NUPGE's Larry Brown says public employees are increasingly determined to stop government abuse of the legislative process to impose contracts.
Ottawa (15 September 2006) - Public employees in Canada will rebel if governments again make them scapegoats for deficits and other financial problems as has happened over the past decade, says Larry Brown, national secretary-treasurer of the 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
Brown told the Conference Board of Canada this week that while the public sector bargaining climate has improved, with reasonable settlements on both wages and employment security currently the norm across Canada, this does not mean that relations with public sector workers have returned to a state of "sweetness and light." He cited three key reasons:
1. Public employees have yet to regain "the real value of wages and jobs" lost over the past decade. "There is still catch-up to be dealt with," Brown said.
2. Throughout the last decade public employees were exploited and abused by governments using the excuse of the deficits governments were facing. Pay cheques and jobs were, in effect, raided repeatedly to finance billions of dollars of tax cuts. Public sector jobs and wages were never the real cause of public deficits, he argued. Public sector workers will not accept a return to the days of the deficit being used as a bargaining weapon.
3. A "peculiar and unsettling" culture has developed in which governments refuse to listen to professional advice from their own employees, including sound advice on basic issues such as reorganization.
One notable example occurred in Prince Edward Island where the government ignored repeated warnings of disaster and restructured the health system into a series of regional boards.
Since then, the province has since been forced to move employees assigned to the regional board back into the direct public service for the very reasons that were forecast. "The system was resulting in too much inefficiency and a massive duplication of management and administrative costs," he noted.
Abuse by governments now routine
Brown said public sector workers are especially upset at the routine manner in which governments today override their legal collective bargaining rights and impose wage settlements by law instead of working them out at the bargaining table.
The result is a new mood of public sector determination that is embodied in a campaign that NUPGE has now embarked upon to restore labour rights in Canada, he said.
Specifically, NUPGE and other groups in the Canadian labour movement are campaigning to force governments to again honour international treaties signed over the years with the United Nations and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to respect the right of workers to free collective bargaining and the right to strike.
"Our philosophy is simple - we believe that governments that use the law to break the law have no right to expect us to obey the law," Brown said.
"We cannot continue to roll over under the force of unjust and unacceptable actions by the governments. We need to emphasize that we will not continue to accept the unacceptable."
Using the law to break the law 46 times
Abuse of the legislative process by governments has become rampant in Canada over the past quarter century, Brown argued.
"It's happened 46 times, and when something like this happens 46 times its time to admit that this is no longer an aberration - it's no longer an exception. It's too close to being the new rule," he said.
"In the public service, the new normal is that the government negotiates, then if there is an impasse, they feel free to impose their 'offer' as the law! Their employees' wages get set by statute, a statute passed by their boss....
"We will not continue to accept the unacceptable. We weren't given the right to collective bargaining or the right to strike. There were public sector strikes before it was legal for public sector workers to strike. The right to genuine collective bargaining was not a gift, it was a victory," Brown said.
"This is important work - an important campaign. Freedom, and respect for the laws, respect for basic human rights, respect for international commitments, none of these are things that can be selectively offered. This is a campaign that will continue and intensify until the reason for it has been eliminated." NUPGE