Budget bill gives government the power to impose sick leave deal it wants.
The proposed measures are another shot at the labour rights of the 17 federal unions, which the government had already eroded leading up to this controversial round of bargaining over sick-leave benefits.
In 2013, the government changed the rules for collective bargaining in a budget bill that significantly diminished the unions’ bargaining clout. The unions are challenging that legislation in court.
“This government has reached a new low,” said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. “What they intend to do to our members’ rights is nothing short of illegal. Their solution is quite simply to override the law.”
The unions were girded for tough measures after Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced in the budget a new short-term disability plan right in the middle of contract talks over the proposal. Union leaders are meeting Friday to discuss the bill’s implications and the impact on bargaining.
The biggest union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is scheduled to go back to the table with Treasury Board negotiators on Tuesday.
“The government has decided to completely throw out any pretence that they intend to respect the collective bargaining rights of its workers,” said PSAC president Robyn Benson.
“This attack on our members’ rights will seriously harm public services by forcing people to go to work sick, and cause irreparable damage to labour relations. We will take every available action in our power to challenge the legislation.”
For now, Clement said he intends to continue bargaining with unions. He said the bill will give him the option of imposing a deal in a “reasonable time frame” but he prefers a negotiated settlement.
“Our goal remains to reach a negotiated agreement with the bargaining agents,” said Clement.
Clement is said to want a deal before the election, so the question is when would he use his power to impose a deal.
The bill leaves that timing wide open. It creates a “period” of time when Treasury Board can impose the terms on the three most contentious issues — the amount of annual sick leave public servants will be entitled to, the amount they can carry over to the next year, and how the existing sick-leave banks will be handled.
That period begins when cabinet decides and sets the date, and ends when the new short-term disability plan comes into effect. The government has already told unions during bargaining that the new disability plan won’t be up and running before 2017.
That leaves the government a lot of leeway. It could start that period before the election and trigger a showdown with the unions, or it could make the new sick leave and disability regime part of an election platform and promise to implement it if elected.
Unions argue the government has shrewdly crafted the bill so it can exploit the timing and a showdown with unions when it will help them the most politically.
“This bill will hold federal public service workers hostage until they accept a plan that forces them to go to work sick,” added Daviau. “We are dealing with ideological bullies who have no concern for the public interest but are focused on their own re-election.”
The bill also says that if sick leave is imposed, the government and unions can continue contract negotiations on any other outstanding issues. They can also strike on any other issue other than sick leave.
Unions fiercely oppose the new short-term disability plan because it would replace existing sick-leave benefits, as well as the 15 million days of unused sick days public servants have banked over the years.
Sick leave has always been negotiated in the public service and the conditions, such as the number of days and the carry-over, enshrined in the collective agreements. Public servants now earn 15 days of paid leave. Unused leave can be rolled over from year to year but their banks disappear when they retire.
In its last offer, the government offered six days of sick leave a year and no rollover.
Once sick leave is used, employees would still face a seven-day unpaid waiting period before applying for short-term disability benefits. On disability, they would collect 100 per cent of salary for five weeks. After that, benefits would be reduced to 70 per cent of salary.
That proposal also proposed a formula that will allow employees with banked sick leave to convert it into credits to top up benefits from 70 per cent of salary to 85 per cent.
The unions have flatly refused any changes to sick leave and argue Clement has never given them a business case to justify the changes.
Under existing legislation, all terms and conditions of employment are “statutorily frozen” or remain in force until a deal is reached or a strike is called. The budget bill overrules that provision.
The budget bill would also force arbitrators to be bound by the sick leave terms the government wants when it is ruling on an impasse. The changes also forbid any changes to sick leave for four years after the new short-term disability plan is implemented.