As the federal government approaches its summer recess, one of the Conservative government's top priorities is to get the Budget Implementation Act, Bill C-59, passed in both the House and the Senate. Public service unions are watching the progress of the bill closely, and preparing to fight for the rights of public employees.
Along with budget implementation legislation, Bill C-59 contains numerous other legislative changes including retroactively changing the access to information laws to protect the RCMP from criminal charges, amendments to the Canada Labour Code and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and changes to the collective bargaining process for federal employees.
It's this last part that has federal public sector unions calling foul play.
"There is no consultation with this government, let's be clear. They have made unilateral changes without a rhyme or reason or a consultation with either PSAC or any other union for that matter," said Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) president Robyn Benson.
The sick day and disability-related leave provisions for unionized federal employees are the issue.
Article 20 of the Bill "authorizes the Treasury Board to establish and modify, despite the Public Service Labour Relations Act, terms and conditions of employment related to the sick leave of employees who are employed in the core public administration," thus circumventing the collective bargaining process.
Simply put, if the unions and the Treasury Board do not reach an agreement on sick day provisions during their ongoing negotiations, the government can unilaterally impose new short-term and long-term disability programs on unionized public employees.
"What they certainly have done is said that they will reach in, anytime in the four years, pull [sick leave] out of the collective agreement and impose a short-term disability program on us," said Benson.
"What we have articulated to the government is that we have no intention of our members having to make a choice to either go to work sick or have a full paycheque,"said Benson. "With the short-term disability program that the government is wanting to implement, their ideology is that all folks now will have to have some element of leave without pay, which nobody can afford."
When Benson put negotiations on hold in early May, Finance Minister Tony Clement tried to paint a picture of recalcitrant union leaders, hoping to keep their plush employment perks. But Benson tells another story that casts the fiscal efficiency of Clement's plan into doubt.
Under current sick leave provisions, union members earn 9.37 hours of sick leave per month. If those hours are not used, they accumulate so that in the case of a major illness or short-term disability, those accumulated hours can be used. After 13 weeks of leave, a long-term disability program kicks in. New hires can have sick days advanced to them if they have not banked enough hours to meet their circumstances.
Most importantly for this debate is the fact that when a person retires or leaves their job, their sick day bank disappears. They are not paid out at any time.
Clement has argued that scrapping the current sick pay provisions will give the Treasury Board $900 million to put towards the national deficit. But the $900 million is not an actual sum that can be moved from one place to another.
"Quite frankly, we've asked Mr. Clement many times, where do you get this figure from and how do you think you can do that, when the 9.75 hours is never put separate and apart," said Benson, referring to the fact that banked sick days are never accounted for or paid out in monetary terms unless they are used.
"It's truly an insurance policy. We all insure our houses. We all insure our cars, hoping that nothing will happen. We accumulate our [sick days] hoping that nothing will happen. And if something catastrophic happens, then we would have the sick leave to carry us," explained Benson. "But it is certainly not something that we just use whenever we feel like it," he said.
Ripe for a Charter challenge
Debi Daviau is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). She says that while her union hopes to keep its sick leave provisions, their concerns have more to do with the way the government would go about about implementing clawbacks.
"Why it's such a problem is it runs roughshod over collective bargaining rights," said Daviau. "For the government it's about sick leave, for us it's about constitutional rights, and democracy, and services to Canadians."
Benson wholeheartedly agrees, noting that "there are ways to do this other than by gutting a collective agreement."
Both unions have vowed to challenge C-59 in the courts, arguing that by interfering with collective bargaining, the Budget Implementation Act violates their members' constitutional rights.
The unions feel they have a pretty good chance of winning the case, given that a historic Supreme Court ruling earlier this year has enshrined labour rights under Section 2.d of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of association.
This would not be the first time that the unions have turned to courts over a budget implementation bill. federal unions joined forces to challenge Bill C-4, the 2013 act, which gave the federal government's Treasury Board the right to determine what constitutes an essential service, which workers are denied the right to strike, and which collective agreements will be decided through arbitration. Bill C-4 also gives the minister of labour the authority to throw out unsafe work refusal complaints without investigation, leaving employees who refuse unsafe work open to discipline or even dismissal.
That case is still being heard.
Service cuts should be the focus of negotiations, unions say
While sick leave has become the centre of attention in this round of bargaining, the unions says that they have many other issues they feel are more pressing, and wish were being addressed in negotiations.
Benson says that PSAC has tabled proposals that would address their concerns about mental health and abuse in the workplace. They have also tabled demands with the hopes of improving public services, such as reopening some of the Veterans' Affairs offices that were closed last year, and increasing the staff in Employment Insurance (EI) offices to reduce the wait times that people face when collecting EI.
"Right now I would imagine that Canadians are having a very difficult time getting services because we just don't have enough folks doing the work," said Benson. "Those that are doing the work are overburdened. Harassment is running rampant in the workplace, there are mental health issues, it's really not a good environment to be working in."
Daviau says that her union, which represents most of the federal government's scientists as well as other professionals, are also hoping to fight the downgrading of services and muzzling of scientists.
Both union presidents noted several recent cutbacks, including an unhealthy reduction in the number of food inspectors, cuts to the Canadian Revenue Agency that make it harder to catch corporate tax fraud, and the closure of a dozen Coast Guard communication centres.
"Departments are down to their bare bones. They can't accommodate pens, much less the cost of living increases for their operations and for salaries," said Daviau. "Their capacity to be able to deliver these programs is so diminished, they are just dying a slow death. A death by a thousand cuts."
While these are not the type of issues traditionally breached at the bargaining table, Benson believes that the current government has left them no choice.
"Because the cuts have been so deep and so ill-thought. We are really in a position where we have to bring it to the table," said Benson. "It's a very different round of negotiations because it's a very different government."
Both unions have committed resources to mobilizing their memberships to stop Harper in the upcoming election.
This a first for PIPSC, which has historically remained neutral in federal elections. Neither union is endorsing a particular candidate or party, but rather are planning to inform their members and the general public about what they feel the current government has done to downgrade public services.
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.
Photo: flickr/ Ocean Networks Canada