A new public sector activism: PSAC takes Harper's bet and raises him

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) opened its 17th triennial convention this week in Quebec City with a militant speech from National President Robyn Benson. PSAC is in the midst of bargaining with the Harper Conservatives. But, President Benson went beyond putting the Harper Conservatives on guard against breaking its word and overturning signed agreements.

On its first day at convention, PSAC adopted an emergency resolution authorizing $5 million spending from its reserve fund. The resolution spells out what needs to done: "elect a federal government that respects worker and union rights and federal public services, and that governs for the benefit of all Canadian workers."

Federal public servants are being urged by their union leader to work full out to defeat the Conservatives in the expected October election.

Conservative Budget 2015 signals to federal public servants that 15-day-per-year sick leave benefits negotiated in good faith are to be withdrawn, and replaced by a six-day-a-year plan cooked up by Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement. PSAC wants a stop to using budget implementation legislation to override collective bargaining agreements and remove public services from Canadians.

Bill C-4, introduced after the 2014 budget, removed labour rights, and led to the creation of a union coalition to fight it.

Using budgets to reduce services and attack public servants is not restricted to the federal Conservatives. In Ontario, the recent Liberal Wynne budget makes no provision for any salary increases for public employees.

The Ontario Education Minister has announced there is no money for salary increases. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association have received a strike mandate with 94 per cent support. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (now on strike alert) are angry about micromanaging in the education sector.

Even before the announced privatization plans for provincial Hydro, the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) had been warning voters to look at Liberal austerity budgeting before buying into the idea that the Liberal government was progressive. 

The Ontario government plans to cut program spending by more than the rate of inflation over the next three years, which means a decline in services.

Robyn Benson at PSAC and OPSEU President Smokey Thomas represent a new public sector activism. Along with their counterparts at teachers' and nurses' organizations, these leaders are responding to decades of attacks on professionals and other public sector workers by insisting their membership engage with the political process.

Social unionism is important. Trade unions rights are finally being affirmed by the Supreme Court. But electing governments dedicated to improving and expanding public services is what public service trade unions need to focus on.

The idea that public service unions should mimic the public service, and remain above the partisan political fray makes little sense for leaders such as Debi Daviau of the Professional Institute of the Public Service. Public servants are citizens who have the right to become party candidates, and at election time public sector unions need to activate the membership.

Federal public servants operate across Canada but for many Ottawa is home. The Ottawa region is also home to seven Conservative MPs. If a government that has attacked the livelihood of public servants and eliminated some 35,000 public service positions can re-elect MPs, then Harper will have demonstrated the staying power of his low taxes message.

The latest Harper budget illustrates the Conservative re-election strategy: bet that potential voters will see government spending reductions not as a loss of services, but as a low taxes guarantee.

The budget provides a $2-billion tax cut via income-splitting that will benefit wealthy families with stay-at-home spouses. It continues a policy of reducing direct federal spending. Transfers to provinces, including for health care, are reduced to the growth rate of the economy. Slower spending leads to further tax reductions.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver revealed more than he wanted to about low taxes in a CBC interview. Asked about the fiscal implications of doubling the tax-free accounts, and allowing up to $10,000 per year to be invested so that earnings would be free of taxes, Oliver replied that dealing with the loss of $39 billion in yearly government revenue by 2080 would be a problem that Stephen Harper's granddaughter would be left to deal with. 

Low taxes mean poor public services today and well into the future. Climate change, public transport, and public pension reform were all neglected in the 2015 budget. Singling out public servants for blame has weakened morale in government departments. Demeaning and under-funding the public service sends a message to young Canadians: stay away from a career in the public service.

A recent CROP-La Presse opinion poll indicated that the Harper Conservatives have 42 per cent support in Quebec City, the provincial capital. Robyn Benson and PSAC along with their provincial counterparts have their work cut out for them.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Roland Tanglao/flickr

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