Why labour unions are concerned about the new budget bill -- and you should be too

| November 21, 2013
Photo: flickr/Kim Elliott

It’s almost a yearly tradition now -- with a new session of Parliament comes a new omnibus bill to stir up controversy. This year, Bill C-4 -- the budget implementation bill -- has raised the ire of Canada’s national labour unions, for good reason. And while we might not notice the impacts now, if Bill C-4 passes, we soon will.

So, what’s in this bill?

Bill C-4, like omnibus bills before it, makes amendments and changes to all sorts of legislation. As reported by Macleans, it will extend solicitor-client privilege under the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and potentially give the minister of immigration new powers to approve economic class applicants.

But what changes impact labour?

The bill gives the federal government exclusive right to determine what public services workers are essential -- a designation that is currently negotiated by the employer and the union. Under the current system, if they can’t reach an agreement they go to the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

Bill C-4 simply calls for consultation, after which the government can still declare the workers essential. In this new proposed system, the final decision rests with the government.

And there’s more. If over 80 per cent of workers in a bargaining unit are deemed essential -- essential workers are deemed so if their work is needed to ensure the safety and security of the public -- they go right to arbitration. Do not strike. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $50.

At the same time, the bill dissolves and combines The Public Service Labour Relations Board and the Public Service Staffing Tribunal and creates the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board. This new board will oversee all grievances brought by workers in the federal public service.

Lastly, the bill makes some major changes to the health and safety provisions in the Canada Labour Code -- a statute that applies to all federally regulated industries. As the Labour Code currently stands, officials called health and safety officers, who are designated by the minister of labour, investigate workplaces and deem them dangerous if need be.

If the amendments contained in Bill C-4 pass, the minister would be directly responsibly for leading the investigations, and the definition of "danger" would be "an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it." The current definition notes that the danger only has to be a hazard or condition that could reasonably cause injury or illness.

And why is labour concerned about this?

In a nutshell: unions believe that workers are being stripped of their rights to collectively bargain and protect themselves in unsafe workplaces.

"Obviously we are not pleased with this bill," said Robyn Benson, the president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a union that represents 180,000 workers in the federal public service.

She is concerned that if the bill passes, far more of the workers in PSAC will be deemed essential and thus unable to strike should they decide to do so after a round of bargaining their new contracts with the federal government.

"I think that [Clement] will probably, for example, try to deem every customs officer essential when that’s not in fact the case," she explained. "I don’t believe collecting taxes at the border has anything to do with [that]."

The health and safety concerns extend past the federal public service and include industries like airlines, rail and telecommunications. PSAC representatives believe that the dissolution of the health and safety officers could politicize workplace monitoring and that the new definition of danger leaves too much room for interpretation.

And much like previous omnibus budget bills, the Conservatives are being criticized for including non-budgetary items in Bill C-4, like changing the essential worker designation. "It’s an anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian tactic," said Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP labour critic. He worries that because of the scope of the bill, many of the changes contained within -- including some of sweeping ones concerning labour -- won’t get enough time for proper scrutiny before the parliamentary committees.

Clement declined to be interviewed for this story, but he told The Globe and Mail earlier this month that these changes would transform and modernize "the public service negotiation architecture." He’s told other media that he believes it ridiculous that the government has to negotiate with labour unions to determine what services are essential -- an arrangement that according to Benson had been working with previous Treasury Board presidents, including Vic Towes. According to her, Clement also refused to consult with PSAC during the writing of Bill C-4.

So why make these changes?

Benson believes that these changes are coming for one reason -- the federal public service is negotiating a new collective agreement in 2014 and the federal government is preparing to do battle with the public sector unions. 

She has no plans to stop battling these changes, now or at the bargaining table next year. "We have told this government from the day that I was elected that I was not going to expect any concessions," she said. "And I believe that our membership is solidly behind us and will stand up to be counted."

Clement, for his part, has already started his own campaign to support his cause. He told media that he will stay mum on who is to be deemed essential, but has been sure to stress that it is for the cause of public safety. At question period earlier this month, he also addressed a concern from within his own party about the absenteeism rate of public service workers, noting that he will address the issue next year at the bargaining table.

And what does it mean for the federal public service?

It means that once the new year begins, they may find themselves involved in drawn-out labour negotiations that will have impacts felt beyond federal public service workers. War drums are already beating. On Twitter and in the media, both have Benson and Clement have taken shots at each other.


Clement represents a Tory party where a no compromises attitude has become the norm, and Benson just one of the many union leaders who are relying on labour militancy in the hopes that it will carry them through another round of collective bargaining.

If this were another small town where a private union was up against a private employer, it’s likely the clash would barely register. But because this round of bargaining is taking place on the national stage, it’s more than another union negotiation -- it’s an ideological one.

Bill C-4 is simply a tool that may make it easier for the Conservatives to champion their side. But as neither PSAC nor the federal government will give in easily, we can expect this to be a long and ugly battle.



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