Union, federal government under pressure to reach a deal before election

OTTAWA — The country's biggest public-sector union says it's prepared to stay at the bargaining table with the federal government to reach a new contract for more than 70,000 of its members as the clock ticks toward a general election campaign.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents about 140,000 federal employees, returned to negotiations Sept. 1 after it said the Trudeau government gave indications that it was prepared to do better than the terms already agreed to with other civil service unions.

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PSAC was the lone holdout earlier this year when it rejected Ottawa's offer of wage increases and compensation for the stress caused to public servants by the Phoenix pay-system debacle.

Several other unions reached tentative agreements that included a cumulative, one-time extra week off over four years for federal employees who were left struggling with the pay system, which has overpaid, underpaid, and in some cases not paid employees at all since its launch in 2016.

Signatories included the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the Association of Canadian Financial Officers and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees.

Wage provisions added up to minimum increases of two per cent each year in 2018 and 2019, and 1.5 per cent in 2020 and 2021, plus adjustments to wage grids that could increase wages by another one per cent.

PSAC spokesman Riccardo Filippone would not say Friday exactly what convinced his union to return to the bargaining table.

But it had earlier placed two conditions on resuming bargaining. First, it wanted an indication that the government was prepared to talk about a better wage deal than the other unions had accepted. The other was that the government would have to be prepared to talk about Phoenix compensation that involved more than just time off.

"(Treasury Board) very recently communicated that those two contextual demands would be something they could head back to the table to consider," Filippone said.

The current talks affect about 71,000 program and administrative employees, but it is widely expected that similar contract conditions would apply to other categories of government workers should a deal be struck.

It was not clear Friday whether bargaining would continue through the weekend, although Filippone acknowledged the expectation of an election call coming any day added an element of pressure to the talks.

In May, the government said it had reached tentative agreements with unions representing more than 146,000 of its employees to compensate workers affected by the problems with Phoenix. Those agreements included clauses that would provide workers with compensation in line with whatever improvements PSAC could wrestle from the government.

Under the terms of the deal struck in the spring, the Phoenix compensation included a one-time provision of additional annual leave for employees and a cash pay-out equivalent to the five days of leave for former employees or the estates of deceased employees.

PSAC president Chris Aylward called the deal "meagre" and argued the arrangement treated lower-paid employees unfairly because they would receive less money than higher-paid workers if they decided to cash out their vacation time.

A spokesman for the Treasury Board Secretariat, which is responsible for contract negotiations, declined to comment on the current round of bargaining.

The government's pay centre continues to grapple with a backlog of roughly 230,000 unresolved pay complaints, a number which has slowly declined since peaking near 300,000 at the beginning of the year.

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