Federal PS unions unite to challenge constitutionality of omnibus budget bill

By KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN December 10, 2013

Federal PS unions unite to challenge constitutionality of omnibus budget bill‘The questions asked by Conservative MPs (at committees) made it clear that the primary aim of the omnibus bill is not to modernize labour relations, but rather to make it easier for the government to attack the pay and benefits of federal public servants,” the Public Service Alliance of Canada said in a statement Tuesday. Photograph by: Ashley Fraser , Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Canada’s 17 federal unions plan to take the Conservative government to court to challenge the constitutionality of new labour laws that will overhaul collective bargaining and health and safety in the workplace.

Robyn Benson, president of the giant Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the unions met last week and decided to initiate legal action as soon as the changes, buried in the omnibus budget bill, are passed.

She said the union also intends to file a complaint with the International Labour Organization, alleging the new law will undermine key labour rights that Canada has adopted as a signatory.

“We want the government to know that we have no intention of taking this. We acknowledge they have a majority but they are doing our members wrong. There was no consultation at all,” said Benson.

”We are all on the same page with respect to Bill C-4. We know it’s going to pass … and we’re going to take a number of steps, including a legal challenge and going to the ILO,” said Benson.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement has said he wants the bill passed by Christmas so it will be in effect when the next round of collective bargaining begins in 2014. The budget bill was passed by the House of Commons Monday night in a vote of 145 to 122 and is now at the Senate for first reading.

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Clement didn’t comment on the union’s legal challenge but repeated his promise to “set public service pay and benefit levels that are reasonable, responsible and in the public interest.” As a result, he said in an email that the overhaul of the Public Service Labour Relations Act is necessary to ensure the public service is “affordable, modern and high-performing as taxpayers expect.”

The unions argue the changes will significantly diminish the power of unions and their bargaining clout at the negotiating table. They argue the bill effectively eliminates the right to collective bargaining and waters down the health and safety provisions protecting public servants and other employees working in federally regulated industries.

The Saskatchewan government introduced a similar overhaul of labour legislation that labour has taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. The unions argue the changes infringe on rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly the freedom of association and freedom of expression.

Benson said the federal unions asked the government to delay the changes until the Supreme Court makes its ruling, but it refused.

A big complaint of all the unions, labour organizations and other stakeholders is that the budget bill amendments were drafted without any consultation, study or evidence why such changes were needed. The changes affect the Public Service Labour Relations Act, which was originally passed in 1967 to give public servants the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

The reforms effectively put the government in the driver’s seat when determining which unions get to strike and which ones go to arbitration to resolve any contract disputes. They also give the government the exclusive right to decide which workers are essential and can’t strike. The changes also reduce the independence of arbitrators and ensure they base their awards on the government’s budgetary priorities.

Until now, the unions appealed to the government and the various committees studying the budget bill to withdraw the changes from the budget bill and instead consult with them on new legislation. The unions say they also want new legislation and a labour regime patterned after the Canada Labour Code, which governs the private sector. Those appeals have so far failed.

In fact, the unions and other labour organizations were invited to the Commons finance committee to make their final appeals for changes when the deadline for any proposed amendments had already passed.

A statement from the unions said the questions asked by Conservative MPs during those hearings showed the bill has little to do with Clement’s resolve to “modernize” labour relations but rather to “make it easier for the government to attack the pay and benefits of public servants.”

The bill also changes the Canada Labour Code with a new definition of danger that unions say will limit the right of workers to refuse dangerous work.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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