Canada

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Nycole Turmel and the Public Service Alliance of Canada are ready to challenge the Liberals

JOHN GEDDES September 17 2001
Canada

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Nycole Turmel and the Public Service Alliance of Canada are ready to challenge the Liberals

JOHN GEDDES September 17 2001

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Canada

Nycole Turmel and the Public Service Alliance of Canada are ready to challenge the Liberals

BY JOHN GEDDES in Ottawa

For a rookie union boss contemplating leading her first big strike, Nycole Turmel seems curiously at ease. In an interview in her Ottawa office last week, a few days after negotiations between her Public Service Alliance of Canada and the federal government broke off, PSAC’s national president reminisced fondly about her childhood in rural Quebec—as though there was nothing much on her mind but the old family dairy farm. Even when the talk turned to her adversaries, Turmel remained easygoing. Asked about Treasury Board president Lucienne Robillard, whose cabinet post puts her in charge of the government’s bargaining strategy, Turmel had kind words for a fellow Québécois. “I respect her a lot,” she said without pausing to think. “She has worked to change a few things.” Turmel credited Robillard for finally agreeing to setde the drawn-out batde over pay equity for female government workers back in 1999.

Talk like that in the legendarily embittered world of federal labour relations will take some getting used to. Turmel’s predecessor, blunt-spoken Daryl Bean, who retired in 2000 after 15 conflict-filled years as PSAC’s rabble-rouser-in-chief, sure never let on he had a diplomatic side. But Turmel is no softy. Last spring, anticipating this fall’s contract crunch, she strongly suggested PSAC prepare to defy back-towork legislation—the expected government response to a major public service strike. “Defying legislation is not without

considerable risk,” she told PSAC’s board of directors. “But the imposition of legislation heaped upon legislation without unqualified defiance from our side has made it easy for the government to enter each successive bargaining round with reasonable assurance that it can and will prevail. Those days are over.”

Whether Turmel will have to back up that militant rhetoric with action was not certain last week. The likelihood of a full-blown strike seemed high. PSAC’s 87,000 federal members have been without a contract for more than a year. Bargaining broke off on Aug. 30 with the two sides dug in over money—the inevitable make-orbreak issue. Robillard was offering 3.2-percent, 2.8-per-cent and 2.5-per-cent salary hikes over a three-year deal. Turmel had been demanding five per cent a year, but has signalled a willingness to take a little less, especially in the first year. Gene Swimmer, an authority on federal labour relations at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, said the gap did not look insurmountable—on paper. But he said PSAC rank and file might be in no mood to accept less than the substantial raise Turmel’s team has been telling them they deserve.

What’s acceptable is all a matter of comparisons. On the hand-lettered picket signs PSAC members were carrying on limited walkouts last week, a typical message read, “20% for MPs, 8.7% for bosses, 3% for workers—It’s not fair.” Those descending numbers sum up why many federal employees feel insulted. And the statistics are

hard to ignore. MPs voted themselves a 20-per-cent raise in June, and the government acted swiftly on a special task force’s recommendation by granting its senior mandarins 8.7-per-cent hikes last January. “The PSAC workers are saying, ‘We’re important too’—it makes them more willing to take a stand,” says Swimmer.

Even Walter Robinson, federal director of the right-leaning Canadian Taxpayers Federation—hardly a natural PSAC ally—betrays some sympathy for the union’s stance. “The government is in a very tenuous moral position to say, ‘We took 20 per cent, but you get inflation.’ PSAC has an argument to make there,” he admits. Still, Robinson predicts that, valid or not, comparisons with recent big raises for MPs and management bureaucrats won’t make a dent in public opinion that remains resoundingly unsympathetic to the hardship pleas of unionized government workers. In fact, a study published last year comparing privateand publicsector salaries backs up the conventional wisdom that government workers generally do better.

Confident of winning any war of public opinion, the government is pursuing its own agenda. The priority these days is attracting and holding on to highly mobile professionals—not the clerks and service workers who make up PSAC s core. That 8.7-per-cent raise for top bureaucrats was one move in the direction of what Lucienne Robillard calls “retention and recruiting.” There have also been big hikes for computer experts and other professionals outside PSAC. One subject that stirs Turmel out of her calm demeanour is the Treasury Boards emphasis on so-called knowledge workers. She calls the term itself “insidious,” and argues it signals the emergence of a new kind of class division.

Turmel made her name fighting another sort of division, the one between male and female workers. She started in 1978 as a typist in a federal office in Lac-St-Jean, Que., a 35-year-old recently divorced mother with three children. She was shocked by the lack of communication between managers and workers, especially women in pink-collar jobs. It was a far cry, Turmel says, from the one-big-family feel-

ing her parents fostered with employees at the farm and dairy they owned. She got a taste of victory when Ottawa dramatically boosted maternity benefits after a clerical workers’ strike in 1981. By 1991, she had climbed to the PSAC executive level in Ottawa, where she threw herself into the pay-equity battle. Eight years later, after Ottawa lost a landmark court case, Robillard agreed to pay about $3.5 billion retroactively to some 230,000 current and former public service employees, mainly women deemed to have been underpaid for years.

But those wins came when Turmel was working mainly behind the scenes. The current contract deadlock demands that she step out in front. A strike would test the militancy that led her to suggest breaking a back-to-work law. A return to the table for a last-ditch deal might expose PSAC’s first female president to criticism that she backed down. Either way, this new-style labour leader is facing an old-style labour battle—one that could decide whether she will last long at the helm of one of Canada’s most powerful unions. ESI

GOVERNMENT WORK: It’s different

Public-sector employees earn more than private-sector workers with similar jobs and skills. On average, that wage difference has increased steadily, from 4.6 per cent in 1971 to 5.5 per cent in 1981,8.5 per cent in 1991 and nine per cent in 1996.

60 per cent of public-sector jobs are managerial/professional, compared with 30 per cent in the private sector.

Private-sector managers make 41 per cent more than their service workers, while government management jobs pay just 10 per cent more than service occupations.

Source: Canadian Policy Research Networks policy paper, based on 1996 census and 1997 Statistics Canada labour force survey