The Public Service Alliance of Canada&’s triennial convention at the Ottawa Convention Centre promises to be a pivotal gathering for the giant union, which is being buffeted by internal strife and facing a hostile government that is eliminating its members&’ jobs, taking away their right to strike and reshaping the role of Canada&’s public service.Photograph by: Nadine Lamoureux
OTTAWA — Canada’s largest public service union is proposing an emergency levy up to $5 a month for all members if job losses resulting from government spending cuts drive membership below 170,000 and pushes the union into a financial shortfall.
The special dues increase will be among the issues debated by more than 825 delegates and observers at the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s triennial convention held this week at the Ottawa Convention Centre.
The giant PSAC is heading into a pivotal convention, buffeted by internal strife and facing a hostile government that is eliminating its members’ jobs, taking away their right to strike and reshaping the role of Canada’s public service.
The Conservatives’ spending cuts will be at the top of the agenda as it maps out a strategy to rebuild its image and political power as part of its campaign to stop the erosion of public services it claims is threatening the health and safety of Canadians.
As delegates dig into the week-long agenda, departments are sending the third wave of written notices to hundreds more public servants warning their jobs will be affected by the government’s spending cuts.
Departments have sent 10,000 notices since the federal budget reduced their spending by $5.2 billion over the next three years. With the latest round, more than 10,000 of PSAC’s 50,000 members in the National Capital Region will have received affected notices. Not all affected employees will be laid off.
But PSAC’s finance committee concluded the union needs a backup plan should spending cuts dig deep enough to throw its revenues off track.
“We can’t scale back services when members need them most,” said one official.
It’s unclear how many jobs will be cut. Unions and opposition parties have hounded the government for details, including the impact on jobs, programs and services. The government says its budget cuts will eliminate 19,200 jobs and 12,000 will be layoffs.
But the $5.2 billion in the budget are only about half of the reductions departments must swallow over the next three years. Departments are still wrestling to absorb reductions of a similar magnitude from the previous two federal budgets.
The union is proposing to monitor the impact of job losses on its membership every six months. The union has about 186,000 members and has prudently built its budget over the next three years on dues revenue from 170,000 members at an average salary of $51,340.
The levy only kicks in if membership dips below 170,000 to make up for revenue shortfall but it can’t “exceed the equivalent of $5 per member” or $60 a year.
But it’s not the only dues increase. A resolution calls for a special levy to shore up the pension plan for PSAC employees which is facing a $30-million deficit by 2015. It will cost the average member $2.58 a month.
Some say the union is facing the biggest challenge in its 45-year history, even surpassing the tensions of the last convention held in Ottawa a dozen years ago when the union emerged from the Liberals’ massive downsizing in the mid 1990s, smaller, torn by divisions and on the brink of bankruptcy.
The union, which vowed then to redouble its membership over the decade, has comfortably regained its financial footing and recruited more than 30,000 new members, mostly from universities. It plans to continue its organizing drive to shore up the 17 unions under the PSAC umbrella being hit by federal cuts.
It has replenished a depleted strike fund with nearly $29 million, boosted its budget for political action campaigns and is proposing a new $1-million fund so resolutions approved at convention can be funded without seeking further dues increases.
But some say the union faces a fundamental rethinking of what it does, how it mobilizes support and harnesses public opinion. Activists argue it must mobilize, organize and be politically active to have the power it needs to do its job at the bargaining table.
The government, with its legislative clout, always holds the power at the bargaining table, but no government has thumbed its nose at collective bargaining like Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, said PSAC president John Gordon.
“They don’t want to bargain. When I look at everything they have done to thwart the ability to free collective bargaining . . . nothing will surprise me anymore,” said Gordon. “The Mulroney Conservatives bargained and were tough negotiators but the Harper Conservatives couldn’t care less about collective bargaining.”
Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said PSAC’s convention comes as labour faces a new “paradigm” and has to new find new ways to mobilize.
Unions have lost the image war and must remake themselves with new tactics and strategies that tap into communities and the support of other like-minded organizations. He argued it’s time unions think hard about merging like the proposed super-union between Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers.
“Public servants are a huge group of hard working citizens and when you put a face on them, like the customs officer, the person who delivers the mail or the RCMP, most Canadians like and respect them but as soon as they are the faceless public service, they are seen as people who are overpaid for doing nothing.”
John Fryer, the veteran labour leader who for an overhaul of federal labour relations in a 2001 watershed report, said unions have never faced such a hostile and anti-union government. Treasury Board president Tony Clement regularly derides federal unions as greedy “big union bosses” who only care about jobs losses because fewer dues are going into their pockets.
Federal unions have watched the government take aim at unionized workers in all sectors and say they know it wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action against its employees.
It ordered postal worker back to work; prevented flight attendants from striking; pre-empted Air Canada pilots from striking, backed a private member’s bill to force unions to disclose more financial information and even mused about making the economy an essential service.
“The problem facing them is they effectively no longer have the right to strike and once you don’t have the right to strike you really don’t have and cannot have a proper collective bargaining relationship and when you are in that situation you have choices to make,” said Fryer.
Fryer said PSAC has three choices. It can stay the course and get legislated back to work when it hits an impasse; fight with “rear guard actions to move forward into the past,” such as defying strike ban or change and become more “collaborative.” He acknowledges the Conservatives aren’t open to collaborating with unions “but they won’t be there forever.”
“It’s a real dilemma. They can tough it out and continue to march to the 1960s drummer or they can change.”
The Ottawa Citizen
Original source article: Spending cuts top of agenda as largest public service union gathers