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Turning Back the Clock 50 Years: Bill C-4 and federal workers

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Stuffed into the 309-page Conservative budget implementation act, Bill C-4, that was tabled last month, are a slew of drastic changes to the federal labour relations system, which will affect the health and safety provisions, human rights protections, and collective bargaining rights of federal workers. As its number suggests, Bill C-4 is truly explosive.

On the health and safety front, the government is changing the Canada Labour Code to limit the rights of workers to refuse unsafe work, and also doing away with independent health and safety officers, relegating their responsibilities to political appointees of "the Minister."

Meanwhile, another part of the bill will alter the Public Service Labour Relations Act (PSRLA) to prevent federal public service workers from accessing the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal over workplace discrimination complaints. Workers facing discrimination will instead have to file their complaint directly with their employer, which would have the power to promptly dismiss it for "being trivial, frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith."

Bill C-4 also guts public service collective bargaining by further modifying the PSLRA to allow the government to unilaterally determine which workers are essential and therefore forbidden from striking, without recourse to third party review. (At present, when the government and the union disagree on who is essential, either party can refer the matter to the Public Service Labour Relations Board, which ensures that neither side can exaggerate their assessment of who is essential or non-essential, a sensible system that has worked well over the years.)

Furthermore, Bill C-4 denies unions the right to refer a dispute to arbitration, unless more than 80% of workers are deemed essential. This means that the government would be able to declare 79% of workers in a bargaining group as essential, deny arbitration, and then force the remaining 21% minority to strike, in a classic attempt to divide and conquer workers in a given bargaining unit.

Arnold Heeney, the renowned Canadian diplomat and civil servant who led the Preparatory Committee on Collective Bargaining in the Public Service way back in 1963, noted in his memoirs that prior to free collective bargaining "there was great and growing dissatisfaction among government employees generally with the arbitrary and paternalistic system which continued to prevail..." As a consequence of this dissatisfaction and the stunning 1965 wildcat strike by postal workers, the government under Lester B. Pearson was forced to pass in 1967 the Public Service Staff Relations Act, which first codified the right to free collective bargaining as well as the right of public service unions to choose between strikes and third party arbitration to resolve disputes. And as Heeney further observed, though a number of politicians and labour leaders at the time predicted an explosion in the frequency of strikes, "the majority of civil servants chose the former route" of arbitration to resolve their disputes with government.

Indeed, the historical record has shown that major public service strikes have remained rather infrequent, but that the right of recourse to a strike has been critical to balancing the overwhelming power held by the government over public service workers. After all, the government not only has inherent power as the employer, it also has the power to set the rules of the game through legislation.

Yet today, we find ourselves with a government intent on turning back the clock almost 50 years by attempting to rig the labour relations playing field to the point where public service workers will be thrown back to that "arbitrary and paternalistic system" Heeney wrote about. And it would seem, of course, that the government couldn't care less that the proposed changes to the PSLRA will effectively undermine the right to free collective bargaining under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007.

Together, the dangerous, undemocratic and retrograde changes contained in Bill C-4 will directly impact some 800,000 Canadian workers subject to the Canada Labour Code in industries as diverse as rail, air, broadcasting, telecommunications and fisheries, in addition to well over 200,000 federal public service workers who fall under the PSLRA--approximately a million people in total.

Yet, the Conservatives have moved to limit debate in Parliament in an attempt to ram the bill through in the next couple of weeks. In fact, it has now emerged that labour changes in the bill were drafted secretly, without consulting law professors or labour-management experts (and certainly without consulting any of the unions representing federal workers).

It's hard to imagine a reason for the callous health and safety changes, which needlessly endanger workers, but it's clearly evident why the Conservatives are frustrating the collective bargaining process currently spelled out in the PSLRA.

Led by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, they have spent the last two years repeatedly attacking the pay and benefits of federal public service workers, claiming that these are out of line with the private sector. They say these workers, who deliver important quality public services like Old Age Security and food inspection to Canadians, are paid too much, but ignore that the Parliamentary Budget Officer recently reported that in the last decade--the latter part of which was shaped by the Conservative agenda--wages of federal workers have mostly just kept up with inflation. They also absurdly claim at every opportunity that federal public service workers take over 18 days of sick leave each year, again ignoring research from Statistics Canada demonstrating that this is simply not true.

The repetition of such claims--false as they are--serves the goal of creating a political atmosphere conducive to squeezing out from federal public service workers non-monetary benefits they negotiated over previous decades, often in lieu of their requests for raises that were said to be unaffordable, and therefore rejected, in the context of deficits during the Mulroney years, followed by pressures of debt repayment during the Chrétien years.

We've been down this road before. Just this past year, the government repeatedly overreached and tried to undermine free collective bargaining with public service workers only to be forced back to the table following action by unions. It did it with technical inspectors, whose many bargaining positions were later validated by a Public Interest Commission. It did it with foreign service officers, who then won a bad faith bargaining decision. And it did it with border services officers, who also won a court injunction against a forced vote. Bill C-4 undoubtedly presents an unprecedented assault on workers and the middle class, aimed at rewriting the very rules of the game. However, one at a time, the abusive sections of this law will be defeated.