COVER

SAYING ‘NO’ TO ZERO

CIVIL SERVANTS SHOW A TOUGH NEW FACE

GLEN ALLEN September 23 1991
COVER

SAYING ‘NO’ TO ZERO

CIVIL SERVANTS SHOW A TOUGH NEW FACE

GLEN ALLEN September 23 1991

SAYING ‘NO’ TO ZERO

COVER

CIVIL SERVANTS SHOW A TOUGH NEW FACE

In her eight years as a federal public servant, Robin Leckie never went to a single meeting of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. But last week, as the 155,000-member union alliance unleashed its first-ever national general strike, the 32-year-old defence department supervising clerk willingly walked a PSAC picket line, hoisting a placard that read, “You can’t break us, Brian.” Said Leckie: “I just thought it was time to take a stand.” Leckie, who is single, said that she is satisfied with her $31,000-a-year salary. But other working conditions leave her increasingly angry. For one thing, she said, by the end of the year the number of staff in her office will be reduced by she people to 28—while the work load will remain the same. That, she added, makes her fear that the Conservative government is “trying to phase out half the public service by the year 2000.” And even as the government prepared to introduce back-towork legislation when Parliament resumed sitting this week, with the threat of heavy fines for violators, Leckie remained defiant. “I don’t feel like backing off,” she said.

Hardships: That resolve was typical of the spirit that galvanized the traditionally timid Public Service Alliance last week. The strike by the country’s largest single labor organization flexed muscles that few observers believed the 25-year-old union had. The walkout quickly affected a wide range of government services, delaying traffic at airports and harbors, closing waterways and jamming border crossings. Ships carrying Canadian grain bound for China were halted. Convicts at an Agassiz, B.C., prison, complaining of strike-related hardships, rioted. Industrial production staggered, as imported manufacturing components were delayed at border customs posts.

The impact of the strike caught many Canadians off guard. Others were simply outraged. Business associations, their members still reeling from the effects of recession, demanded that Ottawa act promptly to bring disruptions to an end. Said Catherine Swift, chief economist of the Toronto-based, 88,000-member Canadian Federation of Independent Business: “This strike has had definite and profound consequences. The damage is real and some of it is permanent.” The Canadian Manufacturers’ Association also pleaded with the government to legislate an end to the strike.

The government’s response was hardnosed. As the strike neared the end of its fifth day, Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle announced that he would ask Parliament this week to order striking workers back to their jobs—without financial concessions and with no opportunity to reopen their contract for the next two years. Said Loiselle: “We cannot accept that the economy or certain businesses be endangered.” But in a climate already deeply poisoned by mutual distrust, it was far from certain that even the full weight of Parliament would succeed in forcing a quick end to the strike—let alone restore efficiency and vitality to the country’s troubled public service. Earlier in the week, PSAC president Daryl Bean said that he was prepared to go to jail rather than obey a back-to-work order. Following Loiselle’s announcement, he remained defiant, declaring: “They may be able to legislate us back to work, but they sure as hell can’t legislate how we work.”

Indeed, Loiselle’s back-to-work legislation was by no means assured of swift passage. Liberal spokesmen urged the government to refer the dispute to mediation. For their part, New Democratic Party MPS said that they would stall any attempt to legislate an end to the walkout—which would deprive the Tories of the unanimous consent required to ensure speedy legislative passage. Indeed, Commons officials said that it could take as long as IV2 weeks for Parliament to act.

Cynical: However long the strike lasted, its effects appeared certain to be felt long after the picket lines went down. For one thing, last week’s emotionally charged walkout appeared to have emboldened many union members. According to union spokesmen, about 70 per cent of PSAC’s members who were eligible to strike (45,000 union members in such essential jobs as airport fire departments are prohibited from striking) walked out—compared with 62 per cent who voted for the job action. Said Donald Schultz, PSAC regional representative for Vancouver: “We have been a docile union for many years, but we have been pushed into a comer.” At the same time, despite polls that showed wide support for the government’s goal of wage restraint, it was unclear that the Conservatives’ handling of the walkout had won over the public. Swift, for one, was critical of what she called the Tory government’s “cynical” strategy to undercut support for the even more fiscally conservative Reform party. At the same time, striking civil servants strove to link PSAC’s cause with public antagonism towards the Prime Minister, waving placards that read, “Honk if you hate Mulroney.”

With its frequently strong-arm tactics on the picket line, however, the union attracted its own share of criticism. In Vancouver, unruly PSAC members jostled shopkeepers who tried to enter that city’s downtown Sinclair Centre. Said bookshop owner Lucy Stewart: “There were grown, huge men pushing me as I tried to enter. How can they do this to me?” In Ottawa, an orthopedic surgeon on his way to perform an operation suffered a concussion after picketers, apparently mistaking him for a strikebreaker, knocked him from his bicycle. Travellers and transport workers in many centres across the country fumed over border delays and flight cancellations arising from the strike. Declared Summerside, P.E.I., bag manufacturer Paul Sambrook: “It is disconcerting to see how these strikers are treating people. I have a lot of trouble finding sympathy for them.”

Layoffs: Other critics attacked the publicservice union for placing its members’ interests ahead of those of the country. For his part, Howard Ewashko, sales manager of a Fort McMurray, Alta.,; forest-products firm, declared: “The union is doing its best to slow down the economy of the country even more.” What sympathy the union did attract focused on the government’s refusal to offer PSAC’s members any increase in salary in the first year of a new contract. At a time when the national inflation rate is running at 5.8 per cent, the freeze appeared to many Canadians to be, at the least, insensitive. One observer who shared that view was Ontario’s NDP premier, Bob Rae, who remarked in an interview with Maclean's last week that “legislating zero and expecting co-operation is a little strange.”

But more than money was at issue. PSAC’s striking members also complained about Ottawa’s increasing recourse to part-time and contract workers to supplement—and, in some cases, replace—unionized labor. Claiming that 13,000 workers have been displaced within the public service since the Mulroney government took office—and that 2,000 of them have lost their jobs permanently—the union demanded that any new contract guarantee that its members would not suffer layoffs or reduced work hours as a result of contracting-out, and that any reduction in the public service be achieved through attrition.

For his part, Loiselle said that federal public servants already enjoy “about the best job security available.” Government officials also argued that its monetary stand was in line with the overall target of reducing the $30.5-billion federal deficit. They pointed out that several provinces—among them Newfoundland and New Brunswick—as well as some private companies, have also instituted wage freezes. As for the job losses that PSAC’s members fear, officials claimed that all but 1,200 of the 13,000 federal workers displaced in cuts since 1985 have found other jobs in the civil service.

In fact, comparisons between the wages and benefits earned by public servants and those available in the private sector reveal a rough parity. In a recent wage survey, Labor Canada reported in July that public-sector wage settlements in the first five months of 1990 had averaged three per cent—compared with private-sector settlements averaging 5.1 per cent. Despite that apparent gap, other surveys indicate that public servants earn wages similar to those earned by private-sector workers with comparable skills and education. According to one recent study by the Metropolitan Toronto Board of Trade, for instance, the average mail-room clerk working for business in the Ontario capital earns $20,700 annually, $700 more than a PSAC member would earn for the same position. But the same survey found that corporate secretaries in Toronto earn an average of $31,200—$600 less than PSAC’s existing contract awards similar employees in government. In addition, PSAC members enjoy inflation-proof pensions that rise automatically with the consumer price index—a luxury that only a few of the most powerful private-sector unions have won for their members.

Peace: Still, many of the striking government workers insist that such comparisons conceal their deteriorating standard of living. Louis Martinet, a 25-year-old clerk in the Health and Welfare office in Montreal’s Guy Favreau complex, for one, supports his wife and 11-monthold daughter on a salary of $22,300. A permanent part-time public worker for the past five years, Martinet complained: “I still can’t manage to put in enough hours to make a decent salary.” He added: “Around 60 per cent of us work under the same scheme. It’s hard to make ends meet.” For her part, Anita Sewall, a 33year-old Calgary Public Works draftsman and single mother of three, noted that while her $36,000 salary is higher than that of many PSAC members, because of inflation, “any way you look at it, I am going backwards.”

Those sentiments, widely shared among PSAC’s members, are certain to leave a residue of resentment whatever the outcome of Loiselle’s declared intention to order the strikers back to work this week. And among civil servants themselves, relations between those who walked out and the roughly 30 per cent of PSAC members who continued to work will also be strained for some time to come. In Robin Leckie’s Ottawa office, only one of her colleagues crossed PSAC’s picket line. According to Leckie, “She said she would lose her home if she didn’t go to work.” But the militant defence department clerk offered no sympathy. “When and if we come back,” said Leckie, “she will be isolated.” Clearly, such sentiments did not bode well either for future peace in the civil service or for a much-inconvenienced public which, in the end, pays the bills.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa with correspondents’ reports