Justin Trudeau is not charming all Canadian workers

On the other end of the line, Charles Fleury, national secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), lets out a long sigh. For him, the image projected by Justin Trudeau is a daily obstacle. The average person often rejects any criticism of him out of hand. In the meantime, workers’ rights are treading water.

“The Canadian public is experiencing an extended honeymoon period with Justin Trudeau. He has adopted a very different tone to his predecessor, that’s for sure. But if you want my opinion, it’s just a front. In substance, Justin Trudeau’s discourse is basically the same as that of the previous government,” says Fleury.

In a letter addressed to Canada’s public servants during the election campaign in 2015, Justin Trudeau nonetheless promised to repair the damage done by his predecessor, the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper.

“I have a fundamentally different view than Stephen Harper of our public service. Where he sees an adversary, I see a partner,” he wrote.

“I believe that in order to have a public service that is valued by Canadians, and a source of pride for its members, it must be valued by its government.”

A ’catastrophe’

A year on and the country’s trade unions are nonetheless struggling to see progress. Federal employees have made no headway since the renewal of the negotiations commenced under the Harper government regarding their collective agreements. The plans brought to the table, moreover, remain exactly the same.

“And yet, what Harper was proposing was a catastrophe,” points out Magali Picard, regional executive vice president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) in Quebec, in an interview with Equal Times. “It was the worst news an employer has given public employees in 30 years and included heavily reduced employment insurance benefits, 35,000 public service job cuts and the push to introduce target benefit pension plans. It was an indecent rollback and a total lack of respect.”

In response to the lack of change, the CUPE launched a national campaign in the autumn of 2016, to urge the prime minister to respect his promises.

“He promised us he would do things differently throughout his campaign. The whole country is relying on him. It’s time he kept his promises and put his words into action,” she added.

The main points of contention were wage increases, employees’ rights during staff restructuring phases and subcontracting.

Since this initiative was taken there has been a change in tone at the negotiating table. Several agreements have been signed for large groups of workers and significant progress has been made in the areas of sick leave and staff restructuring.

“To be fair to the government, I think it was unprepared. It didn’t expect to be elected with a majority and hadn’t taken time to study all the files. I’ll make my assessment in due course, but for the time being I’d rather remain optimistic and hope that it has got the message,” concludes Picard.

The situation is not quite as rosy at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). “We are still negotiating for almost half of the federal employees we represent, and we are still waiting for positive signs regarding ongoing training in the collective agreements,” points out Stéphane Aubry, its vice president.

Awaiting the progress promised

Beyond the realm of collective bargaining, some unions are also concerned about the political decisions or inaction indirectly affecting workers.
The federal health transfers, an annual envelope granted to the Canadian provinces as a funding top-up for their respective health services, is one example.

Just like his predecessor, the new Canadian Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, has repeated that he will not allow annual transfer increases of over three per cent – a proposal deemed inadequate by the provinces and several workers’ rights groups.

“Its impact on the services delivered to the public is considerable,” says Fleury. “In Quebec, the government has decided to merge various establishments, to compensate. The result is too heavy a workload for health professionals, leading to an increased rate of sick leave.”

Many of the promises made by the Liberal government remain pending. “The Liberals made a firm commitment to reduce subcontracting in the public service and to pass new pay equity legislation. Unfortunately, no concrete action has been taken on these fronts,” says Aubry of the PIPSC.

The Canadian government, for its part, says it is determined to restore a culture of respect towards and within the federal public service.

It points out that it has taken steps to repeal a number of laws introduced by the Conservatives, including legislation that would have made wage arbitration dependent on the government’s budgetary priorities – a change welcomed by various trade unions in the country.

“Under these laws, collective negotiations with the public sector could have been unilaterally derogated and the employment relations regime changed without consultation,” said the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Justin Trudeau’s team has also launched strategies and work groups to promote a healthy and respectful work environment, as well as to strengthen diversity and inclusion within the public service.

The trade unions interviewed pointed to a number of efforts to improve employment relations within the government apparatus, such as the strengthening of the Canada Pension Plan and the recognition of freedom of scientific expression in the collective agreements of Canada’s researchers and scientists.

CETA

Although the demonstrations and condemnations were not as widespread in Canada as in Europe, many private sector trade unions fought against the economic trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA) promoted by Trudeau and signed in October 2016.

“There are simply too many flaws in this agreement to be able to go ahead with its implementation,” says Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, the country’s largest private sector union. “The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism continues to give companies too many powers. Jobs are going to be lost, inequalities will be accentuated and the cost of medicines will increase.”

Prior to its signature, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Mark Hancock, also urged the government not to ratify CETA, as did the national leader of United Steelworkers, Ken Neumann.

“CETA, as written, is fundamentally flawed, and favours corporate interests over those of Canadians,” he insisted.

This story has been translated from French.