Cloudy Days: Trudeau and federal public sector bargaining

web-08_0By Christo Aivalis

The Harper era was one of antagonism towards the federal public service, especially once he formed a majority in 2011. There were deep cuts to budgets and staffing, along with a growing distrust between public servants and the government, which led to censorship of the former, even in cases where experts simply wished to share research with professional associations or the public.

As such, federal public service unions like the Public Service Alliance of Canada, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees engaged in a historic campaign to remove Harper from power. It’s no stretch to say that the defeat of the Conservatives was due in part to the work of labour to oppose Harper’s message and policy.

But the ‘stop Harper’ approach wasn’t uncontroversial in labour circles. While most every major union wanted a new government, there were stark divisions between those that advocated an Anything But Conservative approach, and those more wedded to the NDP. In the end, the former approach won handily, as the Trudeau Liberals stormed to a majority government, with the NDP–and not the Conservatives–being the primary losers.

These unions were linked to an ABC mentality, largely because their respective memberships were wary of partisanship beyond anti-Conservatism. Whatever the Liberals’ long history–stretching back to the first Trudeau era–of attacking public servants, they were welcomed into power on a platform that contrasted the austere Harper years.

Similarly, the demeanour of labour coming out of the election was optimistic, and this continued into the Liberals’ first budget announcement. Leaders like Robyn Benson and Debi Daviau cautiously praised the rolling back of laws like C-377, along with a general commitment to reverse cuts, restore professional autonomy, and limit contracting-out.

But there are signs in bargaining that the tone from both sides is set to change. As I’ve noted in other sources, the real test will be in how the parties address issues around general compensation, hiring, and sick leave. On that latter issue, the government has already faced opposition from the PSAC, among others.

Indeed, the government’s approach is hard to pin down, because while the budget has laid out expansionary elements for the public service, claims by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Treasury Board President Scott Brison have emphasized the continued need for concessions from civil servants. Specifically, They want to offset the supposed 900 million dollar cost of sick leave, and have also stressed the need for restraint more generally, whatever the budget’s tone.

Speaking in broad terms, the takeaway here is that should tensions rise between the government and civil service unions, the options for the latter will be far more limited than under the Harper Conservatives. This is for three primary reasons:

  1. The unions’ ABC tactics have given a mandate to the Trudeau government’s actions:

Unlike with any of Harper’s victories, Canadian unions are at least partially responsible for this government. This means that should the government take positions unpopular with labour leadership, they will have less of a political mandate to oppose them.

While it was easy for unions like the PSAC to rally members when Harper won in 2011, anti-Liberal messaging will be much more difficult to draft and proliferate. Members will rightly ask why the union is opposing a government they worked to put into power only months prior.

  1. The Liberals’ messaging, if not their actions, are much more tactful:

Harper was a shrewd leader, and a gifted tactician. He knew is base well, and despite being unpopular with a majority of Canadians, was able to hold power for the better part of a decade. But when dealing with labour and the public service, his government was inflammatory. The result was that rank-and-file public servants–who may not have been politically motivated–now had an affirmative interest in seeing the government change. Further, the media’s coverage of such an approach made labour much more sympathetic to the average Canadian, meaning that leaders could correlate Harper’s general unpopularity with his attacks on public services and those who provide them.

The Trudeau Liberals, conversely, will not be so forward in their conflicts with public servants. They understand that image is vital, and that even if they take actions similar in intent and effect to Harper, they can limit the activation of rank-and-file and public animosity to decisions.

This will limit union leadership’s ability to win supportive voices from voters, members, and the media, all of which were imperative in the effectiveness of the Stop Harper campaign.

  1. The anti-Harper alliance is no longer in play:

Again, Stephen Harper was disliked by a majority of Canadians, who were divided between supporting the four other federal parties, all seen as nominally ‘left of centre.’ The public service unions were able to capitalize on this environment, winning numerous allies to their cause because even though they might not normally be pro-labour forces, they had a common goal in ousting Harper. The PSAC especially was able to make media hay with the “Harper Hates X” buttons, allowing Canadians of all classes to unite in their opposition to the Conservatives.

But the Liberals, even if they take right-wing action, are never as polarizing as the Conservatives. They are consistently the top second choice of Canadian voters, and their actions are less likely to be seen as vindictive or ideologically-motivated. The result is that should the Trudeau regime turn against its civil service, there won’t be a pan-Canadian movement willing to stand with them. Most small business people, students, professionals, environmentalists, and non-old-stock Canadian groups will stand with Trudeau as he attacks the rights and standards of unionized workers.

My concern is that the Liberals will be able to get away with attacks on public servants that wouldn’t be tolerated from Conservatives. People forget that, however bad Harper was, Chretien and Martin were at least a step worst, and Pierre Trudeau violated fundamental labour rights in a manner that would make today’s Conservatives blush.

Much like how the turfing of Mulroney allowed a right-wing Liberal regime to sneak into power on vague left promises, so too might we be entering another era of Liberal austerity and anti-worker animus that will prove much more difficult to withstand.

My expectation and hope is that labour leadership, if only hypothetically, is working on how exactly they can energize members should they need to against the solidly popular Trudeau regime. With oil prices low, a deficit quickly increasing, and a government demanding concessions, unions will need to find allies, lest they find themselves an isolated scapegoat of the Liberals once again.

Going Forward

Bargaining remains tense over issues continuing from the Conservative government. Increasingly, it looks as if Trudeau’s Liberals have an approach not too different from their predecessors. The PSAC has asked its members to boycott National Public Service Week, with Benson suggesting that “In the current climate of protracted collective bargaining and uncertainty in labour relations, the relevance of such employer-sponsored activities is questionable.”

On a similar front, one of the PSAC’s component unions, the Union of Taxation Employees (UTE), has suggested that its members reject a recent contract offer from the Canada Revenue Agency because it fails to adequately compensate members for ending a severance program, and because the employer wants to roll CRA negotiations forward so that they can address the aforementioned sick leave concessions. UTE President Bob Campbell has recently stated that the government proposals offer only concession bargaining, and that the UTE requires a strong strike mandate to return to the table. In his words, “we have been trying for four years to get a negotiated agreement, but Treasury Board has been in our way. We were hoping with the new government that would change, but…the Liberal government has imposed the same mandate as the Conservatives had.”

It’s clear that Canada’s major federal public sector union is trying to take a stand against the new Liberal regime. The question remains, however: did the ABC mentality in the previous election, as well as the demonization of Harper as an individual, de-mobilize the thousands of public servants who elected this government only half a year ago?

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