressed and sick…turning cranks that aren’t attached to anything.”

Small wonder that, as the study reveals, more than half of them frequently consider getting out. And managers as a whole are taking twice as much sick leave as their counterparts in the private sector.

Any of this sound familiar, folks? It should. Mental health advocate Bill Wilkerson points out the glaringly obvious: if executives are harassed, “you can bet the rank and file employees feel harassed.” We all know what rolls downhill.

But somehow it’s cold comfort to learn that Public Service managers are suffering the same sort of thing as our own members, even if they are validating our concerns. The entire workplace, it seems, could use the healing touch.

What an odd coincidence of timing, though. There’s Treasury Board President Tony Clement, complaining out loud about public workers (meaning union members) taking too much sick leave. He’s vowed to crack down on alleged abuses. Why, he said, we take more than our private sector equivalents!

Eventually, Statistics Canada put the lie to that, pointing out that, as PSAC has been saying all along, apples were being compared to oranges. When adjustments are made for unionization, gender and age, the gap between public and private sectors shrinks to about a day per year.

Non-union workers, of course, take time off at their peril. Some have no sick leave at all. So they tend to stagger in to work no matter how they are feeling. But bringing illness into the workplace is no good for anyone, says Nicole Stewart of the Conference Board of Canada, who recently authored a report on workforce absenteeism.

She goes on to note that absenteeism is a problem everywhere, but good workplace conditions tend to bring the rates down. It took a study to reveal that?

In any case, public service executives aren’t unionized. So when they take considerably more sick leave than private sector managers, unionization is an irrelevant concern. Furthermore, because their private sector counterparts aren’t unionized either, public-private comparisons are more apt.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Statistics Canada has shown that rank and file public workers are actually taking little more sick leave than their private-sector equivalents. Executives, however, are, to repeat, taking twice as much. We aren’t questioning the need for such leave by public service managers, by the way, not by any means: we all know what the workplace is like. But maybe—and I do say this with a twinkle in my eye—our members should be taking a little more?

About this Archive

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

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