April 2014 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Young people face a wintry future

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What kind of future are young workers in Canada, 2014, looking at?

I can remember facing that future with confidence when I was somewhat younger. I didn’t enter the workforce saddled with enormous student loan debts. There were jobs, good jobs, out there. Things would be all right. And I’d end up being better off than my parents, because that’s the way things had always been, or so people said.

Flashforward to now, and none of these things are true. The so-called “millennials”—all 8 million of them—are deeply uneasy about their future, according to a poll conducted for the Broadbent Institute. And so are the “boomers,” who believe their kids will fall behind rather than move up. Neither parents or children have faith that corporations will create the new jobs needed. And boomers nearing retirement are afraid that tax revenues will be insufficient to cover the social services they will need.

The Broadbent Institute’s report makes grim reading. Only 14% of their parents worked contract jobs or a mix of contract and permanent employment, but 52% of millennials expect to live their working lives this way. Only 39% of them have any expectation of steady, permanent employment. Only 30% know people who have workplace pension plans, and 20% know of no one who does. Half of the boomers believe that they will own a house when they retire: only a third of the millennials have any such hope.

More than half of both generations, however, are agreed: lower union membership makes good jobs more scarce.

Meanwhile, the uphill climb is a steep one for millennials. Employer demands for a two-tier wage system is a fact of life in the present economy, condemning younger workers to a permanent low-wage existence. And abuses in the Temporary Foreign Workers program make even McJobs far less available to them. The Harper government’s expressions of shock when the abuses at come to light doesn’t hide the fact that it issued the permits in the first place—or that 75% of all new jobs over the past few years have gone to imported temporary workers.

Overall, workers in the 15-24 age group are facing high levels of unemployment, and employment prospects are getting worse. Despite popular accusations of “entitlement,” many young people have taken years to train for careers, and have the degrees to prove it, but now find themselves in low-skilled jobs because better work simply isn’t available.

It’s no surprise that many of these bright millennials are turning to unionization as a solution to the low-wage trap they have found themselves in. This is “bottom-up” pressure that is bound to pay dividends now and in the future for the workers who engage in it, and for society as a whole. Higher rates of unionization mean better, more secure employment, and the possibility of facing the future with confidence.

What is also badly needed in Canada, however—and what the new generation of workers isn’t getting from the present government—is a national jobs strategy that actually creates opportunities for young people to put their training, skills and intelligence to good use, in productive careers. Everyone would benefit from that, no matter what generation they are. But our youth, it seems, have a long way to go before that Spring arrives.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Life in the Public Service

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This is an amazing story, almost a classic. It’s about an unreasonable abuse of power, a victim of it, and the triumph of good. And yet it leaves me unsatisfied.

It seems that a federal public worker named Lorraine Martin was on holiday in Iceland when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, filling the air all over Europe with huge clouds of ash that grounded planes for several days. She was unable to return to work on the day she was due to come back, and so emailed in, explaining the circumstances. There are provisions in such circumstances for special leave with pay to be granted—but the straw boss was having none of it. “Two days,” said her supervisor, Lisa Jessome. “The rest is on you.” And she proceeded to deduct vacation days.

Martin had rebooked on the first flight out of Iceland, a week after her intended return date. She tried several airlines, and was on a stand-by list, but this, given the circumstances, was all that there was available to her. Too bad, so sad.

Martin grieved this open-and-shut case. What the story-link doesn’t tell you was that there are three steps in the grievance process, the first to the supervisor, then to the next rung of management, and finally to the Deputy Minister. Incredibly, the grievance failed at all three levels. The PSAC took the case to third-party adjudication, and won handily—but the entire process took four years to resolve.

You could almost hear the adjudicator scratching his head over some of the “arguments” presented by the department. It was suggested that Martin should have “hung around the airport” for days, on the off-chance that a plane might get out sooner. The supervisor suggested that Martin might have returned more quickly had she stayed in the cancelled passengers queue. In fact, she had done just that.

So here an ordinary worker wins a case against a clear abuse of power—and yet there’s nothing much to cheer about. Think of the taxpayer dollars squandered by a government department that would not accept the glaringly obvious. Think of the management heavies who refused her grievance despite black-and-white contract language, just to do this woman out of five days of her earned annual leave. Think of the time involved to put this matter right.

From this expensive and time-wasting nonsense we learn a few lessons. Bosses don’t rule the workplace by themselves, but through institutions—or, more properly, those blind, robot-like institutions rule through them. And despite the appealing story of a lone individual triumphing over arbitrary power, they usually don’t. If Martin hadn’t had another institution, her union, which could lend its own personal and material resources to help her, she would very likely have had to grin and bear it.

I wish I could say that this case was an exception, but it’s far from it. The PSAC, like other unions, knows that winning a collective agreement is only the beginning of the work that we have to do. Without determined members like Lorraine Martin, and an equally determined union, a contract is just a document. Together, we give it life—even if, by any measure of reason and common sense, we shouldn’t have to.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Public services and inequality

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Inequality is a world-wide problem, and it’s getting worse. But good public services help to offset it.

This is the conclusion of a very recent publication by Oxfam, which takes a hard look at growing inequality.

How unequal? The 85 richest individuals in the world have as much wealth as the poorer half of the entire global population. This is mirrored in many countries: and, while the extremes are more obvious in some of them, Canada is seeing a widening gap between rich and poor, and that gap has been growing faster than in the US. When it comes to inequality, in fact, Canada ranks a miserable 12th in a list of 17 countries like our own. Here, the top 20% bring home 39.1 per cent of the national income, and that group has increased its take over the past two decades or so: from 36.5% in 1990 to 39.1% in 2010. Canada’s cities have mirrored this trend, with increasing inequality since 1970.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as the old saying goes. So what can be done about it?

The Oxfam study doesn’t claim that public services alone can solve this huge, complex problem, of course. But it does show that flourishing public services, primarily in the areas of health and education, add a premium to post-tax income, which, in the case of poorer people, can be as much as 76%. Those at the top of the income scale, on the other hand, receive only around 14%. So it’s clear that freely available public services redistribute wealth in society.

That’s no minor matter, either. It’s been estimated that this “virtual income” reduces inequality in the OECD countries, of which we are one, by 20%.

But too many countries, including our own, are on an “austerity” kick that only lowers this virtual income, and they increase inequality by so doing. In Canada, for example, our prized medicare program is now seriously threatened by changes set out in Harper’s 2014 budget. And the Oxfam report also points out that user fees and privatization, so beloved by Conservatives, effectively take from the poor and give to the rich.

Members of public service unions at all levels of government—federal, provincial/territorial, municipal—deliver health and education services. Cutbacks and “austerity” programs affect us directly, of course, but when we fight back we aren’t only fighting for ourselves. We’re standing up for all Canadians—and more so for our poorer citizens. We’re doing our bit to make this a better, fairer society. And that makes our work in the labour movement even more worthwhile.


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A strike by Nova Scotian nurses against health services provider Capital Health recently took a predictable path. Overtired from working under increasingly tough conditions where understaffing has become the norm, the nurses went on strike to get lower nurse-patient ratios. If ever there was a common interest between strikers and those they serve professionally, this was it: the more patients per nurse, the less adequate is the assistance that an individual patient receives.

Common sense, right? But Capital Health and the Nova Scotia government didn’t see things that way. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) representing the nurses spent weeks in negotiations to come to a fair collective agreement that would establish reasonable nurse-patient ratios. Nothing doing. Stephen McNeil, the Liberal Premier of Nova Scotia, involved himself in the dispute by mocking the nurses’ threat to resign en masse; his government had already legislated home-care workers back to work on March 1. For its part, Capital Health contented itself with petty acts of intimidation.

When the strike deadline approached, McNeil introduced drastic essential services legislation that effectively guts the nurses’ right to strike. This isn’t because nurses actually performing those services would be in danger of striking—they didn’t walk out earlier either. Protocols were agreed to on the spot by labour and management in previous disputes before anyone hit the bricks. But this legislation will permit employers in the health care sector to drag the process on for months, before a strike is legal. And it extends this legislation to tens of thousands of other health workers across the province.

Many nurses, risking heavy fines, walked out last Tuesday to protest the tabling on this legislation before the legal strike period had begun—a so-called “wildcat strike.” The nurses managed a little over a day of legal strike before they were sent back to work by the McNeil government on Thursday. Patient care remains in jeopardy: nurses will continue to be overworked to the point of exhaustion.

Up against a hostile government and an employer that continually ignored their professional concerns, these nurses are some of today’s heroes of labour. Their sheer determination and spirit are undeniable. The action of the Nova Scotia government is part of an escalating pattern of overreach by governments in various Canadian jurisdictions: making even the suggestion of a public service strike illegal in Alberta, for example, or sending postal workers who weren’t even on strike (they had been locked out by Canada Post) back to work with less than the employer’s last offer. The bludgeon of legislation that used to be the exception is now the norm. The right to organize and the right to strike are under heavy attack, both provincially and federally—as we in the PSAC know all too well.

The nurses, however, have sent a strong and clear message: governments may use their legislative powers to bully labour, but this is a war they can’t win. Even making strikes illegal doesn’t prevent workers from walking out. In Alberta, far more illegal strikes in the acute care sector have occurred than in Nova Scotia where such strikes have been legal, and this is also the case elsewhere in Canada.

Nurses have taken on employers and governments before, and they aren’t going back to work quietly in Nova Scotia. The 1999 nurses strike in Saskatchewan, and the Quebec strike that same year, demonstrated rare courage that should inspire us all: their fight is truly our fight, and by “our” I mean all other working Canadians.

In the meantime, message received, Premier McNeil. Lessons are learned. People remember. Whether at the ballot box or in the streets, the fightback across the country has barely begun. And, as always, nurses will be on the front lines.

[Photo credit: CBC]

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Canadian democracy: update

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Mr. Speaker…I intend to oppose this bill that imposes changes to the federal elections act without the consent of the opposition parties. These changes are not necessary and they are also dangerous to the operation of Canadian democracy.

No, not a speech opposing that so-called Fair Elections Act presently before the House of Commons. Click on the link!

The present Bill, being pushed through the House of Commons amid a deafening chorus of opposition across Canada, is so obviously “dangerous to the operation of Canadian democracy” that the country should be figuratively up in arms. But the Minister piloting the bill, Pierre Poilievre, has been arguing that black is white throughout the process, suggesting that rampant electoral fraud has made the changes necessary. This from a member of the party that made robocalls a household word.

I’ve already blogged about the problems with the legislation, and don’t need to repeat them all here. But the question of voter fraud needs some more attention. In a word, it’s a non-problem—at least according to the very expert that Poilievre cited as proof to the contrary. Harry Neufeld is a former BC elections official and the author of a report used by the Minister to allege widespread voter fraud. But Neufeld testified before a Parliamentary committee a few days ago that his report had been misinterpreted by Poilievre—that very few cases of voter fraud occur, and that the current Bill, chasing this phantom, could disenfranchise more than half a million Canadians.

Conservative backbenchers came forward to try to shore up Poilievre’s claims. MP Brad Butt claimed in the House of Commons that he himself had witnessed voter information cards used to commit fraud in the 2011 election. Later he completely retracted that statement, but the Conservatives squelched Opposition demands for an investigation. Then MP Laurie Hawn made a similar claim about the 2006 election, but voter cards, as it happens, were not accepted as ID at that time.

Meanwhile, former Elections Canada chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who had originally given the Bill an “A-“, apparently took a closer look at it, and now says that it puts voting rights at risk. The current chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand (a Harper appointee, incidentally), has expressed similar concerns. As for Neufeld, he stated that Bill C-23 should either be amended or killed outright. In his view, it was intended to “tilt the playing field in one direction…their direction.”

But instead of listening, Poilievre has put his fingers in his ears. Remember, this is no ordinary Bill—it goes to the very root of our democratic system of government, where one might imagine the widest consultations might be held, and a consensus sought. Instead, it will likely be made law essentially unchanged.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, another vast everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Omnibus Bill, 359 pages long, has just been deposited, ensuring that the many pieces of legislation it contains will not get anything approaching proper scrutiny before being passed into law.

“In the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns? We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse?” asked the very same person whose words appear at the top of this post. Too bad we can’t travel backwards in time.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Oliver's twist

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Joe Oliver, formerly the Minister of Natural Resources, is now our Minister of Finance, replacing Jim Flaherty a few days ago. This is quite a step up for a member of Parliament who was first elected in 2011.

It didn’t take Oliver long to get the hang of the Harper government’s style—shaping reality according to Conservative ideology, with a careless disregard for the facts. Every government, of course, filters events and issues through its own political position, choosing what to highlight and what to ignore in its public messages, putting itself in as favourable a light as possible. This is called “spin,” but in Oliver’s case the more appropriate word is “twist.”

As Natural Resources minister, Oliver is perhaps best known for his infamous open letter attacking environmentalists in language that was, to put it mildly, over the top. Expressing sincere concerns about the effect of runaway tar sands development was, in his view, something akin to treason. In his own words, environmentalists and their allies “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

But this was not an isolated case. Oliver was a strong defender of the asbestos industry, claiming, against all scientific evidence, that this substance, linked to cancer and lung disease, was perfectly safe. (Canada’s last asbestos mine was subsequently closed after a national and international outcry. Russia and Zimbabwe have now taken up the slack.)

Oliver was also a climate-change denier, claiming that “scientists” now believe that concern over global warming is “exaggerated.” His source for that statement turned out to be a newspaper columnist.

Under his watch, regulations requiring environmental assessments of oil and gas projects were slashed. This included amendments to the Navigable Waters Act that removed most of our waterways from environmental protection. Almost needless to say, this program of deregulation was buried in omnibus bills that were supposedly about the Conservative government budget.

Oliver has impeccable Bay Street credentials that will serve him well in his new post. A Harvard-educated investment banker, he served as the president of the Investment Dealers Association, and as the executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission.

A scant few days into his new role, his style is already apparent. He claimed that 85% of new jobs created under his government were full-time. He failed to mention that, according to the Chamber of Commerce, the trend is now overwhelmingly towards part-time employment—95% of the new jobs last year were part-time. He said in the same statement that a million new jobs have been created, but since 2009, the figure is only 653,400, 53.4% of them in the low-paid sales and services sector, and 40.6% were temporary. Then he went on to state that our job record is the best among the G-7 countries—a highly misleading claim by any serious measure.

And all of this within 30 seconds, in a single speech he gave in the House of Commons on March 25th. Oliver’s twist, folks. Better get used to it.

[Photo credit: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press]

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

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