by David Bush and Doug Nesbitt
The latest hack-and-slash budget implementation bill, Bill C-59, from Harper and his twitter-trolling President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, passed third reading in the House of Commons on June 9 and passed third reading in the Senate on June 22. Parliament was sitting longer hours in the stretch before the summer hiatus in order to push through this and other reactionary bills.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the civil liberties-busting Bill C-51. But Bill C-59 has garnered far less attention, except for the part where it retroactively exonerates the RCMP for destroying gun registry data that was subject to an Access To Information request.
But in fact C-59 has just as serious consequences for workers as Bill C-51. It grants power to the Treasury Board to unilaterally write into collective agreements the sick leave and short term disability program (STDP) clauses of hundreds of thousands of federal government workers.
Tony Clement claims that the government wants to negotiate, but there is fear that the Treasury Board reps will simply use the law as a hammer at the bargaining table, saying “sign now, or live with something worse later.”
Clement claims there is $900 million to save for the taxpayers. But sick leave actually has a negligible cost, since most employers don’t “backfill” for those absent. Sick workers merely continue to draw the same pay while sick that they would have while working. Clement is counting it as a liability.
The sick leave proposal currently offered at bargaining tables would discontinue the banking of sick leave and reduce the number of days from 15 to 6. If a worker uses up their leave they must apply for STDP to kick in. But there is a one week unpaid “waiting period” built in. The deal is similar to what was forced on the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in the 2011 battle against the Tories – and the scheme is terrible.
Clement claims this plan is intended to address the real problem of newer workers not having sick leave banked. But collective agreements already include the possibility of an advance on sick leave for anyone who doesn’t have enough days banked. And there are many other alternatives that could be considered.
When the bill was first introduced in early May the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC), the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) and the unions with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) strongly denounced the bill as bargaining via legislation. The unions signed a solidarity pact to fight concessions on sick leave and pursue a common negotiating strategy on the issue.
PIPSC President Debi Daviau stated, “Bill C-59 stacks the deck against unions at the bargaining table by granting Treasury Board the power to unilaterally impose certain terms and conditions of employment.”
Robyn Benson, the PSAC National President said, “we believe this is a violation of our rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If the government can do this to the federal public service, they can do it to anyone.”
The PSAC, the largest of the federal public sector unions, set aside $5 million in an emergency motion at their convention this spring to fight this encroachment on their members’ rights.
The Ballot Box and the Streets
However, as the government geared up to pass Bill C-59 it was the much smaller union CAPE which took the lead in organizing the Monday lunch-hour demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa – demonstrations that have become bigger and bigger. While PSAC members and leaders were present at these weekly demonstrations, the union does not have a plan to get its tens of thousands of members into the streets against Bill C-59. The focus is remaining steadfast at the bargaining table and waiting for a Conservative defeat in the upcoming election.
While the Conservatives must be defeated in the next election, they still have to be challenged in the streets over C-59 (and numerous other issues). It is doubtful that a strategy that doesn’t seek to mobilize and activate the membership into taking action against Bill C-59 will be prepared to strike if and when the time comes. Nor is a membership that isn’t mobilized in the streets likely to defeat the Conservatives at the polls.
With tens of thousands of members living in Ottawa-area Tory ridings like Orleans, Kanata-Carleton, Nepean-Carleton and Ottawa West-Nepean, PSAC is one of the few unions in the country whose membership can be a decisive anti-Tory voting bloc in so many ridings. The PSAC could be a hammer against the Tories, but achieving this strength requires members in their thousands being steeled in the contract fight happening now.
A special thanks to federal government workers for helping craft this article