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Federal public service under attack

By: 
Peter Votsch

August 1, 2014

As they approach the end of their current collective agreements, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) faces a federal government bent on attacking those who provide public services, and bent on rolling back the gains of the past.
 
PSAC, which includes 17 component unions, all of which work for federal government agencies, will begin bargaining new collective agreements in early 2015, as their current agreements run out at the end of the year.
 
Before proposals have even been exchanged, Tony Clement, the Treasury Board President, has signalled that the Harper Tories will seek to remove the sick benefits of federal public servants. Clement announced early in July that public sector workers take significantly more sick days than private sector workers, and as such are “abusing” their sick leave. In its place, he has proposed a Short Term Disability (STD) program to replace the 1.5 bankable sick days currently earned each month by federal workers. In addition, he has already introduced a “wellness and productivity program,” designed to force ill or injured workers back to work earlier.
 
Sick Days
Clement’s announcement was designed to re-ignite a poisonous debate in which unionized federal public sector workers get generous benefits, such as vast sick banks, that private workers don’t have. Financially well-endowed corporate pundits then insist that public sector workers should earn no more in benefits (or pay) than those in the private sector, in this way masking their attacks on benefits earned by unionized workers in their entirety.
 
Clement and friends, having little use for factual detail, are trying to win public sympathy by comparing apples and oranges. Any comparison between use of sick days has to begin with a look at the dangers faced in the various jobs performed, and the age (older workers tend to be off more) and sex of the workforce involved (in predominantly female workplaces, for example, women, apart from taking pregnancy leave, are also most often burdened with the care of children and elderly family members, therefore taking more time off).
 
Conversely, many non-union private sector workers have little or no sick bank, and must use vacation days etc. when sick, or simply take leave, or even end their employment when faced with serious illness or injury—none of which is counted in overall survey of sick days taken.
 
When Statistics Canada did a comparison of public vs. private sick days used, taking such factors into account, they found no significant difference between the public and private sectors. It should come as no surprise that Statistics Canada itself has come under sustained assault by the federal Tories.
 
Tory STD
Clement is airing the STD he proposes to replace the current sick bank months before negotiations begin. PSAC had been participating in a joint committee to look at STD options in the federal public service, but have been forced to withdraw now that Clement has stated he will impose a plan on them.
 
For an insight into what the Tories may have in store for federal public servants, one needs to look no further than the recent STD plan imposed on postal workers by a federal arbitrator. In that case, postal workers are only re-imbursed for 70 per cent of their income when they are sick, and it only kicks in after one week, with no retroactivity. For more serious medical issues, workers are forced to apply for Employment Insurance (EI) after 15 weeks (about 55 per cent income replacement). The STD is administered by a private insurer, providing a built-in profit based incentive to deny benefits. Worst of all, the STD is not written into the Collective Agreement, meaning the unfair provision of sick pay cannot be grieved.
 
Bill C-4
To make this bitter pill all the more easy to force on federal public servants, the Tories have included in the proposed omnibus Bill C-4—the “Budget Implementation Act”—serious attacks on bargaining rights and Health & Safety. They hope to have this passed by the new year, when negotiations with PSAC are slated to begin.
 
Bill C-4 will allow the federal government to unilaterally define what constitutes an “essential worker,” who will not have the right to strike. Such workers will be also be forced to report back to work when the employer wishes, and will be deemed to be “on-call” during their time off. If 80 per cent of a federal department’s workers are deemed “essential,” their settlement will be forced into the hands of arbitrators.
 
To make sure an arbitration board does not rule in favour of the Union, the Tories have re-defined the jurisdiction of arbitration boards to include the employer’s “ability to pay” (memories of Ontario’s Bill 115?). To add insult to injury, the chair of such arbitration boards will be political appointees, and will have unilateral power to reject any settlement proposed by other Board members.
 
Bill C-4 further proposes to limit the grievance procedure, give fewer rights to laid-off workers and limit human rights complaints. It includes a significant attack on worker’s health & safety by redefining “danger” as “imminent risk” in federal “right to refuse” provisions, limiting a worker’s right to refuse unsafe work.
 
PSAC has rightly pointed out that C-4 is an attempt to weaken the collective bargaining process before it begins, leaving the union on its heels when the Tories put their STD proposal on the table. By deeming large numbers of workers “essential,” the Tories can weaken PSAC’s ability to carry out a successful strike, as many workers will not be able to participate.
 
Resistance
Needless to say, there needs to be a major heads up by trade unionists everywhere. Provincial governments have launched attacks on bargaining rights and the Rand Formula (Saskatchewan’s Bill 85, Ontario’s Hudak Tories). The Harper government is trying to kick-start these attempts by attacking workers in the federal sector. Most workers in Canada are governed by provincial labour legislation, and we best be mindful that we are in the sights of employers, private and public, everywhere.
 
PSAC must not fight alone. We need to think about solidarity now, especially around the planned destruction of hard earned sick benefits. One way to clearly demonstrate the labour movement has a pulse is to join the “Save Canada Post” campaign of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which is supported by a majority of Canadians.
 
Saving our public postal service could be the tonic our movement desperately needs, and the black eye the Harper Tories so desperately deserve.
 
Peter Votsch is Chief Steward of CUPE Local 3202, and writes in a personal capacity

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