Federal lawyers want collective bargaining

By Asha Tomlinson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2003

Federal lawyers for the Department of Justice are seeking justice for themselves.

Although legislation prohibits them from forming a union, a majority of federal Crown attorneys voted to form an association, which they consider the next best thing. Of the 1,974 eligible to vote, 1,452 did so, and of those, 87 per cent voted to form an association. A newly elected interim executive is currently negotiating with management for voluntary recognition, and hopes to represent members in employment relations and collective bargaining.

“The leaders of this initiative have worked towards this goal for several years as a result of lack of representation in the past with respect to compensation, job classification and the terms and conditions of employment,” said Lois Lehmann, interim president of the Association of Justice Counsel. “There are also issues concerning fairness in promotions and problems with the performance appraisal system.”

This movement sparked into action after Crown attorneys working for the Ontario government were awarded a 30 per cent pay increase in binding arbitration last fall. With a large number of both federal and provincial Crown attorneys working in Toronto, the disparity in salaries is glaring.

“Since justice salaries had, in the past, been based in the greater Toronto area on parity with the province, this award provided the initiative for us to move ahead,” said Lehmann

Federal lawyers in Ontario receive salaries ranging from about $46,000 to $126,000, much lower than their provincial counterparts whose salaries range from $63,000 to $164,000.

Mark Thompson, an industrial relations professor at the University of British Columbia said the pay difference is unfair.

“If you’re 10 to 15 per cent behind other public lawyers who are doing similar work, that’s hard to swallow and you’re supposed to be the federal government, the top of the heap, you’re supposed to be setting the tone for the country.”

Federal Crown attorneys cannot form a union based on the Public Service Staff Relations Act and justice lawyers have been excluded from collective bargaining since 1967.

This June, the Fryer Report on Labour Management in the federal public service recommended this and other exclusions should be removed. Thompson agrees, he said lawyers should have the right to form a union if they want.

“The other professionals in the federal government have a union and they bargain collectively and by and large it works, and there is no reason why lawyers should be any different.”

Lehmann said with the changing nature of work for lawyers the exclusion should no longer be supported.

“We are in the view that our relationship with our employer was out of date and anachronistic, the situation required change,” she said.

The association is not the first of its kind. Lehmann said they took example from the unions and associations representing provincial Crown prosecutors and civil lawyers in other provinces, all with recognition and collective bargaining status, she said.

To gain support, the interim executive is conducting a membership campaign.

They expect to organize a governing council of representatives from justice offices across Canada and will elect a permanent executive in January 2002.

They would also like to arrange a mandatory dues deduction from their employer in the new year. One of their biggest challenges is to be treated as a legitimate organization. Thompson said there is a possibility this might not happen.

“There is an issue as to where they (the association) would fit into the overall bargaining structure. Some of the senior people in government don’t want to deal with unions at all. (Since) they have already got a bunch of unions, it complicates their lives. So, like a lot of employers, they would rather not have a union.”

The association is making specific demands to the government. These include a competitive national compensation package, a fair effective and transparent performance review system, job security and extensive changes to terms and conditions of employment.

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