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The claim: Public sector workers should not fear a Conservative victory. “They really should not be worried,” Harper said. Is this true?

In the National Post yesterday, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said that federal public sector workers have nothing to fear if his party is re-elected.

He was speaking specifically to public sector workers in the federal bureaucracy, not other workers, like Posties who have everything to fear of a Harper victory.

Should public sector workers breathe easy now that Harper has calmed their fears?

Probably not.

One of the biggest changes that Harper hopes to oversee is to ensure that sick benefits only help people who are “actually ill.” The assertion, of course, is that public sector workers have nothing to fear if they only take sick days when they are sick.

This isn’t actually about sick leave, though the soundbite is a piece of Conservative gold.

This past year, the Conservatives passed Bill C-59 which fundamentally changed how workers could access sick and long-term disability leaves. The changes would pull $900 million worth of benefits away from public sector workers. This change was a key part of how the Conservatives managed to balance this year’s budget.

Federal public sector workers are able to bank sick days to be used when needed. This is most significant when a worker needs to take a short-term leave for illness (fewer than 13 weeks). This benefit was achieved through many rounds of collective bargaining: both the Treasury Board and the workers’ union have agreed to organize sick days in this way.

Under Bill C-59, the Federal government is trying to circumvent the process of collective bargaining and simply impose a new sick day regime. “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 PSAC president Robyn Benson at the time to rabble.ca.This attack on workers’ rights has driven 13 of the 17 unions that represent federal public sector workers to file with the Ontario Superior Court and a Charter Challenge to stop the clear attack on workers’ rights.

If the Conservatives get away with imposing the changes to sick leave, the unions are effectively rendered useless: if management can ignore collective bargaining, the role of protecting workers will no longer be necessary.

The Conservatives have consistently attacked unions since taking power. They have used bureaucratic measures to undermine unions, attack workers and undermined regulations that have made Canadians less safe.

Federal workers have also been targeted for political activity. This week, “Harperman” singalongs are happening across Canada to support Tony Turner, a federal scientist, who wrote and recorded a song that protests Harper’s record. He was subsequently suspended from work after allegations that the song puts him in a conflict of interest. Turner studies migratory birds for Environment Canada.

Public workers who are happy to place their lives in the hands of Stephen Harper might have nothing to fear, but workers who believe in free and fair collective bargaining, who have opinions and who value the neutrality of the bureaucracy should be skeptical of Harper’s promise to be nice.


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Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...