This week, public servants at the Canada Revenue Agency wore “Stephen Harper hates me” buttons to work. They were asked by managers to remove their buttons and afterwards filed grievances through their union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). It is understandable why public servants are speaking out. The cuts in the federal budget rammed through the House of Commons by Harper reduce the size of the public service. There is considerable mention of “consolidation of services,” “restructur[ing] operations,” “achiev[ing] savings,” and “modernizing services.”[i] According to PSAC, there are 16,873 members as of June 27th who have been issued with “Work Force Adjustment Notices,” a nice way of telling an employee that “his or her services will no longer be required.”[ii]
PSAC grieves under s.5 of the Public Service Relations Act: “Every employee is free to join the employee organization of his or her choice and to participate in its lawful activities.” Legally, this argument likely would not hold up. S. 7, which PSAC has conveniently not mentioned, reserves the right for employers to “assign duties and to classify positions and persons. This section is acknowledged by another public service union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (part of PSAC) as giving management “the exclusive right to determine the organizational structure, assign duties, and classify positions.”[iii]
Additionally, under the Public Service Employment Act, s. 113(1), an employee “may engage in any political activity so long as it does not impair, or is not perceived as impairing, the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties in a politically impartial manner.” For the neutrality principle to function, it is absolutely imperative that it is perceived as neutral. Just like justice in the courts, it must be fair, and it must be seen to be fair. In this case, pinning up a message on one’s shirt is an endorsement of policy, and so should be perceived as an impairment under s. 113(1).
Putting semantic arguments aside, this issue presents a grey area. Annette Melanson, executive assistant to a union under PSAC, says“we understand that the public service should be politically neutral, but to what point? We also believe that our members have certain civil rights.”[iv]
There are lots of different interests that need to be balanced here. On one hand, the democratically elected government has the legitimate power to govern the nation. But with a majority, there are no longer true parliamentary checks and balances on the prime minister’s power. The courts, media, and public opinion serve as external checks. The Opposition’s job is to bring up issues unfavourable to the government and present these to the media.
The union here plays an important and legitimate role in representing the interests of its members. Without some sort of collective action, individual public service employees would likely have little influence. When jobs are about to be cut, the union has legitimate grounds to intervene. However, public servants should be neutral in carrying out the day-to-day policies of the government. We can all agree that election officials must be completely neutral and impartial. However, at the other end of the spectrum, certain positions, like scientists, cannot remain completely neutral.Stephen Harper’s silencing of Environment Canada scientists and abolition of the long-form census removes valuable information required for sound public policy.
PSAC may win a technical victory if the outcome of the grievances are in its favour, but they must attempt to frame this debate in the national interest, and show Canadians how these cuts will impact the country. The Conservatives do this effectively by pointing to the need to balance the budget. The unions have a legitimate argument, but they must frame the debate not merely as one of employer against worker, but must show how the job cuts are a detriment to greater society.