Strikes are Payback Time for Public Service of Alliance of Canada
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 25, 2004

You can’t say he hasn’t hit the ground running. Hard on the heels of a first ministers’ meeting on healthcare, the prime minister did the rounds at the United Nations even as his public works minister made a big announcement about plans to sell 365 federal office buildings. The Gomery Inquiry is underway and Canadian cattlemen have received yet another federal government aid package.

Showering money everywhere, the prime minister-in-a-hurry is clearly positioning for another election, one he hopes will relieve the purgatorial minority situation in which he currently finds himself.

Still, running too quickly risks exposing an Achilles’ heel; worse, it could lead him to his Waterloo where if the opposition parties and more scandals don’t get him, federal public sector workers will.

The military analogy isn’t far fetched. As of October, 2003, the federal government employed 157,000 workers of whom 135,000 are Public Service of Alliance of Canada members. With massive infrastructure that includes 7 regional divisions, 17 components, 3 tables, innumerable local branches and even a few zones, the on-the-ground organization of PSAC rivals that of National Defence. This week, it mobilized its Table 2 workers in strike action everywhere, including western Canada where 7,200 members are located in Manitoba, 3,600 in Saskatchewan, 9,000 in Alberta and 13,500 in British Columbia.

In Prince Albert, some 20 federal government maintenance and food service workers at the Saskatchewan penitentiary were on strike. It’s the first time they have been off the job. In Wainwright, 168 food services staff, cleaners and trades people closed two of three kitchens at the Alberta military base. In Saskatoon, picketers formed a line for several hours at the Regional Psychiatric Centre.

A weenie roast kept spirits high on the lines in Penticton, as did music in Prince George and the support of beer truck drivers and liquor store employees in Kelowna. In Victoria, picket lines formed at 6 am at Canada Revenue Agency’s two locations. In Surrey, there were deep fried pakoras for the pickets.

In Winnipeg, the Where’s Reg Society, Manitoba Chapter Parks Canada Local, won the $500 reward for locating Reg Alcock, President, Treasury Board Secretariat who is responsible for departmental budgets.

In all, 4,800 Parks Canada workers, 25,000 federal tax workers and, now, 11,000 operational services workers at National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans and Correctional Services are rotating strike action. Failing a settlement, these numbers could swell to over 130,000 as Tables 1, 3 and Canada Food and Inspection Agency workers join the strike after Parliament convenes in October. If so, it will be the largest public sector strike since 100,000 marched on Parliament Hill in 1991.

It will also confirm the findings of the First report from the Advisory Committee on Labour Management Relations in the Federal Public Service published in May of 2000 in which Unions and Managers agreed that relations are tainted. In its dual role as employer and legislator, the federal government has frozen wages, suspended collective bargaining and arbitration rights, reduced the work force, and legislated employees back to work. In the words of one Deputy Minister, “Unilateral government action has eroded confidence in the system.”

The issue now is pay. A 20 per cent wage gap exists between federal employees and their counterparts in the private and other public sectors. In addition, employees across the country are paid different rates of pay for doing the same job.

“PSAC members deal with the public and are committed to providing services,” says Patty Ducharme, PSAC’s British Columbia Vice President. Referring to the 20% salary increase members of Parliament recently awarded themselves, she adds, “We’re puzzled by an employer that doles out increases to themselves but not to public servants.”

It’s not just about money, though. For Prime Minister Martin who as finance minister in 1994 cut 45,000 public sector jobs instead of cutting wasteful programs in HRDC, the Public Works sponsorship program or the gun registry, it’s PSAC payback time.

Accountability has been this era’s watchword and when independent, often senior, public sector workers who monitor programs and provide oversight are removed, the ground is ripe for runaway spending and fraud.

Given his current spending proclivities, the prime minister may yet satisfy PSAC, but if the Gomery Inquiry reveals managerial incompetence because of cutbacks instead of (or in addition to) malfeasance, he should prepare to meet his Waterloo.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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