In the 2015 Election the Liberals made many promises that would help mark the “Real Change” that they were running on, that would mark a big difference from the Stephen Harper years. Among those promises was better relations with the workforce of the Federal government and better relationships with organized labour. In theory, that was probably one of the easiest problems for the Liberals to keep because the relationship between the Federal civil service and the Harper government was simply bad. Between the muzzling of scientists and bureaucrats, the closure of offices and cut backs to services and their general world view of those who choose to work in the service of the government, it was far from a match made in Heaven. And that was all without going into the whole fiasco that still is the Phoenix pay system.
The Liberals had made a big point of trying to eat into the traditional New Democrat bases of support, and one of those biggest targets was organized labour. They were having great success in that way, with many labour leaders becoming important validators for policies and approaches. So after their election, the promise of a better relationship was one that seemed to be getting delivered on. The first year or so seemed to be a breath of fresh air compared to the Harper years. It seemed better, but the question remained an open one if that would continue.
But as the years have gone on and the Liberals have seemed to be pivoting in other directions, this might have started to change. For the Federal civil service, whose collective agreements are now in re-negotiation, one of the biggest remaining issues has been Phoenix, which is totally understandable. Imagine not getting paid for months on end, or not getting paid properly for months on end, or getting proper pay this week, to not get it at all in the next pay period. Also imagine being one of the “lucky ones”, counting yourself lucky that you haven’t had problems yet, but worrying if you’ll be among the next group to deal with problems. Imagine if your maternity or paternity leave was botched because of this problem, or if your retirement was ruined because of it. It’s a huge problem that has already cost the federal government over $1.2 billion trying to fix, without any seeming end in sight.
In what workplace in Canada would that situation be acceptable? I would submit there isn’t one where it would be. But as the Federal government negotiations these collective agreements with the public sector unions, this is a huge issue on the table and with an election coming, you’d think that the government would be motivated to get these negotiations wrapped up with a positive result long before the election. So it was with that in mind that I saw this piece of news come out yesterday, news that made me stand up and take notice:
When you look at the details in the press release from PSAC, there are some details there that I find very striking and surprising coming from this Liberal government. For starters, the fact that the Liberals started by trying to get a two-year wage freeze out of the public service; that’s quite the insult when so many have gone without proper pay for years, isn’t it? Eventually they came back with a 1.5% pay raise offer, but as the release points out, that’s not just below inflation, but that’s under the 2% raise that MPs just gave themselves. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander too, right? And then to top that off, the Liberals wants these employees to wait for up to 18 months after the new contract is signed to get their retroactive pay; by a point of comparison, currently rules state that retro pay paid within 5 months. So why would the Liberals be trying to force civil servants, ones who haven’t been getting their proper pay for years, to have to wait a year and a half to get the retroactive pay that they are owed when they sign their new agreement? What in the Hell is the rationale for delaying that by so long? Not even Harper’s team tried to do that. And to top if off, as compensation for all the grief that Phoenix has caused people for years (and still is), the government is offering a couple days off. That led PSAC to say that they “will not return to the table until the government shows a genuine willingness to deliver the fair deal our members deserve.”
But that’s not the end of this folks, there’s more here that I found very surprising. Currently the government has a Memorandum of Understanding with the unions on mental health. The union has proposed to replace it with an updated framework, which given the emphasis on mental health by this government would seem to make sense. But nope, instead the Liberals want to do away with the MOU all together, put it on the scrap heap and walk away. On top of that, the Liberals are refusing to implement recommendations stemming from a previous MOU on child care and is even resisting PSAC’s proposal to allow nursing women breastfeeding breaks. You’d think that these proposals would be right up the ally of the “Sunny Ways” Liberals, but here we have the rubber hitting the road and that seems not to be true. Not only do these moves seem to run totally counter to the Liberals campaign promises in so many areas, this breastfeeding piece actually goes against the right to breastfeed in exists in the Canada Labour Code. Imagine what the Liberals reaction would have been if the Harper Conservatives had tried to go against the Labour Code in such a way? Yet here in an election year, they are the ones doing it.
All of this has led PSAC to declare an impasse in negotiations and “start the process that will lead to strike preparations.” I spent a few years working in the Federal civil service in the Harper years and even with how bad things got then, the word “strike” never really came up. Coming into the public service from the teaching profession and from unions that were more political, this was something that I noticed right away. PSAC wasn’t that way, and it made sense given the non-partisan roles that civil servants play. They take that role seriously, protect it, and don’t go towards work actions lightly. So to see that word used here, months before a federal election where the Liberals were expecting labour to be a bigger ally than usual, really struck me. That is not an idle comment from PSAC, one that the government should take seriously.
But this whole episode will also be on the mind of those union voters come the Fall election, especially in cities and ridings where you have high portions of federal civil servants living and working there. Those are ridings where the Liberals tend to do very well, and are seats that they simply cannot afford to lose. This also gives the New Democrats at chance to re-establish those strong ties with labour, ties that have arguably slipped a bit as the Liberal have made such a strong play for them.
For the Liberals, you also have to wonder about the strategy of this for them; it would make all the sense in the world to get those negotiations done and dusted earlier, to deliver on that promise, to keep labour onside, to undercut the New Democrats and to avoid the potential of a federal civil service strike in the middle of the next election. Yet that is where we find ourselves now, with that prospect growing, with the time almost all gone to get it done before the House of Commons rises while putting further strain on the relationship over mostly issues that simply don’t uphold their brand. Do Liberal MPs really want to go to the wall over fighting to stripping back mental health initiatives, trying to disallow young mothers breastfeeding breaks, refusing to improve child care provisions and forcing civil servants to wait a year and a half to get their back pay? Those fights don’t scream “Sunny Ways” or “Real Change” at all. If anything, they sound more like “For the People” or “We’re better off with Harper”. Either way, it sounds like something that people didn’t vote for and marks a striking change from 2015, just in time for the Fall election.