Major contract negotiations reach “make-it-or-break-it” stage

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Contract negotiations between the country's biggest civil service union and the federal government are at a “make-it-or-break-it” stage, the Public Service Alliance of Canada said Monday.

Negotiators returned to the bargaining table this week for the first time in nearly three months after the Treasury Board of Canada, which bargains on behalf of the government, signalled in June that it was not prepared to back away from proposed changes to sick leave for about 80,000 workers.

The proposal was initially fronted by the previous Conservative government and the Trudeau Liberals campaigned in last year's election on a platform that promised a new working relationship with organized labour.

“This session represents a make-it-or-break-it opportunity for the Liberal government,'' the union said in a statement. “Despite promises of 'sunnier days,' Treasury Board seems insistent on continuing to take direction from the former Conservative government's play book.''

Treasury Board negotiators have been holding firm on a proposal to replace the existing sick leave system with a new short-term disability plan. The proposal would force workers to choose between a pay cheque and going to work sick, said PSAC.

The government, however, said it was seeking a fairer system for all of its employees.

“The employer has tabled a substantially improved sick leave and disability proposal with bargaining agents to address concerns expressed by unions during previous negotiations, and we are committed to continuing to work with the bargaining agents to find areas of common ground to achieve progress toward an agreement,” said Treasury Board spokesman Jean-Luc Ferland.

“The proposed modernization of the disability and sick leave management system aims to provide all employees with equitable access to adequate income support and services for absences due to illness (or) injury.”

Recent troubles with the federal government's new payroll system have added pressure to the talks, with the union saying the problems have reinforced its concerns about whether the government could manage any major benefit changes.

“After the debacle with the Phoenix pay system, the relationship between the government and public service workers is severely damaged,” said PSAC national president Robyn Benson.
“How can we now trust the government to 'modernize' sick leave?”

The pay system troubles have resulted in thousands of government workers being improperly paid, or in some cases not paid at all. The government has said it expects to deal with a backlog of pay problems, which still number in the tens of thousands, by the end of October.

The union has taken the pay issues to the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board, accusing the government of violating the Public Service Labour Relations Act by changing the conditions of employment when it didn't provide timely and accurate pay to its employees during collective bargaining.

PSAC said it's seeking to reverse damage done to public services by years of Conservative cuts through the contract talks, which have dragged on for more than two years.

The government has proposed allowing its employees eight days of sick leave annually, with the ability to carry over two days into the next year.

Public servants currently get 15 days a year of paid sick leave, which they can roll over and bank from year to year.

Treasury Board's plan would see the existing bank, which has about 15 million days of unused sick leave, abolished.

The union said it has proposed contract language that would result in fairer treatment for workers when changes are made to the delivery of government services.

It has also asked for wage increases totalling nine per cent over three years.

Earlier this year the government had offered 0.5 per cent wage increases in each of three years, pay hikes it has already promised its executives.

PSAC is also seeking new collective agreement language on workplace childcare and an expansion of the definition of ``family'' to make benefits more inclusive.
  • The Canadian Press
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