Accueil » 29-4 ( 1974) » L’avenir du syndicalisme dans la fonction publique fédérale du Canada

L’avenir du syndicalisme dans la fonction publique fédérale du Canada

Claude A. Edwards


L'auteur fait le point sur l'état actuel de la négociation collective dans la fonction publique fédérale canadienne. Il souligne que l'habitude de donner des augmentations salariales en termes procentuels plutôt qu'en termes absolus a considérablement augmenté les écarts de traitement au détriment des fonctionnaires à faibles revenus et que ceci va créer d'importantes tensions dans les futures négociations. Il discute également de la consultation institutionnalisée de la négociation concertée et du rôle que sera appelée à jouer la Commission de la fonction publique.


The Future of Public Service Unionism in Canada


Before we consider the future, it is necessary to briefly examine the past and the present since any prediction as to what is in store must relate to our present and past experiences.

In the Federal Public Service, we have only had collective bargaining for about six years. We are now in our third round of negotiations. The first was an exhilarating experience with a great deal of mutual good faith, limited expertise on both sides of the bargaining table and a number of very difficult problems. The task of conversion of the former classification system into 72 bargaining units with an occupationally oriented classification system was monumental in scope. We managed to incorporate in those agreements many improvements for our membership, particularly those employees who were previously known as « Prevailing Rate employees ».

I rather believe the Treasury Board felt that the initial government negotiators had given away the store in the first round. New faces appeared at the bargaining table and improvements were harder to get in the second round; the honeymoon was over yet employees with limited experience in collective bargaining seemed to think that their representatives needed only to ask and the Treasury Board would provide. If their particular desires were not met in the collective agreement, then obviously their negotiators simply had not asked or demanded.


The present round of negotiations has been even tougher and at the same time the needs and expectations of employees have increased. Rising expectations result from a number of factors : the principal factor at this time is obviously the rapid inflationary increases in the Consumer Price Index. An employee, particularly one at the lower end of the salary spectrum, is hard hit by inflation. In addition, the T.V. has projected every rich man's life style into every poor man's living room, but rather than being able to acquire that life style, he has difficulty making ends meet. Food prices of basic commodities such as meat, bread, milk, etc. go up weekly, not monthly or yearly as he experienced in the past. Rents continue to go up. His dream of acquiring a home of his own becomes just a pipe dream and his frustrations mount in the process. The timid become tigers. They reject authority and the rules. They are not prepared to play the game as it was planned. They expect immediate, sustained, effective action to meet their demands. What might be considered a great achiement in quieter times is dismissed with an expletive as being little or nothing.

Government employees see employees in private industry turning down 12% increases in one year, $2.90 per hour increases in construction trades and they relate those events to their own collective agreements. As a result agreements nogotiated at the table using the traditional yardstick of comparability with wages paid to similar employees in the private sector have little chance of ratification. So far this year, five tentative agreements have been rejected by the membership in relation to one agreement prior to this year. One rejected settlement provided over 30% increase in wages plus some additional fringes over a 251/2 month period. The settlement was negotiated under the pressure of an illegal strike and was the largest negotiated wage increase to date in the Public Service. It was not ratified by the membership and is now awaiting a binding arbitration award.


However, it would be unfair and unwise to attribute the present unrest entirely to forces in the immediate environment. The tensions have been building for a decade and are rooted in an increasingly articulated position that wage earners on the lower end of the totem pole are not sharing in Canada's growth and prosperity.

The greatest challenge of collective bargaining in the next few years — in both the public and private sectors - will be how to improve the relative position of workers in this country who have failed to secure a fair share of the fruits of our nation's economic growth and development.

For the private sector these are the unorganized employees who work at or near the legal minimum wage - and sometimes for substantially less than they are supposed to be guaranteed by law. It is a sad reflection on the otherwise substantial achievements of organized labour in this country that nearly a century after the first employees were organized in Canada, and 35 years after the law provided protection to employees against the use of strong-arm employer methods to restrict the encroachment of the unions, more than two-thirds of Canada's work force remains unorganized.

In the municipalities and provincial institutions a great deal of progress has been made in the past decade, although there is room for improvement in both the form and substance of collective bargaining in many provincial civil services. In the Public Service of Canada, the challenge to the unions is not to increase our coverage, which is within a few percentage points of total, or to secure the right to bargain - a right we secured in 1967 - but to raise the incomes of those who are struggling to survive at the bottom of the heap. There is little doubt that rampant inflation has increased our sensitivity to the plight of our lower-paid members and the problems they face in trying to make ends meet on poverty-line incomes. Perhaps, in our anxiety to assure public servants wages comparable to those paid in the private sector, we hâve been a party to wage settlements for low wage earners which, although statistically defensible, were morally outrageous. The « percentage increase » syndrome which has permeated the collective bargaining scène in Canada for the past decade, provides for wage increases which purport to maintain relationships between workers at various income levels, but in fa.ct cons-titutes a statistical camouflage for increasing distortion of the relative affluence of those in high income brackets and the relative deprivation of those in the lower brackets. Percentage wage increases do not reveal the extent of improvement or lack of improvement in purchasing power of those who receive the increase, as anyone whose income is nil can demonstrate. A ten percent increase in a nil income provides its beneficiary with no increase in purchasing power.

Let us, for example, consider the position of three wage earners during the 60's whose wages in 1960 were $3,000, $18,000 and $50,000 respectively and who received annual increases of 5%. Assuming a nil income tax for the low wage earner, an effective tax of 30% for the middle wage earner and 40% for the high wage earner, the increase in annual purchasing power at the end of the decade will be $1,654.00 for the low wage earner, $6,947 for the middle wage earner and $16,540 for the high wage earner.

In 1960, the purchasing power of the high wage earner exceeded that of the low wage earner by $27,000. In 1969 the purchasing power of the high wage earner exceeded that of the low wage earner by $41,886.00.

The aggregate purchasing power of the low wage earner throughout the ten-year period was $37,734.00 of the middle wage earner was $158,482 and of the high wage earner was $377,337.00

Most workers in North American society, including members of the Public Service Alliance, do not believe everyone should receive an identical wage. They believe there should be an appropriate differential in wages and salaries to reflect the different contributions made by different individuals and to provide incentivesfor people to acquire higher skills and education and accept broader and more demanding responsibilities. But I do not believe that they approve of the ever-widening arc between those at the lower end of the pay scale and those at the upper end, and the regressive distribution of national income which is the inevitable consequence of our present wage culture.

This ever-widening gap is, I believe, the gravest issue confronting our society today. It says, very simply, that those who eat high on the hog will eat higher as time goes on, and that those who eat low on the hog will soon be surviving -if they survive at all - on the tail and the hocks. How long will the mass of low wage earners in this country acquiesce peacefully to this demonstrably discriminatory wage and salary culture ? How much can they take without revolt ?


The Public Service Alliance is attempting to redress the worst effects of this regressive wage cycle in which we have been trapped since we were bargaining in 1967. Our concern for what has been happening is reflected in some of our recent settlements which have modified the standard percentage increase formula with larger increases for the lower grades, either in percentage terms or by coupling percentage increases with flat rate settlements. The recent $500.00 across-the-board cost-of-living increase for employees in the Public Service was a modest step in the right direction and one which we shall endeavour to repeat in one form or another. Its impact in percentage terms - even before tax was 10% for the $5,000 wage earner and approximately 1% for those at the top of the wage spectrum.

However, neither the Treasury Board as the employer nor the unions with which the Board negotiates are free to opt out of the wage culture of the community. Since the Government is committed to a policy of relating salaries paid to their employees to the salaries of taxpayers doing similar work, bargaining agents will have difficulty securing rates of pay for their members in excess of rates paid by good employers in the private sector. Consequently significant change can only be brought about if employees and bargaining agents throughout the country make a substantial effort to find patterns and formulae for wage adjustments that will check the socially immoral wage relationships which have been force-fed by percentage increases for two decades.

When you consider that the average wage in the Federal Public Service today is approximately $9,700 and according to the latest statistics of the Treasury Board there are approximately 120,000 employees of the service earning less than $10,000 per year, it is understandable that the frustrations of these employees may be manifest in a number of ways.


Many, of the frustrations of employees will be directed at their unions as well as their employer. While wild eat strikes and demonstrations may occur morefrequently so will attempts to change bargaining agents or union leadership : not that other agents or leadership will have any simple solutions to the problems.

Union discipline will be difficult to maintain and there is likely to be disrespect for the rules of the union as well as the rules of the employer. This will make the bargaining relationship more difficult since neither union nor management can be sure of the acceptance of any agreement that is made. The employer as a result, is likely to hold back his best offer in order to have some-thing in reserve in the event of non-ratification or a wild-cat strike. The union representative on the other hand will be reluctant to accept and recommend what he normally would consider to be an acceptable offer unless he believes he has solid support for the proposal.

All this, of course, leads to tougher bargaining, less negotiated agreements, more use of dispute settlement machinery and the likelihood of increased disruption and unrest.

The frustrations brought about by inflation and a wage policy that continues to widen the gap between the low wage earner and the high wage earner can provide the greatest test of the capabilities of all those involved in labour relations to maintain a system established to develop and maintain a good collective bargaining relationship between employer and employees with a minimum of stress.


The labour relations system of the public service has been marked by substantial use of consultation between the parties as a means of resolving problems or establishing certain terms and conditions of employment. Generally terms and conditions of employment that were established on a universal basis throughout the service were dealt with in this way. The most noteworthy forum for consultation in the Federal Service is the National Joint Council formed 30 years ago.

There is a marked need for a mechanism that will enable the parties to establish similar working conditions and benefits since employees tend to relate their working conditions to others around them. The decisions reached through the Council have permitted universal application on the same effective date, a circumstance that would be most difficult under the normal bargaining procedures where different collective agreements have different expiry dates. The N.J.C. process also prevents « whipsawing » by either the employer or the unions, a situation that would likely occur if conditions were negotiated separately for all bargaining units.

If the National Joint Council is to continue as a forum for consultation, I believe both unions and management must commit greater resources to it. At the present time, the work of the Council is principally performed by Committees of management and union personnel, all of whom have full-time jobs in their regularcapacities. Meetings are hard to schedule, decisions are delayed, proposals for change cannot be dealt with expeditiously and employees affected by decision are no longer patient.

Mr. Finkelman, in his report on Employer-employee Relations in the Public Service, has commented on the accomplishments of the National Joint Council in dealing with service-wide issues but in addition draws attention to the difficulties that would ensue in agreeing with the representations made by bargaining agents that final and binding third-party determination be made available by statute for grievances that may arise out of the interpretation or application of directives of the National Joint Council. He has, however, provided a means in the proposed legislation for the resolution of any matter that might be referred jointly to the Board by the parties.


It would appear also that Mr. Finkelman, in his report, has gone one step further; a step that may encourage the parties to collective bargaining to move from consultation to negotiation on service-wide matters. I am referring to the provisions for coalition bargaining.

If these recommendations are enacted they will permit the employer and a bargaining agent or two or more bargaining agents to enter into a master agreement containing terms and conditions of employment applicable to employees in more than one unit.

I am sure the significance of this recommendation will not go unnoticed. Unless the procedures of the National Joint Council can be adapted to provide speedier resolution of problems and a means of third-party determination of unresolved issues arising from the interpretation or application of any directive, it seems likely that bargaining agent will seek to usilize the provision for coalition bargaining.

Even if the National Joint Council continues to function as a more leisurely and peaceful means of determining some service-wide issues, there is still a very important place for coalition bargaining or master agreements in the Public Service.

For example, at the present time the Alliance represents all bargaining units in the Administrative Support Category. Terms and conditions of employment, except for salaries, are practically identical and it would be highly unlikely that either the Treasury Board or the Alliance would seek major differences in the collective agreements for these units. The present ritual, however, requires six separate notices to bargain, separate demands, separate negotiations, ect, for virtually the same agreements. The resources of both the Treasury Board and the Alliance are committed to this uneconomic process of duplication while employees in the smaller units become increasingly frustrated because, like the smallest piglet in the litter, they must await their turn at the trough. Additional frustrations materialize when Treasury Board negotiators seek to amass some « Brownie Points » by stretching out successively negotiated agreements. Master agreements would permit more rapid negotiation, more uniform conditions where relativity should be maintained, yet still provide for variations in rates of pay that would be relevant to the various bar-gaining units.


The role of the Public Service Commission of Canada in the administration of terms and conditions of employment and employer-employee relationship will, I predict, come under close scrutiny in the next few years. Civil Service Commissions were an extremely useful invention at the turn of the century, an invention designed to insulate civil services from the malign influence of political patronage, Some, like the Civil Service Commission of Great Britain, have been concerned exclusively with the regulation of appointments to the Public Service. Others, like the Canadian Civil Service Commission as constituted in 1918, were assigned authority over all matters which we now identify with the general title « personnel administration ». In the course of time the Canadian Commission also assumed a quasi-judicial role in relation to its own actions and those who acted on its behalf.

In the first three decades after 1918, the employee organizations of the Public Services — with no statutory rights and limited support from civil servants generally — looked to the Civil Service Commission for assistance in their efforts to protect the interests of their members. As Professor Hodgetts has pointed out, the relationship of the Civil Service employee organizations to the Civil Service Commission was necessarily ambivalent because it was as much adversary as friend, and in many circumstances the associations had no way of knowing the role that it was playing or to what extent, under the guise of independence, it was simply an agent of the government of the day.

Collective bargaining ushered three new players onto the stage; employers with unequivocal responsibility to protect the interests of government as employer; bargaining agents with legal and exclusive responsibility to represent the interests of public servants in formally designated bargaining units and a regulatory board, the Public Service Staff Relations Board, quasi-judicial in its role and uncompromised by extraneous commitments to employers or the unions. In the process the Commission lost to the newly identified employer — the Treasury Board — control over classification, pay, leave and almost all other terms and conditions of employment except appointment to and from within the Public Service.

Most employers in the private sector have managed to limit the role of the unions in the regulation of appointments and promotions. Management considers that effective matching of job requirements to job incumbents is crucial to the achievement of program objectives. As the chief executive officer of an organization employing 200 employees, I cannot help but agree with that proposition, although I think there should be some recognition of seniority in the assigment and promotion of employees. Since 1967 the Public Service Commission of Canada has bent over backwards to, as it proclaimed in its 1970 report, « Let the managers manage ». In 1972, over 68,000 appointments — 79 percent of all appointments made to or from within the Public Service — were made by program managers under authority delegated to them by the Commission via their deputy heads. While the Commission has established a system to « monitor » staffing actions in Departments, the monitoring system has been severely criticized by the bargaining agents, and despite a special study carried out in 1971 and changes made as a result of that study, the Public Service Alliance is still not satisfied that the Commission is discovering — much less reporting — incidents of nepotism, discrimination of political patronage.

Indeed the role of the Public Service Commission as Parliament's guardian of the merit system has been substantially watered down since 1967. Not one of the six reports it has published since the legislation was revised identifies weaknesses in the administrative processes designed to protect the merit system, or refers to a single incident of discrimination or patronage. Compare the Auditor General's reports with those of the Public Service Commission and you will appreciate the difference. Although the Public Service Employment Act provides for revocation of appointments that have been made improperly, and for withdrawal of delegated authority from departments that do not uphold the merit system, so far as I have been able to determine, since 1967 only one appointment made under delegated authority has been revoked and no delegation has ever been withdrawn. Considering the extent to which the operational control of appointments has shifted in recent years from the Commission to departmental officials, this is either evidence of un-flagging support of the merit principle by management throughout the service, a clear reflection of the efficiency of the Commission's surveillance systems, or a cop-out by the Commission from the fundamental responsibility vested in it by Parliament. If the evidence in the report of the delegation review team headed by Mr. R. Giroux in 1972 is to be believed, there is little doubt about which description provides the most accurate assessment.

In 1967 civil service employees and their organizations were understandably reluctant to abandon the protection of the Commission — uncertain as it was — and to rely entirely on the collective bargaining relationship and the new and untried Staff Relations Board to assure them a fair shake in their relationships with their employer — the Government. There was, and of course there still is, a strong commitment to the merit principle throughout the Public Service and an almost universal desire to preserve a service where fitness to perform the duties and responsibilities of a job is the primary consideration, both in the selection of persons for appointment to the service and their promotion to higher levels of responsibility. This position is shared by employees generally, by management, and by the bargaining agents. While the Alliance and other bargaining agents would like to see length of services as one of the considerations to be taken into account in considering employees for promotion, Public Service unions do not want the career opportunities of their members circumscribed by narrow bargaining unit ghettos, nor a promotion system in which seniority is the only or the primary criterion for advancement.

In this context, is there a continuing role for the Public Service Commission as guarantor of the merit system ? The Public Service Alliance, and I think most of the other Public Service unions, have no firm position in this regard. We aredissatisfied with the present arrangements, which to a very considerable degree, are a farce and a fraud. If we cannot have a Commission that is truly independent, then I think the Public Service unions will have two alternatives : either they will have to seek the transfer of the Commission's « watchdog » role to the Public Service Staff Relations Board, or they will have to attempt to persuade Parliament to make appointments, transfers and promotions bargainable matters under the Public Service Staff Relations Act. We cannot go on supporting the form of a merit system where the substance is being whittled away from within. Clearly, this is an area in which all concerned will have to re-examine their positions in the very near future.


In looking at the future I have purposely focused on those issues that are likely to pose some of the more serious problems. I have not dealt with many subjects that are common to all bargaining relationships nor the positive changes in the system that are being advocated by Mr. Finkelman. Regardless of the issues and the degree of difficulty in attaining solutions, I am convinced that unions, management and the « neutrals » can all contribute to a better system of labour relations that will maintain the enviable reputation of Canada's Public Service as being one of the best in the world.

* Paper presented at the Canada Industrial Relations Research Institute annual meeting, Toronto, 1974.