Tories use budget bill to take another swipe at organized labour

Well, the Tories are at it again. Bill C-4, the second budget
implementation act, has been released, and it has all the faults one has come
to expect of the omnibus bills this government is so fond of.

In a bill that purports to relate to the budget, the Tories have taken
the opportunity to cram in measures that restrict the right of public servants
to strike and allows the government to encroach on areas of labour that have
worked quite well without the government’s excessive involvement until now. The
changes contained in the bill are nothing more than thinly veiled efforts by
this government to disempower workers and assert its authority over the lives
and rights of Canada’s working men and women.

A case in point is the bill’s proposed changes to the definition of
“essential services”. The bill repeals the definition of “essential services”
in section 4(1) of the Public Service
Labour Relations Act[1]
which presently reads:

“essential service” means a service, facility or activity of the Government of
Canada that is or will be, at any time, necessary for the safety or security of
the public or a segment of the public.

section 294(2), Bill C-4 aims to repeal and replace this definition with the

“essential service” means a service, facility or activity
of the Government of Canada that has been determined under subsection 119(1)
to be essential.

The difference is subtle, but substantial. Bill C-4 gives the government
the exclusive power under s. 119(1) over determining whether or not a service is essential. The
proposed changes contained in Bill C-4 have the potential to grossly increase
the number of public service workers who are not permitted to strike[2].
As essential services are already severely limited in their ability to strike,
this change could severely hamper the ability of unions to conduct job action
and weaken their bargaining powers.

Legislating a right to define “essential service” which leaves the power
to define this term in the hands of a Government that has often been anything
but friendly to organized labour, threatens to undermine the bargaining power
of unions. Enabling the Government to define “essential service” would limit
the use of binding arbitration to resolve disputes. Under the provisions of
Bill C-4, arbitration would only be available to bargaining units where a
minimum of 80% of the positions have been designated as “essential”, or if both
parties agree to submit to arbitration. If the government is one of those
parties, the odds of it submitting to arbitration are highly unlikely.

Some have expressed concerns that the Government may simply declare all
services “essential” and so strip public service workers of the power to
strike. In an attempt to allay concerns, Tony Clement has said there’s no cause
for concern and that the he would be bound by law and principles of judicial
review to act reasonably in making designation decisions about the extent of
“essential service”.[3]

But it’s hard to take any comfort in Mr. Clement’s assurances. When
pressed on how he intended to use the new powers Bill C-4 would confer on him,
if passed, Mr. Clement is reported to have said the bill has to pass before any
of us would get a chance to see how he intends to use the new powers. He is
reported to have told the CBC that:
“I am waiting
for this legislation to pass and then details will come forward “[4].

The bill also aims to expand the role of government in
health and safety matters for workers. Specifically, the bill removes power
from health and safety offices under the Canada
Labour Code
and transfers these powers to Ministers.

NDP MP, Alex Atamanenko, has expressed concern over Bill
C-4, saying:

Once again, the Conservatives
are trying to cram through major changes without sufficient study by
Parliament. What is disturbing is that the biggest and most objectionable
change found in this piece of legislation, changes the rights of Canadians’
health and safety in the workplace.[5]

That the Conservatives have crammed these unrelated provisions
into a supposed budget bill that is in excess of 300 pages is unsurprising.
Cramming them in limits the opportunity for debate. And when the government
tries to take away the rights of workers, the last thing it would want is
debate. This was recently demonstrated when the Conservatives moved to limit
Second Reading of the bill and forge on ahead.  

With such sweeping changes to the PSLRA and workplace
health and safety, Bill C-4 should rightly be split into separate bills that
would allow time for thorough study and thoughtful debate in the House of
Commons. The NDP has been demanding the bill be split. If the opposition is
successful in having the bill split, they may just be able to protect workers
from the repressive measures proposed in Bill C-4, and even to preserve some
semblance of the democratic process while they’re at it.

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