Madam Speaker, it is a privilege to stand in the House today and speak to Bill C-62, an act to amend the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act and other acts. This legislation and the subject matter with which it deals is not only important to me as a parliamentarian and a legislator, but also professionally. I was fortunate enough to spend 16 years working as director of legal resources for Teamsters Union Local 31, where I represented workers and the union in all facets of labour relations and human resources. I am well aware of the very strong need to have fair and balanced labour legislation in this country.
To that end, New Democrats are very pleased to see this legislation introduced and will be supporting the government as it moves the legislation through the House. As with all pieces of legislation from the Liberals, it is not exactly what we would like to see and it does not go quite far enough, but it definitely goes a large distance in re-establishing that balance in Canadian labour law that Canadians by a large majority want to see.
Specifically, Bill C-62 is aimed at repealing two blatantly anti-labour pieces of legislation that were introduced by the former Harper government. That was division 20 of Bill C-59 and Bill C-4. The first of these, the former Bill C-59, sought to unilaterally impose an inferior disability and sick leave management system on public servants, an unwarranted, unjustified, and significant attack on the rights of public sector workers to freely and collectively bargain their benefits. Bill C-4 would have drastically changed the rules for collective bargaining within the public service, giving the government full control over union rights such as the right to strike and the right to arbitration. The government would have also determined what positions would be considered essential, again, unilaterally.
The New Democrats fought vigorously against the government's attempt to introduce that legislation in the previous Parliament and we have fought vigorously in this Parliament to repeal the Conservatives' move to take those regressive steps.
To examine these provisions in a bit more detail, a key provision in the collective agreement of any worker, and in particular public service workers, is sick leave, which allows full-time workers, in the case of the public sector, 15 days per year of leave for use in case of illness or injury. The previous Conservative government was determined to unilaterally change that provision regardless of the wishes or desires of the majority of employees whose benefit it was, by reducing the number of sick days from 15 to six; eliminating entirely all accumulated banked sick days, in other words, wiping out accumulated benefits that public servants had accumulated for years; and imposing a short-term disability plan for federal public servants.
I pause here to say that many people in workplaces in Canada do have short-term disability plans. Others have accumulated sick days and each of those systems has its pros and cons. The point, however, is that in a unionized environment the way to come to a determination about what those benefits are is through collective bargaining. It is the employer and the union sitting at a table engaging in free collective bargaining and doing the inevitable trade-offs so that they come to a negotiated settlement. It is not by one side, in this case the employer, bringing down the unilateral hammer to impose its will on the other side regardless of the wishes or interests of the other side, but that is what the Conservatives did in the last Parliament.
The previous government also claimed that this change would save $900 million despite evidence to the contrary. According to the 2014 parliamentary budget officer:
...the incremental cost of paid sick leave was not fiscally material and did not represent material costs for departments in the [core public administration].
In practice, of course, the PBO found that most employees who call in sick are not replaced, resulting in no incremental cost to departments. The punitive reason given by the previous Conservative government, that it would save money, once examined by an independent officer of Parliament, was found to be completely unsubstantiated.
I am going to pause here and just say there is something else the previous Conservative government said would save about that same amount of money, and that was the introduction of the Phoenix pay system. The Conservative government laid off, I think it was approximately 800 or 900 payroll workers across this country in the federal civil service, and instead bought a computer program that was developed by an outside private contractor. It then concentrated a much smaller workforce in New Brunswick to handle payroll issues for the entire country.
At that time the Conservatives, with their ideological mantra of privatization and smaller government said we would save money. How did that work out? Here we are, three or four years later, and the federal public payroll system is in utter chaos. Hundreds of thousands of public servants have had errors in their pay, have not been paid at all, or have been overpaid. Any time a federal public servant changes their status, whether they move up a category to fill in for someone on a temporary basis or to take a promotion, their pay inevitably gets completely confused.
We now know that it will cost somewhere in the billions of dollars to repair this colossal, irresponsible undertaking. Conservatives always try to convince the Canadian public that they are best managers of the public purse. I hope Canadians remember this. Here are examples where the Conservatives made moves, punitively, to save money that ended up costing taxpayers billions of dollars and implementing decisions that actually made the situation worse.
I am going to pause here for a moment. I want to talk a little about unionization. My friends on the Liberal side of the House are standing up and strenuously advocating for the right to unionize. I heard my friends in the Conservative Party asking what stops anybody. In this country, what stops people from unionizing is the law.
It is currently the law in Canada that employees who work on Parliament Hill are prohibited from unionizing, by law. There are certain groups that have always been prohibited from being certified at labour boards, people like articling students in law firms, interns in hospitals, and other groups. However, on the Hill, successive Liberal and Conservative governments, for decades and decades, have made it impossible for MPs' own staff to unionize.
When Canadians watch this and see Liberal and Conservative MPs stand up and say that they believe in unionization and the right to free collective bargaining, one might ask why they do not believe in that right for their own employees.
The New Democrats, in contrast, have recognized this right by voluntarily recognizing a union to represent the employees of members of Parliament here, and have done for decades. We have signed successive collective agreements that give superior wages, superior benefits, superior job force protections, and safer workplaces, because New Democrats have voluntarily extended the benefits of unionization to our staff.
I say it is time for the Liberals and Conservatives to jump into the 21st century. I call on them to repeal that law that prohibits their own employees from applying to a labour relations board and being certified.
I also want to talk generally and philosophically about different approaches to our economy, and where workers and legislation like this may fit in. It has been my experience, and it is my assertion, that the best performing economies in the world have three features. They have strong, responsible governments, strong business communities, and strong labour movements. All three of those factors come into play and I believe are key foundational elements of not only strong economies but just societies.
One only has to think of countries like Norway, Sweden, Germany, or any of the European countries that, year after year, top all metrics and measures of happiness and prosperity. When we look at what the core features of those countries are, it is always those three features: a strong democratic government, strong business communities that are innovative, and strong labour movements whose rights are respected. That is why this legislation, which seeks to undo some of the most egregious anti-labour and anti-union initiatives of the previous Harper government, is so timely and overdue.
I want to talk a bit about what this legislation would do for essential services. I think everybody recognizes that there are some jobs in society that are just so essential to the safety of the public or the functioning of our society that we accept there are some limitations put on the right to strike. However, the mechanism of determining who those people are and in what numbers is left to negotiation between the parties and, ultimately, to an independent third-party arbitrator at a labour board if there is disagreement. What the Harper government did, and what this legislation seeks to change, is that it allowed the employer to unilaterally determine who is essential and in what numbers, again tilting the balance of the management-labour relationship completely in favour of the employer and upsetting years and years of established labour tradition and law in this country.
This legislation would also fix a problem where the previous legislation sought to undermine workers by limiting the opportunity for unions to refer differences and collective agreement disputes to arbitration for ultimate resolution. All in all, I am pleased to see this legislation come forward. I am pleased to see legislation that, once again, puts some respect back into the public service so that the federal government, of whatever stripe, Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat, Green, it does not matter, is compelled to treat the civil servants of this country in a manner that is fair and respectful.
Many features go into a democracy. It is not just about putting a piece of paper in a ballot box every four years. There needs to be an independent judiciary, a non-corrupt police force, a free and diverse media, an informed electorate, and a professional civil service. The civil servants of this country perform an invaluable service, not only to the people of this country and the taxpayers who pay their bills, in delivering the services that people need, but they play an integral role in upholding our democracy, because governments come and go but the civil service stays. It is its job to professionally serve the government of the day and faithfully administer and execute the policies that the government, which is democratically elected in our country, may choose. Therefore, treating those employees with the upmost respect, respecting them as workers, respecting their ability to engage in normative collective bargaining in this country, is a principle that must always be respected, and this legislation would do that.
I congratulate the government for bringing it forward and New Democrats will support it wholeheartedly.