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A few thoughts about my union…

I belong to a public sector Union. It isn’t a huge Union, not the scale of PSAC, PIPSC, CUPE and the like. There are around 12,000 members, I think; the majority of whom work in one department.   I, and for a great many of my colleagues, think that our Union should deliver two basic services. These are:

  • to represent the members in the collective bargaining process
  • to assist members when there is an issue or a conflict with the employer

That’s it in our particular case. If the membership of another union consents to the use of dues for other purposes, then that’s their business.

Any other activities like supporting social or activist causes or political parties are not what my dues are to be directed toward. And our little Union has filled those basic roles, and only those roles, quite well over the 18 years I’ve been in the PS. And our Local (for non-Union types, it’s kind of like a local chapter) leadership has by and large supported those limited roles, and has done a damn fine job in the process AND dues have been kept reasonable.

I also don’t believe in the point of a PS union withholding their services – especially in the form of full-on and long term strikes – in case of bargaining or other impasses. Strike actions of any kind in the PS lead nowhere. Any government can simply legislate the workers back to work. There is zero public sympathy for such actions. There are public sector exceptions as teachers and health workers do traditionally have the support of a segment of the population. But at the federal level, face it, no one gives a crap whether or not bureaucrats are on picket lines.

So, when all of the members received this email in January, I and others became more than a little concerned:

Dear CAPE member,
Due to the 2013 changes to the Public Service Labour Relations Act which governs federal public service labour relations (Bill C-4), CAPE can no longer use third party arbitration to resolve an impasse at the bargaining table without the agreement of Treasury Board. Accordingly, the current round of negotiations with the employer over the fate of important matters, including sick leave, performance management, telework,pay and job security may force CAPE to conduct a strike vote for the EC bargaining unit or TR bargaining unit.
If a strike vote occurs, and a majority of members of CAPE vote ‘Yes’, that does not automatically mean there will be a strike. A positive strike vote is used by union negotiators to impress upon the employer that the union’s position at the bargaining table is supported by the membership. In addition, ‘strikes’ can take many forms (e.g., work-to-rule campaigns, single-day demonstration strikes, rotating strikes, all-out strikes).
Anticipating the possibility of a strike vote, CAPE would like to learn more about your views on this subject in order to assist in our planning. Please take a few minutes to answer the following questions.
Participation in this survey is voluntary, your anonymity will be respected and all responses will be kept strictly confidential. Questions are asked for statistical purposes only and will not be used to identify respondents.

Let’s put aside the fact that this “survey” was designed in such a poor way that any data obtained through the instrument would be misleading and, quite frankly, useless. But that’s another discussion…

Back to the email… I am very confident that the vast majority of my colleagues were also somewhat shocked to see the word “strike”.  This has never been remotely considered in my years in the PS. Our members are intelligent and can do the math. There is not way that the salary lost through a strike will ever be regained through any cost-of-living or scale increases.

So why the sudden militancy in the leadership of the union?

#1. Rightly or wrongly, the culture of our little association has been one of disinterest in Union activites. as long as dues increases were kept to a minimum, very few members paid attention to union elections or communications. Well, that apathy bit us on the butt this time when a very militant, pro merge-with-PSAC/PIPSC slate was elected last year – with about a 10% voter turnout (I think). The new militant president was elected with a plurality of about… 20 votes.

Now democracy is democracy, sure. And the membership got its cumuppance by ignoring the elections. But does this leadership have a mandate to radically change the course of the union – and its members – with such a weak mandate? My opinion is that they do not.

Reason for militancy #2- the CPC Government has proposed a very new and trimmed back sick day system for the PS. Many of us believe that reform was long overdue. We may not agree with the proposed new rules, but again, the Government has a majority in Parliament and can simply cram through the legislation and bang! The new rules are in place.

So, why does CAPE get all huffy and puffy now and not wait until the election in the Fall when a new party may be elected to power and may be amore amenable to any input the labour unions may have on sick days reform? This is something that has a lot of us scratching our heads. It’s not like we lose anything by waiting.

Why do I write this? On one level it’s cathartic (as many of my posts are) but I’m also hoping that more than a few members of our Union see it and wake up to the fact that unless they start paying attention, they’ll be on a strike line and will be explaining to their bank why they have to miss a mortgage payment or two… and the negative image of our Public Service – which has been promoted by the current Government – will be further cemented in the minds of Canadians. Because, you see, as much as the union executive says that in the absence of arbitration (which the Government has taken away as an opition at the bargaining table), non-binding conciliation and a subsequent strike are NOT what they want – it very much IS exactly what they see as the end game.


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  1. gordon says:

    Unions in the federal government are primarily there because it means the government only has to manage a couple of dozen contracts, rather than a quarter of a million contracts. As a member of a federal government union, I want it to represent me in collective bargaining and help me with issues/conflicts with the employer. I do not want it to spend my union dues on, for example, social issues such as missing aboriginal women. That’s not to say that missing aboriginal women is not an important social issue (it is), but it’s not what I’m paying my union executive to do on my behalf.

    He isn’t saying public sector unions should be restricted from striking. He said that strike actions by (most) public sector unions don’t achieve anything because, generally speaking, there isn’t any public sympathy and if the government wants, they can legislate us back to work.

    When PSAC has gone on strike in the past two decades, the government has let them walk the line in the ice and snow and then given them everything they wanted after a week or two because by then the government had saved more money by having PSAC on strike than it would cost for whatever PSAC wanted. At the end of the day the government comes out ahead, while PSAC was about 15 minutes from being insolvent, with the bonus that the government gets to say “see, we’re reasonable… We gave you what you wanted” and PSAC can say “see? Striking works. Oh, and by the way, your dues are increasing because the union is broke”.

    I haven’t met a single member of my local, the largest local in the union, who has any interest in striking. Going on strike would be playing into the government’s hands. It would cost the union (and thus the members) a ridiculous amount of money, generate a huge amount of animosity with the general public, and give the government the ability to say “see? Spoiled, overpaid, entitled civil servants demanding more”. Instead, the union should take the high road, continue to work (but “work to rule” if you must) and wait things out until the next government comes along. Technically, we’ve been without a contract since June of last year, so a few month months isn’t going to change a thing.

  2. kirbycairo says:

    I don’t understand the attitude that a union should only deal with collective barging and conflict resolution. I see absolutely no reason for limiting a union’s function this way. It seems entirely arbitrary and nonsensical to me and is a correlate to various rightwing notions of so-called limited government.

    But perhaps more importantly your argument for restricting public sector unions from job action is absolutely non-sensical. Why are you under the impression that the government can only legislate public sector workers back to work? The simple fact is that, though it is still a grey area of the law, governments in Canada can order any workers back to work if the deem a strike to be a threat to the economy or national security. They could legislate Tim Hortons workers back to work (If Tim’s workers had the sense to join a union and understood that it is the principle of job action that historically brought all workers’ rights to Western nations). So to be consistent you should oppose all strike action. I can’t for the life of me understand why you want your blog on a progressive site. You seem to have a lot of time on your hands, why don’t you use some of it to learn more about unions.

    1. I don’t understand the attitude that a union in 2015 is a good thing because in the distant annals of history they improved some things for workers. Nobody would deny that unions once earned and held a place of honour.

      Few people would argue that even today, there are some few places where a union could do some good.

      Plenty of people would debate, however, that big unions generally serve the public (or anyone else’s) good. Modern unions bring wasted dues, and wasted opportunity to most places in the modern economy. Dues blown on politics and pet causes, work actions that harm the workers demonstrably while not significantly improving anything but the pocketbooks of the leaders and simultaneously generating public distrust and animosity. For a union to try and trade on 19th and early 20th century glory now is a sad, sad joke. It is nonsensical to me, and correlates to the archetype of the self-centred, greedy unionist who thinks only of himself.

    2. trashee says:

      Ah. I knew I’d get at least one commenter who would be appalled at my gaul to criticise my union.

      But I did expect a better argument than a childish swipe at the quantity of my leisure time (I really haven’t any) or my ignorance of unions.

      No matter, the commenter does make one coherent point when he/she wonders why unions should be restricted in their activities. My response to that is they shouldn’t – as long as the membership is good with their dues going to such activities. In our particular situation, both the culture of the union and lots of anecdotal evidence (accumulated over 18 years of service) suggest that the membership does not consent to the use of their dues going to anything aside from “core” activities.

      Let me be clear that I am not “anti-union”. I do see a role for them in 21st c. Canada. But that role is evolving and both employers and unions need to abandon that 20th c. culture of confrontation at every step. However, while you may be technically correct that a government can legislate pretty much anyone back to work, that simply doesn’t happen in the real world. Why on earth any government would want to legislate anyone back to work who are not their own employees (directly or indirectly) or those whose absence would pose a threat to the safety or security of others (Tim Horton employees are outta luck)?

      Finally, I humbly suggest that my critical friend learns a bit about what it means to be progressive. Being progressive implies a willingness to listen to other opinions that may run counter to their own. It means being willing to debate those opinions in a rational way. This runs contrary to what has become the “conservative” storyline in this country where dissent is stifled and debate is seen as traitorous.

      So, my friend, I suggest that you may wish to think your comments through in a more fulsome way next time. Thank you for visiting.

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