Dr. Dawg

PSAC Convention 2012: the story that wasn't

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Every three years, the Public Service Alliance of Canada holds its Convention—the supreme governing body of the PSAC.

I’ve attended ten of them, once as an observer, six as a delegate/officer, and three as a guest. They can be brutal occasions, as any extended accountability session tends to be.

At Convention, the top leadership of the Alliance is placed under a microscope. Candidates for National President and National Executive Vice-President in the next three-year cycle live a tense few days. The budget for that cycle, having been through more than a week of committee scrutiny, can take a lot of Convention time as well, especially if there is a dues increase proposed. I chaired the Finance Committee twice, and in 2000 I spent two and a half days on the podium under the hot lights—literally and figuratively.

This year’s Convention was expected to be a bloodbath. All of the old hands predicted it. Tens of thousands of PSAC members lost their continuing severance benefits, in return for a higher wage settlement. The vote was 52% for the contracts, 48% against.

Guess which side activists in the hall came from.

On top of that, the leadership was asking for a dues increase. Part of it was to shore up the pension plan of PSAC employees: part was to keep the union solvent if the number of members drops below 170,000 (it’s now at about 180,000). And part was to resource increased political action to counter the escalating attacks on public services by the Harper government.

All week we heard directly about those attacks. Blizzards of letters were being received by members while the Convention was actually taking place, informing them they might be laid off—or were laid off.

On the very first day of Convention, speaker after speaker, including invited guests Stephen Lewis and CLC Secretary-Treasurer Hassan Yussuf, made appeals for solidarity, given the threat that public employees are now facing. John Gordon, the National President, made similar comments in his president’s report.

They were heard. The floorfights didn’t materialize. The blood failed to flow. Discussions were largely civil. Disruptive procedural tactics were few and far between. The sheer enormity of what PSAC members are facing, and the need for real, not rhetorical, solidarity had sunk in. The old flashpoints—internal structural tensions, language, progressive vs. “business” views of unionism—were damped down.

The Quebec wing of the delegation supported two unilingual anglophones, from the same Component of the PSAC, to be the new National President and National Executive Vice-President. Robyn Benson and Chris Aylward, both seasoned PSAC leaders, will take the helm for the next three years, with Danielle Dubuc, an outspoken and skillful advocate for equity issues, as alternate NEVP.

The differences among the new leaders and their rivals were far more about individual style and personality than ideology. At the all-candidates’ meeting on Wednesday evening, this observer couldn’t see much daylight between any of them: virtually every one supported immediate measures to counter the Harper government, including mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. Most delegates and all leadership hopefuls wore a badge of red cloth, badge of the striking Quebec students.

The same went for supporting the wider social justice movement, once the purview of the left against predominantly bread-and-butter unionists, but now a common struggle supported by every leadership candidate. The PSAC’s Social Justice Fund, which offers support nationally and internationally to oppressed groups, is by now a popular initiative: we have moved far away from the day when “social issues” were a no-no on the Convention floor.

The budget, even with the dues increases, passed in a day and a half, which is more or less average at a PSAC Convention. Additional funds for the PSAC staff’s pension plan were voted after the clear point was made at the microphones that we couldn’t logically support defined benefit pension plans for the members but not for the Alliance’s own staff.

The PSAC presently represents not only federal public service workers, but a myriad of employees of “separate employers,” including many university workers. This year alone it will be negotiating more than two hundred collective agreements. The structure is becoming looser and more welcoming to new bargaining units, and while this is resented by some of the traditionalists, it is one of the reasons that the union is becoming more successful in its organizing drives.

In general this shift to an organizing model of unionism has led in turn to a shift in approach. There is more focus now than at any previous period in the PSAC’s history, more of a direction, more vision. The Harper government, including Treasury Board President Tony Gazebo” Clement, wants to destroy public services by privatizing them or abolishing them entirely.

The previous veneer of professionalism has all but disappeared from current federal labour relations, with Clement sneeringly referring to “union bosses,” and the extent of the current round of cuts being kept a closely-guarded secret from the unions whose members are being affected.

Of course unions will stand up for their members—that’s a given. But what Canadians are beginning to realize, as our health, our environmental protections and the safety of the very food we eat are put at risk, is that when public employees are axed, so are the vital services they provide.

It’s everyone’s struggle and everyone’s fight. This week, fractious PSAC activists were put to the test and they emerged more united than I, for one, can ever remember. That’s the story that so few expected. PSAC leaders and the general membership will be a formidable force on the ground, joining with others to rise up against regimes both federal and provincial/territorial that have openly declared war on ordinary Canadians.

Solidarity forever: not just a slogan any more, but the new reality. And for that, ironically, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Harper government.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 4, 2012 5:19 PM.

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