With repeal of Bill C-4 in sight, public sector unions adjust for a new round of bargaining

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The Liberals are raising expectations among Canada's public servants once again with its announcement this week that a repeal of unfair bargaining legislation enacted under Bill C-4 is in the works.

Treasury Board president Scott Brison announced on Wednesday that the repeal (relating to division 17 of the Tory government's Bill C-4) is due to be tabled in Parliament's fall session.

Three of Canada's public service unions, currently engaged in negotiations over collective agreements that expired two years ago, have called on the government to honour its intention by implementing interim measures to ensure progress at the bargaining table.

Contract renegotiations made little progress under the Stephen Harper administration. While public sector unions had hoped for change with Justin Trudeau -- who campaigned on a promise of improving relations between civil servants and the federal government -- negotiations have continued to be difficult.

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) -- which represents nearly 60,000 members -- said an immediate change in bargaining rules would greatly benefit ongoing contract negotiations.

"We appreciate the opportunity to work with a little bit more goodwill with this government… [but] what we're concerned about is how we have a fair round of bargaining in the current round of collective bargaining. That will require some creative interim measures that the government will hopefully be ready to commit to," Daviau said.

Under Bill C-4 rules, bargaining is heavily skewed in favour of the government as unions have few rights when negotiations reach an impasse.

The bill, which amended the Public Service Relations Act, means the government can effectively decide which unions can choose to go to arbitration and which ones are allowed to strike. 

It also removes the impartiality of the arbitration route, giving preference to criteria favouring the government when settlement offers are made. Union input over the designation of essential workers -- who are not allowed to strike -- is also not required under C-4.

A constitutional challenge against C-4 filed by a coalition of Canada's 18 public sector unions, which includes PIPSC, is due to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada next month. 

"We know that this is what is driving the government to consider repealing the legislation because they've got a losing case in court," Daviau said.

Last year's decision from the court in favour of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour over a similar provincial law that restricted which workers were allowed to strike has strengthened the case of the federal unions.

"In order for us to not pursue that matter through the court -- which is certainly not our desire -- we would need some commitment from the government on its undertaking to repeal the legislation and also what types of interim measures will be put in place to ensure this round of bargaining can proceed fairly," she said.

Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, agreed with Daviau.

For many of her members, amendment of arbitration rules would make a significant difference.

"I represent policy analysts, economists, statisticians -- this is my biggest group and there's 12,000 of them throughout government.

"That group has never ever taken a conciliation strike in its history. Right now, in the current state of affairs, we are on a conciliation strike route."

Arbitration is normally this unit's preferred route if negotiations break down, however, the current legislation enacted under C-4 stacks the deck in favour of the employer -- making the strike route a better option, she said.

"We would need to have a clear commitment in writing that the intention and the actual arbitration would be unfolding with an equal balance of factors [before agreeing to this]."

Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the announcement signaled " an attempt to correct some of the harm done by the Conservatives."

"We are looking forward to further discussions to ensure that this round of bargaining will be conducted in a fair manner."

A spokesman for the Treasury Board confirmed the government would "work with the public sector unions to ensure interim solutions are in line with the government’s intent to repeal the offending provisions."


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/Jason Truscott

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