Labour code to get major makeover

Changes to collective bargaining, arbitration process, health and safety proposed in federal budget bill

The hotly-anticipated federal budget bill has been delivered — and with it comes a major public sector makeover.

That includes amendments to the Canada Labour Code and the Public Service Labour Relations Act that would allow the government to arbitrarily decide what bureaus are considered essential services effectively stripping those workers of their ability to negotiate or strike.

As well, the proposal would reform the arbitration process, grievance procedure and redefine what constitutes dangerous work.

While the government said details of the proposed labour code overhaul are forthcoming, unions have drawn a line in the sand, saying further reforming the beleaguered public sector will strain the relationship between employee and employer.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the proposed changes are an attack on collective bargaining rights. By unilaterally designating services as essential, the budget bill would undermine a federal employee’s ability to negotiate a contract, he said.

"There’s been no problem raised with the existing process to designate essential services, so what is the government trying to fix here?"

One case in point being that on the same day the government delivered its budget bill, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) inked its final outstanding contract between its border services agents and the Treasury Board signalling the end of its current round of collective bargaining.

Robyn Benson, president of the PSAC union, argued that is indicative of an effective system. And as the old adage goes — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

"These amendments, if passed, will roll back the state of labour relations 30 years by giving the employer extraordinary unchecked powers in all workplace matters," Benson said. "This legislation is unreasonable and it’s unfair. Instead of modernizing labour relations, the government is proposing drastic limitations to collective bargaining rights, health and safety and human rights protection. If passed, this bill will give the employer the unilateral right to designate employees as essential, effectively taking away the right to collective bargaining. These changes will permanently damage the relationship between the government and its employees."

But Kelly James, spokesperson for the Treasury Board, explained the changes will streamline the collective bargaining process. As part of its budget implementation bill, the government will allow both parties to serve a notice to bargain one year before the current agreement comes to an end. That would significantly enhance the possibility of a settlement ahead of the expiry date.

"The current four-month notice to bargain period does not provide sufficient time for collective agreements to be renewed before they expire," James said, adding that taking the strike path to solve dispute resolutions is often a knee-jerk reaction. Should parties reach an impasse, that has proven disruptive.

Under the proposed legislation, bargaining units with at least 80 per cent of their services deemed essential by the government will instead undergo binding arbitration.

"The arbitration route will bring finality to the bargaining process if the parties reach an impasse, and will minimize disruptions that could negatively impact the health and safety of Canadians," Kelly went on to say. "This proposed change will help to ensure that awards and decisions are equitable to employees and taxpayers when setting or recommending
appropriate levels of compensation for public servants."

Bargaining battles
It comes as no surprise for some that the federal government tabled an upheaval of the way it deals with its employees.

This past year, the public sector was embroiled in labour dispute turmoil. That includes the longest strike in public sector history, which dragged on for six months after foreign diplomats walked off the job demanding equal wages but not before the union filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint (which was upheld by the labour board) against the government.

Despite that, the Treasury Board managed to finalize its collective bargaining blitz and inked deals with all of its members this year, including correctional officers, technical services and aviation inspectors.

For George King, a labour and employment lawyer with McTague Law Firm LLP in Windsor, Ont., it is evident some sort of balance must be struck.

"If you’re going to change the laws, you’re better off reducing the size of the public service," he said. "To try and reduce the size of it by changing the laws is going to be very disruptive and chaotic. At a federal level, I don’t see that quite happening that way. I think there is going to be tough bargaining coming, and I think there will be that’s a given."

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