2013. That was the year that was: a test of union resolve that has, unfortunately, just begun. Years from now, we’ll talk about this past twelve months as a watershed in labour history. But which way we choose to go at this turning-point is entirely up to us. For the Conservative government and its supporters, this has been Year Zero of a new Canada—one without unions, without rights, and, for far too many, without hope.
I think it’s safe to say that our Union has never faced such challenges in our nearly half a century of history. We’ve confronted a lot of tough employers during that time, and the going has been anything but easy. We’ve had epic strikes and important wins in court, too, when the bargaining table alone hasn’t delivered enough for our members.
We’ve stood up for ourselves, in other words, and because of that we’ve moved steadily forward over the years. And by “we,” incidentally, I mean PSAC members, not just elected representatives and union staff.
But now we’re up against something completely different: a government that isn’t just hard-nosed during collective bargaining—we’re used to that—but one that actually wants to destroy unions, using brute legislative power.
This is a government that is fond of putting everything but the kitchen sink in omnibus bills, limiting debate on them, and then passing them without a comma changed. At the end of the process, the result is usually the same as though we were being ruled by decree from the Prime Minister’s Office—which , in effect, we are.
C-4 was one of those mega-bills, containing deeply-buried provisions that endanger the health and safety of more than a million workers, eliminate or rig the arbitration process, and allow a government Minister to gut any strike efforts by unilaterally declaring any number of workers “essential” at whim. It’s law now: C-4 was bulldozed through the House of Commons without a single change.
Then there is the “private member’s bill” tactic, where the government pretends it’s just this or that backbencher introducing anti-union measures, but those measures are supported and probably drafted by the Conservative inner circle. The discriminatory bill C-377 was one of those, blocked in the Senate with the help of Conservative Senators for whom this Harper move was a bridge too far. But the government has promised to re-introduce it in the House of Commons and ram it through as though nothing had happened.
C-525 is still moving forward—another “private member’s bill,” which will make it far more difficult to certify a new union in the federal sector, and much easier to decertify an existing one. It rigs the voting process in each case, counting all abstentions as votes against the union. And for those of us who come under the Public Service Labour Relations Act, a minority of bargaining unit members can decertify a union: a 55% vote of the unit would be required to keep the union in place.
Our side did win a few victories, though. The government tried to force a vote of our FB group, after months of pointless delay in reaching a collective agreement—not the first time that it has deliberately slowed down the collective bargaining process. Members mobilized for a “No” vote: then the courts slapped the government move down, hard. Treasury Board refused to implement an arbitral award for another union, but was sternly ordered to do so.
The President of Treasury Board, Tony Clement, had made his government’s anti-union agenda personal, refusing any consultation and referring to me and to other duly elected union leaders as “union bosses,” demonstrating nothing but contempt for us and for those whom we represent.
Delay, obstruct, insult. And when in doubt, abuse the legislative process.
The next election isn’t until 2015, and we can’t realistically expect anything better from the Harper government in 2014. (I’d like to offer a rosy “best wishes for the New Year,” but I’m one of those hard-bitten union types who dislikes empty rhetoric as much as our members do.) We’re in a situation, frankly. And the anti-union venom has spread—first in Ontario, and more recently in Alberta where, incredibly, it’s now against the law for public workers even to use the word “strike” in the workplace.
In short, we in the PSAC and the broader labour movement face on every side staggering threats that call for all hands on deck. The government has made its intentions painfully clear. The courts will not be there to save us every time we suffer a reverse, either. Members will need to be ready to do what it takes to keep the gains that we have so painstakingly made for the past several decades, up to and including the basic right to be unionized in the first place.
New Year’s Eve is not an “end” of anything. Nothing gets concluded just because of a date on a calendar; we’re in the midst of the battle as I write this. I’m confident that we shall prevail eventually, given our proven ability to mobilize in the past when needed. It’s going to be a hard one, make no mistake—but every one of us, like it or not, is already involved.