Unions warn of Stephen Harper cuts
More than a decade ago, in 1999, federal-government employees won a $3-billion pay-equity case. It was the biggest settlement of its kind ever, one that came after almost 15 years of fighting between the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Treasury Board.
According to PSAC national executive vice president Patty Ducharme,that victory was possible because legislation at that time allowed the union to represent its members in pay-equity cases.
However, in 2009, 10 years after that huge success, the Conservative minority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper passed legislation that prohibits public-sector unions from filing pay-equity complaints against an employer. The Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act also took away the right of workers to file such complaints before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, constituting a severe blow to the cause of equality for women.
“During the election campaign, they said that there would be 80,000 job cuts as a result of attrition in the federal government, which is probably one in three jobs,” Ducharme told the Georgia Straight on May 10.
Ducharme was interviewed on the sidelines of the weeklong convention of the Canadian Labour Congress in Vancouver. A number of delegates on that day rose on the floor to express fears about what lies ahead for the public service with a Harper-led majority government.
“He doesn’t believe in government having a leadership role in people’s lives,” Ducharme said of the Conservative prime minister. “I think government plays a huge role in our lives, from ensuring our food is safe, ensuring that if we get on an airplane, it’s been inspected, to knowing that [our drinking] water is clean.”
A fact sheet prepared by Canadians for Tax Fairness and made available at the CLC convention spells out where the priorities of the Harper government lie. According to the group, public services are going to be cut while large and profitable private corporations are being given billions of dollars in tax benefits.
The Canadians for Tax Fairness document noted that from a rate of 40 percent during the 1980s, federal corporate tax rates have come down to 22 percent in 2007, and were further slashed to 18 percent in 2010. Further cuts are planned, with corporate taxes dropping to 15 percent in 2012.
“The reduced corporate tax rate in 2012 will cost the public treasury $13.7 billion annually in lost revenue compared to the 2007 rate when the latest round of cuts began,” the fact sheet states.
The National Union of Public and General Employees represents primarily provincial-government employees but it is sharply attuned to the national situation.
An NUPGE document made available at the CLC convention and titled “All Together Now for Public Services and Tax Fairness” notes that total government spending in Canada has dropped significantly in the last 16 years.
The document says that total government spending accounted for 53 percent of the economy in 1992. By 2008, it had gone down to 39 percent.
The document notes that from a 36-percent share of the economy in 1995, tax revenues have declined to 33 percent of the economy in 2008.
“That’s $50 billion less for hospitals, schools, mental health programs, child care, environmental protection and other important services and programs that raise our quality of life,” the NUPGE document asserts. “The fact is that governments are bringing in less money every year because of tax cuts that benefit rich individuals and corporations a lot more than the rest of us.”
In an interview at the Vancouver Convention Centre where the CLC event was being held, NUPGE national representative Len Bush indicated that public-sector employees are in for a difficult period of austerity and attacks on their rights.
According to Bush, provincial-government employees will also feel the effects of cost cutting at the federal level.
“What it will probably mean is that they will cut transfer payments similar to what [former Liberal prime minister] Paul Martin did in the past”¦and that will force the province to be sort of in conflict with their employees,” he explained.
There was a strong sense of fighting optimism among the delegates at the CLC convention.
As Bush put it: “I remind people that Brian Mulroney won in 1984 a much larger majority than the Harper government has, with a much broader mandate, and yet we still managed to”¦hold them back.”