New labour relations model touted for federal government

A cultural overhaul is needed in the federal public sector if strained employee and labour relations are to be mended, a new report from a government-appointed committee recommends.

Anti-union sentiments that run deep in the upper management rungs of the federal sector will have to be overcome, the report states. Government employees must coexist with labour and share power, moving away from a harsh, adversarial approach to a more collaborative one with unions. For their part, unions will have to start trusting the government.

“In short, what is often referred to as a cultural change,” states the Advisory Committee on Labour Management Relations in the Federal Public Service report.

Among the committee’s 33 recommendations is a proposal for a new Public Interest Dispute Resolution Commission, which would settle most public-service bargaining disputes without strikes or the imposition of back-to-work legislation. The commission would report directly to Parliament and would consist of an equal number of union and management participants.

Gene Swimmer, professor of public administration at Carleton University in Ottawa, said having an arms-length body to deal with disputes would give the government less power over the bargaining and disputes process.

“This disputes commission will depoliticize the bargaining process and make it easier for governments to keep their hands off.”

But, it will take a real commitment to make changes happen, something that management in the federal government hasn’t been known for, said Swimmer. “There’s no rules or regulations or laws to affect cultural change. I don’t see it changing and I don’t really see that commitment to change.

“There’s a view within the bureaucracy that unions are just an annoyance and that they really don’t represent workers.”

The ability to legislate employees back to work has always given the government an upper hand in labour relations, said Swimmer.

“It all goes back to the idea that the government has been able to run labour relations with collective bargaining and managers have gotten used to that.”

The report acknowledged the government’s attempt at improving its HR strategies and policies but said it wasn’t enough to improve morale.

“We believe this failure may be due both to the lack of true consultation, as well as an inability to truly comprehend the dynamics of the relationship between the employer and the unions,” states the report.

After decades of strained labour relations, and with a massive possible strike of some 90,000 public servants on the horizon, labour critics say the time is ripe for change.

But while much-needed reforms are radical and promising, labour is skeptical about the fate of the report. Unions fear the report will receive the same fate as those that have preceded it, like PS 2000, which have essentially been shelved.

The tripartite committee, with representation from labour, management and the public, was created by the Treasury Board to look at repairing shattered labour relations in the federal government.

“We think our report will do just that, by allowing the public service to move away from an adversarial, industrial-era approach towards a collaborative, public interest approach suited to today’s knowledge economy,” said John Fryer, chair of the committee.

Legislating employees back to work is a major issue for unions and unless that changes, said Nycole Turmel, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), one of the largest public-sector unions, labour relations in the federal public sector will always be strained.

“As long as (the government) has that right nothing can happen. They abuse back-to-work legislation and they feel like they don’t have to put any effort in the negotiation process. We are ready to defy back-to-work legislation. It’s quite a step for public workers to say that. It means that we’ve had enough,” said Turmel.

The report also recommends that middle managers be able to form an organization, which could provide collective representation short of full collective bargaining.

The committee is also recommending unions be allowed to co-develop staffing, classification and pension systems together with the government.

According to the report, the staffing system should include a list of values like merit, employment equity, fairness and, most importantly, transparency to make the process more consistent.

“There is no credibility within the federal sector when it comes to staffing,” said Turmel, adding that more than 30 per cent of PSAC members are on contract, a trend that has been increasing ever since the early ’90s which has hurt the union movement within the sector.

“There’s a perception that there’s no fair process because it’s different depending what department you’re in.”

Turmel said the committee’s recommendation to have formalized, uniformed staffing procedures could correct that perception.

The committee is presenting this report and a first report, which outlined the issues, to the Treasury Board, which will make recommendations to the Task Force on Public Service Reform.

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