Robyn Benson, PSAC

Climate change is a union issue

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Global warming is once again on the agenda as world leaders gather for the Paris climate change summit.

The time for debating whether or not the climate is changing is long past. It’s too much like arguing whether the earth is flat or round. Instead, some hard decisions need to be made about how to stop it, because the news is not good.

Under the previous government, Canada rated a dismal 58th out of 61 industrialized countries in terms of climate change policy. Our new government must move in a more positive direction. After all, there is really nowhere else to go but up.

Workers and unions can play a role in pushing the new Liberal government. Already the Canadian Labour Congress is pressing ahead with its One Million Climate Jobs campaign. And this Sunday, on the eve of the Paris summit, PSAC and other union members will be turning out in support, marching in Ottawa for a 100% clean energy economy by 2050.

Based on a survey of our members, our own Union has a responsibility to play a strong role in the world-wide efforts to combat climate change, not only for ourselves and our fellow citizens, but for future generations.

PSAC has produced educational tools for our members and the wider public on the global warming crisis and the importance of acting now. We also recognize the specific impacts of global warming on First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples—with whom the Trudeau government is seeking a new partnership after years of neglect.

Prime Minister Trudeau may have identified the environment as a key priority, but his government can’t make up lost ground without the public service. The damaging cutbacks must be reversed, but we need to go much further than that. Canada needs stronger legislation and regulation, more investment in research and policy development, greater consultation with communities and environmental advocates, and public service programs and staff to enforce compliance.

PSAC members who work on the front-line to preserve our environment have been fighting an uphill battle for too long. They’ve been victims of budget cuts and job loss, and their workload has grown to impossible levels. The regulatory tools they have to enforce environmental standards have been blunted. This has to change.

The Paris conference is a good beginning. But for real progress to be achieved here at home, our members need to be a part of it.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Time to rebuild

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October 19 was a turning-point in our history—if we make that history happen.

Enough was enough. Federal public workers got involved in campaigns all across the country, and an unprecedented number ran for office. My congratulations to all the PSAC members who ran as candidates, and to all of the other public service workers who ran and who worked hard on campaigns.

For its part, the PSAC ran an effective campaign against public service cuts—one of the best I can remember.

The Harper government has been driven out, but it left a trail of wreckage in its wake. It’s time to begin the difficult and challenging task of rebuilding—and moving ahead. I’ve got a few ideas how the Prime Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau, could make a fresh new start.

Certainly Mr. Trudeau sent some encouraging signals during the election campaign, in an open letter to federal public sector workers. He promised to restore full collective bargaining rights and quality public services. Elsewhere he promised to repeal anti-labour Bills C-525 and C-377.

And he promised respect.

We will approach the future with an open mind and in a cooperative spirit. And in that spirit, I have reached out to Mr. Trudeau to congratulate him and his caucus, and to suggest an early meeting. We have much to discuss. Here are some priorities for the near future:

• Restore full collective bargaining rights;
• Restore strong health and safety protections in workplaces under federal jurisdiction, watered down by the previous government;
• Repeal anti-labour Bills C-525 and C-377; C-10; C-4; C-59;
• Restore pay equity in the public service, with full union right of representation;
• Re-open the nine veterans’ affairs offices shut down in 2014.

Canadians voted for change. We want to be a part of that. For federal public workers, there seems nowhere to go but up. But the same is true of Canadians in general. In a nutshell, we have to rebuild the public service, brick by brick. We have to rebuild our country.

I’m optimistic that we will. And I, for one, can’t wait to get started.


Robyn Benson, PSAC

Harper: good to go

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…if you catch my drift.

The day after tomorrow is Election Day. You know what you have to do.

Get down to your polling station, if you haven’t already voted. Bring your ID. Enter that polling booth.

Say no to cuts to the public service. Say no to undermining collective bargaining. Say no to weakening health and safety protections in Canadian workplaces. Say no to anti-labour legislation. Say no to deepening corruption. Say no to bigotry. Say no to second-class citizenship. Say no to targeting our veterans. Say no to spying on advocates for First Nations children, or in fact on any activists of any kind in Canada. Say no to muzzling our scientists and even our songwriters. Say no to the persecution of progressive charities by the Canada Revenue Agency. Say no to trashing libraries. Say no to secret treaties that will cost Canadians jobs and money. Say no to incompetent economic management.

Say no to nearly ten years of this stuff. Say no to four more years of it.

But say yes, too, with that same “X.”

Yes to a safe environment, where our waterways are once again protected by law, pollution standards are set and rigorously enforced, and environmental watchdogs are not spied on, slandered and harassed. Yes to workers’ rights and respect for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes to a national childcare program. Yes to improved, quality public services, which benefit all Canadians, and make our economy strong. Yes to a Canada where our veterans are well-respected and cared for. Yes to a genuine partnership with indigenous peoples, an end to trauma, poverty and neglect. Yes to a Canada free of officially-sanctioned racism. Yes to a decent refugee policy that provides a home for desperate men, women and children fleeing war: immigrants and refugees helped to build this country, and will continue to do so. Yes to democracy: proportional representation, a Parliament held in respect, not contempt, and laws that encourage rather than suppress the vote.

We are blessed to live in a country so rich in resources and potential. But we are falling behind: there’s rising inequality, less innovative research, less democracy. The young generation is worse off than their parents were. Secure, well-paying jobs are being replaced by precarious jobs with no security or benefits.

What kind of a future for us and our kids is that?

The good news is that we have the power to do something about it—to turn things around. That’s a long-term project, for sure; it will take some time to repair the damage, and to move forward to the Canada of our dreams, the Canada we are leaving for our children, and for theirs. But, as the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step. Let’s take that step on Monday.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The Trans-Pacific Partnership--a key election issue

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Here we go again—with less than two weeks to go before Canadians were to decide on their new government, the old Conservative government signed a tentative trade agreement that will (if ratified) have a profound impact on the future of Canada. And the worse news is, we are voting in an election without knowing much of what is in the deal.

What we do know is that a lot of things that Canadians hold very dear were on the table and the Conservative government was looking to trade them away: public services, extended patent protection for Big Pharma, and giveaways in agriculture and the auto sector. Yet the negotiations have been in secret—so secretly, in fact, that 70% of Canadians have never heard of the TPP. Workers have had absolutely no input into this process, and opposition parties have been kept in the dark. But corporate lobbyists have been front and centre throughout.

Harper has pledged to put the treaty, once it is written up as a legal document, to a ratification vote in Parliament. But if re-elected, he could decide not to do that and use what is called Royal Prerogative to force the deal. Or, he could ignore Parliament if the vote doesn’t go his way—it would just be a non-binding motion, without legal force. (Read 6.2 and 6.3 of the treaty-tabling process here.)

Here are just a few things to be worried about.

First, the trade agreement may require that Crown Corporations (like the CBC, Canada Post and others where PSAC members work) may have to be run solely for profit. In fact, government support for any service that can also be provided by the private sector could be considered an unfair subsidy and be subject to lawsuits launched by international corporations. These legal challenges would then get decided by secretive and unelected trade tribunals.

I am not being paranoid. Canada already gets sued a lot under NAFTA. Even legislating against the use of a dangerous, polluting additive to gasoline meant that we had to pay off a wealthy corporation, and agree to let them go on pumping these toxins into the air. (Thankfully, this additive has now been phased out.)

The fear of being sued is going to send a chill on government activity, that’s for sure. And the terms of the agreement will be used as an excuse to open up the federal public service to more privatization. Under free trade agreements, this is a one-way process. Reinstituting government control of privatized services would leave us open to more lawsuits. Our public healthcare system could be devastated by the treaty’s provisions. And those who are already spending far too much for pharmaceutical drugs will be paying even more. Patents will be extended, making cheaper generic drugs less available. The cost of life-saving drugs, in fact, will rise substantially around the world, affecting the poorest countries most.

Will the TPP be good for Canadian business? Certainly not for the dairy sector, which will now have to be subsidized to keep afloat. And the estimated effect on the auto sector will be the loss of 24,000 jobs. You really have to wonder how good a deal this can be for Canada when Stephen Harper had to immediately promise a big chunk of money to the auto industry to compensate for losses. What of our economy as a whole? Even the pro-business press is sceptical about its benefits.

The TPP draft document has already become an election issue, as well it should. Both of the main opposition parties have pledged a careful review of the TPP, once the final document becomes available. Thomas Mulcair has stated flatly that he will not be bound by the Harper goverment’s decision. The Liberal promise, though, is somewhat vaguer, promising “consultation.”

Obviously, close study of all of the details of the TPP is essential. But for those of us who were excluded from the process—nearly everybody in the country—we can’t trust it. Right now, the TPP is just one more reason to vote out the Conservatives.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Vote for change

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In the last federal election, nearly four in ten eligible voters stayed away from the polls. You’ve heard it all before—“Why waste my time? Voting won’t change anything.”

Not so. In 2011, Harper “won” a majority government—with the support of 24% of the electorate. You read right. Turnout of registered voters was 61.1%. Harper received only 39.2% support from those who cast a ballot.

Here’s another figure that should wake people up. In 2011, the Conservatives had a 14-seat majority. Also, in 14 of the most closely-fought ridings in Canada, the combined number of votes that gave the Conservatives their majority was 6,201. One of those races (Nipissing-Timiskaming) was decided by 14 votes. 27,887 registered voters didn’t vote. Think about that. All of that. Voting can’t change anything, eh? Guess again.

I have to admit that the current cynicism about voting gets to me, not just because we lost races to the Harper Conservatives that we could have won. I think about how hard it was to win the right to cast a ballot in the first place. Voting used to be a male-only privilege, for those men who owned property. Women fought hard to get the vote: activists were beaten, jailed and tortured. Aboriginal peoples did not win the right to vote until the 1960s.

We know that voting is not the only way of making our voices heard. Democracy between elections is every bit as important as democracy at the voting booth. But our vote—now, more than ever—can make a lasting difference.

I know that some claim, as they do in every election, that I and other union leaders are “telling members how to vote” and that’s just the wrong thing to do. But, honestly, that’s not what is happening. We give our opinions, we talk about the interests of the membership, and we stress the need to vote, and I think that’s the proper thing to do. The fact is, quality public services, collective bargaining and workplace rights are important to the members and to our union.

Given what we’ve all had to put up with from the Harper Conservatives over the last near-decade—cutbacks, anti-union legislation, contempt for the valuable work our members do—my own views about the current government are well-known. But views don’t elect governments: people do. Get out there to an advance poll, or to the polls on October 19, and exercise your rights. If you want change, now is your moment.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

I dreamed I ran a leaders' debate

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Leaders’ debates—like the one last night—are all about what those asking the questions think is important. And what the leaders themselves are prepared to say about policy in the middle of an election campaign. But there always seems to be something…missing.

I had a dream where I got to ask the questions. By the way, Elizabeth May was up there on the podium as well. It was an inclusive dream; all points of view were permitted.

You know, I can’t remember the answers. But I can remember the questions. They all seemed to deal with working people, who do make up, after all, the majority of Canadians.

Pensions: If you form the next government, what are you prepared to do to lift seniors out of poverty by improving the CPP/QPP? How will you help the two-thirds of Canadian workers who have no workplace pension plans? Will you shelve the notion, once and for all, of so-called “target benefit plans?”

Workplace health and safety: Will you reverse the watering down of health and safety protections in federal sector workplaces? What would you do to strengthen them instead?

Public services: Public services have been cut back to the point that many Canadians (for example, veterans) are no longer receiving what they need, lives have been put in danger, the environment is threatened, and even our food safety is no longer assured. Will you continue this trend, or reverse it? If you agree that quality public services are vital to a healthy society, what measures would you take to rebuild the federal public service?

Labour rights: The government has recently passed two anti-labour Bills. There was C-377, which drowns unions in paperwork, puts them at a disadvantage with employers, and violates the privacy rights of Canadian workers. No other organization in Canada is subject to these massive intrusions by government. And Bill C-525 deliberately makes it more difficult to organize unions in the first place. My question: will you repeal these Bills?

Collective bargaining: In the federal public sector, the government has recently passed legislation that determines the outcome of collective bargaining before it has concluded, with respect to sick leave. Do you agree or disagree with this approach to bargaining?

Information: What measures will you take to ensure that scientists can discuss their findings with the media and with other scientists, so that the public can be better informed? What are you prepared to do to preserve government library holdings and rebuild Library and Archives Canada?

Canadian charities: Canadians are a charitable people, and they have many charities to choose from. Recently, however, progressive charities like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have been audited by the Canada Revenue Agency for allegedly being “too political.” Auditing is a time-consuming and expensive process that could force smaller charities to shut down. Even a birdwatching society was threatened with loss of charitable status. Yet conservative organizations with charitable status, like the Fraser Institute, seem to have escaped this process. What measures are you prepared to take to ensure an even-handed approach by the CRA? What will you do to clarify precisely what is meant by “political activity?”

Proportional representation: The polls are presently showing something like a three way-split in voter preferences. That could mean a majority government could be achieved with as little as 34% of the popular vote. Do you believe that electoral reform is necessary to ensure that our House of Commons adequately reflects the preferences of Canadian voters? If yes, what specific steps would you take to bring that about?

Foreign policy: Working conditions in Third World countries can be dangerous, as we have seen in countries like Bangladesh. Forming unions can be hazardous as well. As Prime Minister, what steps would you take—including economic sanctions—to encourage compliance of these countries with International Labour Organization standards?

That debate just raced along, and the audience reactions were lively, to say the least. I thanked everyone politely—and then I woke up.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pensions--one of the most important reasons to vote out the Conservatives

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If you still need a reason to vote for a change in government on October 19th, think pensions. It was recently confirmed through a freedom of information request that the Conservatives are drafting legislation aimed at taking away the promise of a secure pension from federally regulated workers. If the Conservatives are re-elected, that draft will become law.

I’ve already said plenty about the Conservatives threat to encourage “target benefit plans” as a substitute for defined benefit plans. Briefly, what members have now is a guaranteed pension at the end of their service based on a set formula. But with a “target benefit plan,” the pension is not guaranteed, even after you retire. The PSAC made a detailed submission on this more than a year ago, shortly after the “target” concept was floated by Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State for Finance.

Here’s a little background.

At the time, Treasury Board minister Tony Clement called me to say that this proposal would only apply to workers in the federally-regulated sector, not to the public service. His hands were already full with an attempted roll-back of our sick leave.

But he didn’t shut the door either. “Not during this round of talks,” he said. Then, Sorenson’s proposal seemed to vanish without a trace.

Until now.

Thanks to an Access to Information request filed by Blacklock’s Reporter, an online newsmagazine, we’ve learned that the Harper government has been drafting legislation since last November to strip away pension security for federally-regulated workers, despite Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s statement this past April that no changes would be made without the consent of the retirees. A private letter from Oliver to the chairman of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission reaffirmed what’s been going on behind the scenes: “The introduction of Target Benefit Pension Plans will be an important innovation in Canada and will complement recent efforts by the government to further strengthen Canada’s retirement income system.”

So the issue has not gone away. Just the reverse, in fact.

We’ve already seen the Harper government chipping away at our members’ pensions, raising the eligibility age for young workers and increasing the contribution rate. If these new weakened pension plans are going to be legislated for federally-regulated workers, why wouldn’t Harper do it to us?

Can we accept his government’s assurances, given that his finance minister has now been caught in a lie? Do we have any reason whatsoever to think Harper will leave our pensions alone, out of the goodness of his heart?

And now we have the grim news that Harper is leading in at least one poll. “Closing in on majority territory,” we’re told.

Oh, well, maybe it’s a blip. Things have changed week by week during the campaign so far—perhaps they’ll change back, right?

I say, let’s not leave anything to chance.

Try to imagine what yet another Harper government would do to your pensions. Then go round up ten friends and neighbours and drive them to the polls yourself on October 19 if you have to. You really can’t afford not to.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Refugee crisis--doing the right thing

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The before and after pictures, above, say it all. Most of us have seen the first one. The anguished father and his family made it to Germany, as it turns out, where they now have a chance to live normal lives in a safe environment.

More than four million Syrians have fled their country; another seven million have been displaced within it, as civil war rages. Germany is prepared to take 800,000 refugees fleeing war and persecution—fully 1% of its population.

In Canada, the equivalent would be 350,000 refugees.

Number of Syrian refugees actually admitted to Canada? 2,374 since January 2014.

Number of Syrian refugees pre-approved for immigration, to be privately sponsored by Canadians? Nine.

Cutbacks at Citizenship and Immigration have already created huge backlogs in the system.

Now, unbelievably, the Harper government is cutting positions at the Canada Immigration and Refugee Board.

Yes, you read right.

It’s not the way Canada used to do things. We airlifted 5,000 refugees from Uganda in 1972, another 5,000 people from Kosovo in the 1990s, and assisted with the resettlement of 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80. Front-line workers were flown to remote islands in the South Pacific to process the Vietnamese refugees. The official who oversaw that airlift noted, “When the sun went down, they would light oil lamps and they would continue until they couldn’t keep their eyes open.”

But the Harper government has a different approach.

The government was unwelcoming to refugees throughout its four terms. It took a federal court decision to force Harper to provide adequate medical coverage for refugee claimants: the judge called their treatment “cruel and unusual.” Almost needless to say, the government is spending tax dollars appealing this ruling. Ontario decided to pick up the slack, restoring the needed healthcare—and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander had the nerve to scold the province for stepping in.

Roadblocks have been put in the way of refugees every step of the way. Far from the streamlined measures used for the Vietnamese years ago, desperate applicants must wait up to four years for a review by Canadian visa officials. Worse, it appears that the Harper government wants to pick and choose refugees based on their religion.

This is plain wrong, when the world is facing the gravest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. We need immediate measures put in place, not more empty election campaign talk. I am proud that our union has added its voice to those of so many other Canadians who want to help, moved by the human plight of so many millions of displaced people.

10,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end would be a good start. Our front line workers stand ready and willing to assist, but we need a lot of obstacles removed, and sufficient resources to deal with the new arrivals.

That photo of a drowned child whose family wanted to come to Canada made it personal for me and all Canadians. We can’t, we mustn’t, turn away. It’s not who we are.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Harper's skulking Conservatives

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The text above says a good deal, if not all, about Harper’s current election campaign—and about the man and his party. It’s a body-search agreement, which must be signed by anyone privileged to attend invitation-only Conservative rallies and other gatherings. There are no public meetings.

Journalists are roped off, allowed no more than a total of five questions during a Harper rally, and roundly booed by noisy partisans when they try to ask them. And even after these staged events, they can expect to be confronted and cursed at by Harper’s entourage.

Democracy is best done in the full light of day, not in darkness. That’s what election campaigns are supposed to be all about, and what they have been all about—until now. Debate. Tough questions. All-candidates’ meetings. Lots of media coverage. Informing, or at least courting, the voters. And hearing from voters, too.

In an earlier post I talked about the Harper preference for silence. I noted a couple of instances where Conservative candidates were making themselves scarce, in line with a Conservative policy of ducking the media during the campaign.

That policy is clear, and actually applies across Canada: “No debates and no media,” the candidates have been told. And nearly all of them have obeyed.

One can see, perhaps, why Conservatives, running on their records, are eager to keep out of sight. But that’s not the main point here.

Democracy requires accountability and transparency, neither of which have appealed to the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. (There is no need to name examples at this point: if you haven’t been asleep since Harper took power in 2006, you can come up with a pretty long list of your own.) What is happening during this campaign isn’t all that unusual, in fact, except in degree. But somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.

An election campaign should be open to the voting public, not just to select groups of well-scrubbed partisans applauding on cue. The fact that this point even has to be made is upsetting enough. On October 19, let’s be sure to make a democratic point of our own.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

The Con of Silence

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To Stephen Harper, silence is golden.

In my last post I noted a recent memo from a higher-up at the Department of Justice, trying to intimidate public service workers who want to get involved in the current election campaign. Now a member of our sister union PIPSC is in hot water. For what? Singing a song.

No, this isn’t satire. Tony Turner is a well-known member of the Ottawa folk scene. He’s perhaps best known for the often-performed “Circle of Song,” but he wrote another song more recently—watch the video, above—called “Harperman.”

Most people probably didn’t know that Tony was a federal public service worker—a scientist at Environment Canada, nearing retirement—but they sure do now. And that’s thanks to his bosses, who saw his song “Harperman” on YouTube and literally made a federal case out of it.

Tony has never identified himself as a public employee while on the folk circuit. But he’s been sent home, suspended, while his department “investigates” him for an alleged breach of the public service Values and Ethics Code. His work in habitat planning at Environment Canada has somehow been compromised by his singing.

But Tony isn’t alone. Parks employees in Banff have been forbidden to speak about the wolves that have been wandering into town, bears on the railway lines, and successful rescue operations. And all of these matters are routine, operational aspects of their jobs. Wolves on the main street, furthermore, might be considered a matter of public safety. But even this news had to go through channels, and the public found out only a week after the incident.

Then there are the Conservative candidates themselves, obediently droning identical talking points. They’ve evidently been told to stay out of sight: one candidate, if you can believe it, said he would only give interviews after the election. The mayor of Ottawa discovered that local Conservative candidates were—all nine of them—unable to meet with him to discuss Ottawa issues. Mayor Watson tweeted about that—and only then did Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre promise upcoming meetings.

The Harper muzzle is by now well-known—free scientific discussion has been shut down under his rule, for example. Artists and novelists have been hounded. But the situation has now become almost comical, in an unfunny way.

We’re in the midst of a federal election campaign. Harper’s own candidates are slinking around in the shadows. A folk artist is suspended by his federal government department for exercising his political rights in song. Parks employees are forbidden to warn the public about wild animals.

October 19 is the day we can vote to put an end to these loopy goings-on. A pity we have to wait that long.

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