PSAC triennial convention opens with acrimony, ends in solidarity
By KATHRYN MAY, The Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 2012
OTTAWA — Canada’s largest federal union, rent by internal strife, put aside its differences this week, elected a new grassroots president, increased dues to help fill a war chest and planned strategies to fight the government’s spending cuts and defeat the Conservatives at the polls.
The spending cuts were at the top of the week-long agenda at the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s triennial convention, but nothing focused the more than 800 delegates and observers than the thousands of job notices sent to employees on the day the gathering began. More than 12,000 PSAC members have received notices over the past month that their jobs could disappear. “It was a concerned delegation that’s very worried about the next three years and they took it very seriously. Nothing focuses the mind like what’s going on with all the cuts. We came out of this really solidly united,” said John MacLennan, president of PSAC’s Union of Defence Employees.
As the largest and most militant federal union, delegates marched on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office on May Day where they yelled, chanted and did all the protest histrionics one expects from a union. But back at the convention hall, the placards were dropped and they got down to business of getting the union’s finances in order and ensuring workers who lose their jobs are treated fairly and as many as possible find new jobs.
But the biggest issue facing the union was how to mobilize its members and Canadians against what it sees as a hostile government that is taking away union jobs, the right to strike and reshaping the role of the public service. Delegates sent the union’s finance committee back to the drawing board several times to find enough money for the biggest war chest — $6.7 million — in the union’s history. The money is needed to launch a campaign over the next three years to harness public opinion in the union’s fight to stop the erosion of public services and save what outgoing PSAC President John Gordon called “Our Canada, not Stephen Harper’s Canada.”
“It’s pretty obvious from this convention that the PSAC has positioned itself to fight the cuts and the kind of fight it’s going to be is in the court of public opinion,” said Larry Rousseau, regional vice-president for the National Capital Region. “We’re going to organize the unorganized… and we’re going to take political action. We will create alliances with other unions, the labour movement and we’ll look for political allies and the NDP is an obvious choice… to help take on Harper.”
The most controversial decision was a hefty dues increase, which could jack up rates as much as $7.84 a month if job losses in the public service drive the union’s membership below 140,000. PSAC’s dues are already the highest among the 18 federal unions and an increase is always highly unpopular with the rank-and-file membership. The biggest increase would come from an emergency levy that could hit up to $5, but it only kicks in if PSAC’s 186,000 strong membership falls below 170,000 because of job cuts over the next three years,
Robyn Benson, the newly-elected president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said she knows members hate dues increases but they were “democratically” voted for at the convention and it’s up to the union to show they get value-for-money in its fight-back campaigns. “I think we have set a clear direction for us in term of political action and about reaching out to members and communities to help build that plan,” she said.
The union backed the $5 levy as an insurance policy to shore up revenues. The union built its budget over the next three years on dues revenues from 170,000 members at an average salary of $51,340, and it will monitor the impact of the cuts every six months and progressively implement a levy if membership shrinks below that threshold. Union leaders aren’t worried about membership slipping below 170,000 in this round of $5.2 billion spending cuts, but they are worried about more and deeper cuts in the government’s 2013 and 2014 budgets. The levy only hits $5 if membership sinks below 140,000.
The union took further steps to deal with the reality of a smaller, aging membership of largely public servants and gave independence to the fastest growing members — the more than 30,000 mostly university workers who have joined the union in the past six years.
PSAC has made big inroads in organizing university workers such as researchers and teaching assistants, especially in Quebec where more than 20,000 have joined the union. It has more than 6,000 workers at McGill University and recently signed up 1,700 more. They are young and smart, and many are strong supporters of the student protests in Quebec and the turbulent tuition hike battle being waged across that province. Those members consider the issues facing students and workers to be the same, and are logical allies for PSAC.
“For us, it’s not just about improving pensions and saving jobs. I’m worried about whether I will ever have a pension or a permanent job,” said Carol Anne Gauthier a research assistant at Laval University.
The delegates approved funding for a youth regional council and rejected proposals to force these workers to join one of the component unions under the PSAC umbrella that represents mostly federal workers. These thousands of young members belong to direct charter locals, the vehicle PSAC created in 1994, to recruit outside the public service. They operate on service agreements with the PSAC to handle issues like grievances and collective bargaining.
Delegates rejected a proposal to roll these small locals into one of the 17 unions or for the locals to form their own component union under the PSAC umbrella. “Whether we join one or create a component, it should be our choice,” said Gauthier. The union plans to keep up its organizing drive at universities and resolved to organize any workers who take public service jobs that are privatized or contracted out.
The cuts have raised a slew of thorny issues in the workplace that the union promised to examine. It approved a study on the abuse of term employees as the government sheds full-time workers and wants a crackdown on student programs that departments are ‘exploiting’ as a short-cuts to hiring students without competing the jobs. Many expressed a growing concern about “precarious” jobs and the growing number of departments, especially Parks Canada, that are using volunteers to do jobs once done by public servants.
Delegates approved campaigns to protect public servants’ pensions and explain to Canadians that they aren’t as costly and unfair as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and C.D. Howe Institute portrays them. They put money into a social justice fund, supported environmental advocacy and gave money to the David Suzuki Foundation and Equiterre. It approved campaigns to stop bullying in the workplace, and ensure First Nations have access to safe drinking water.
Many expected the convention would erupt in acrimony or recriminations over two flashpoints — severance pay and a now derailed plan to boost the pension plans of PSAC executives.
It was PSAC’s first convention since it negotiated a deal to surrender voluntary severance pay owed to public servants when they retired or quit. The deal deeply divided the union and was narrowly approved in a 52-per-cent ratification vote. Members assailed the union leadership for making an unprecedented concession as part of a 5.3 per cent wage deal. Severance is still an issue at the bargaining table for several PSAC groups and other unions, but the government made clear in its budget that it was being “eliminated.”
The fireworks never materialized on the convention floor, but many say the tension helped determine the outcome of the election with Benson, considered a grassroots leader sensitive to the demands of members, who was selected over her closest rival Patty Ducharme, national executive vice-president.
In his final speech, Gordon acknowledged some of board of directors decisions weren’t popular and created “a lot of upset” among the rank-and-file. “We don’t always need to agree, but we do need to work together, even if we disagree with one another.”
“We can’t be divided. We can’t allow the Conservatives — or anyone — to divide us. Anger can be power, so long as we direct it and use it effectively. We have to put our differences aside, and realize our collective power to create a positive change.”