Public sector bargaining: The new boss looks a lot like the old boss

| March 9, 2016
Photo: flickr/ Canada 2020

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The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) returned to the bargaining table this week for a second round of contract negotiations under Justin Trudeau's Liberal government.

Labour reporter Teuila Fuatai looks at what we can expect from the talks.

The situation so far

The collective agreements for five PSAC bargaining units, representing nearly 100,000 public servants, expired in the summer of 2014.

While bargaining with the Treasury Board began under Stephen Harper's government, the Conservatives' resolve to minimize the collective bargaining process and weaken union powers -- through legislation like Bill C-59 -- meant little progress was made in the past two years.

When bargaining resumed in February, representatives at PSAC were hopeful for a fresh perspective from the new Liberal government.

However, contract proposals tabled by the Treasury Board -- under the stewardship of president Scott Brison -- indicated a significantly different situation.

Major issues

PSAC believed the Liberal government's move to reverse parts of C-59, which enabled the elimination of the sick leave plan from its collective agreement, as well as its mandate for improved relations with unions signalled a more amicable environment at the negotiating table.

However, the new government's proposal to continue with the removal of the sick leave plan, while continuing to reverse the appropriate C-59 legislation, made it apparent negotiations were unlikely to be as clean as PSAC had anticipated.

"There were some improvements but certainly we were looking to improvements to the sick leave and not a continuation of the short-term disability program," PSAC president Robyn Benson told ipolitics after last month's negotiations.

"The Liberals had [made] huge promises over their campaign about bringing forward a new mandate but there was very little indication that there was going to be change."

According to the Conservatives, elimination of the sick leave plan would have created $900 million in savings for the federal government. 

The savings estimate was based on the amount of sick leave civil servants had accumulated over the years. PSAC vehemently disputed the figure, and said the liability amount being touted by the Conservatives did not exist.

Following the February negotiations, the Treasury Board told reporters that while reversing the C-59 legislation was "the right thing to do" it did not mean the government supported rolling over the same sick leave benefit system from old contracts.

In addition to the sick leave changes, PSAC also raised concerns over the government's commitment to repealing changes made under Bill C-4.

C-4 minimized the rights of public service employees in collective bargaining, including the right to strike, and undermined health and safety provisions for workers.

So far, the Treasury Board has only committed to consultation meetings with public sector groups to discuss the legislation.

PSAC representatives have also outlined fair wage increases and reasonable treatment for members contending with changes in service delivery as negotiation focus points.

What Trudeau promised

An open letter to public servants from Trudeau during the federal election campaign promised a new era in government and union relations.

Sent in September, Trudeau stated his government would be committed to "bargaining in good faith with public sector unions".

"The Liberal Party of Canada opposed the provisions in the Conservatives' Bill C-59, which will create a new sick leave regime, implemented through legislation, completely outside the collective bargaining process," the letter said.

Trudeau also addressed changes ushered in under C-4 and acknowledged it "stacked the deck against workers with regards to their choice of dispute resolution and arbitration."

"We will consult with unions to revision the offending C-4 legislation," he stated.

These promises have been cited by PSAC as expectations during the negotiating process. 

Looking ahead

Outcomes from this week in Ottawa will determine what happens next for PSAC.

When asked about the current negotiations, the union declined to comment -- saying all interviews would be deferred until the conclusion of this round of bargaining.

Another round of bargaining has already been planned for April.

 

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/ Canada 2020

 

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