Challenges of a National Public Service Union Dealing with the Government of Canada

January 11, 2006 In September of 2005, The NJC held it’s Annual Seminar, in Edmonton Alberta. CAPE sent the following representatives to this seminar, including; José Aggrey, CAPE President; Derek Brackely, EC Vice-President; Maurice Korol, EC Executive Director; Anna Sipos, EC Executive Director; Claude Danik, CAPE Director of Professional Services and Hélène Paris, CAPE Research Officer.
CAPE President José Aggrey was invited, as a keynote speaker, to make a presentation regarding the Challenges of a National Public Service Union Dealing with the Government of Canada. What follows is the text of his address.
Challenges of a National Public Service Union Dealing with the Government of Canada
By: José Aggrey
Canadian Association of Professional Employees
Presented at National Joint Council Meeting in Edmonton, Alberta
September 20 -23, 2005
Thank you very much Rick (Richard Burton, Vice-President, Human Resource Management Modernization, PSHRMAC) for the introduction, and good morning to you all.
I would like to thank the organizers of this year’s NJC Conference for the opportunity to make a presentation to you.
It’s great to be back in Edmonton. As some of you know, I went to the University of Alberta to do a Master’s Program in Agricultural Economics. One of my fondest memories was going to the Students Placement Office to look for a summer job. As I recall, I read on one of the walls the names of some prominent Canadians who had done menial jobs in their youth, such as flipping burgers at Wendy’s or at MacDonald’s.
As a young graduate that to me was very inspirational.
I have been asked to speak to you today about the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) and its challenges as a National Public Service Union dealing with the Government of Canada.
My presentation consists of three parts:
First, a brief history; second, the governance structure and third, the challenges of CAPE. And then the conclusion.
Like any organization, the current challenges of CAPE are borne out of its history, its structure, its nature and its relationships with the Employer, other federal public service unions and with its members.
Certainly, CAPE has many challenges, however, let me share the following two with you. The challenge of:
1. Functioning on Limited Resources
As we shall see later, functioning on limited resources, have implications for other operational challenges.
2. Dealing with an Employer-Legislator
What I hope to communicate to you is that, not withstanding these challenges, CAPE’s strength lies in its efforts to represent, similarly to other public service unions, what we feel are the strengths of our membership: knowledge, analytical skills, communication skills and commitment to duty.
Our History
Let’s briefly talk about the History of CAPE.
On October 10, 2003, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees was officially recognized as the Bargaining Agent for the combined memberships of the former Social Science Employees Association (SSEA), and the Canadian Union of Professional and Technical Employees (CUPTE).
The Social Science Employees Association, formerly known as the Economists, Statisticians and Sociologists Association, (ESSA), represented three groups; the Economics, Sociology and Statistics, the ES group, beginning in 1975; the Research Officers and Research Officer Assistants group – now known as the Analysts and Research Assistants, from the Library of Parliament beginning in 1990; and the Social Science Support group, the SIs, beginning in February 1994.
The Canadian Union of Professional and Technical Employees was founded in 1978 by three occupational groups, represented at the time of the merger by the TR group, that is, Translators, Interpreters and Terminologists.
CAPE represents today over 10,300 members.
It’s membership is spread across approximately 70 government departments and agencies across the country, and to a lesser degree, around the globe. The majority of the members are in the National Capital Region. We are a diverse group, with a broad spectrum of backgrounds, education, and professions. Our members have been educated in many fields including, biology, sociology, translation, economics, interpretation, law and statistics. For the most part, we are professionals and we count among our members many individuals with masters and doctorates in their chosen fields.
Our Governance Structure
Our primary responsibilities, among others, are to organize and represent professional employees.
Now, how is the organization governed ?
To effectively deliver on these responsibilities within the context of the challenges of a National Public Service Union Dealing with the Government of Canada, let me briefly describe our governance structure:
The political process characteristic of the Association is direct democracy. Important decisions are made by the members not by committees or delegates.
Policy decisions and the general direction of the organization are the responsibility of a National Executive Committee comprised of 15 elected members - the President, two VPs, one VP represents the EC/Library of Parliament group and the other represents the Translators and Interpreters group, and 12 elected Directors.
The Vice-Presidents and Directors are elected by the members of their respective bargaining units or the founding community they represent (EC/LoP and TR). All terms of office are for a period of two years.
As President of the Association, I am elected by the membership at large for a term of two years also. I am ultimately responsible for the operations of the National Office. I am directly responsible to the National Executive Committee and to the membership.
All major decisions, including approval of the annual budget, union dues, and changes to the Constitution must be approved by a vote of the general membership through confidential mail-in votes.
CAPE has an extensive national Local Leadership. Our Stewards and Local Executives are trained for their union responsibilities by our highly qualified Labor Relations Officers. The Local Executives provide advice to the National Executive Committee, as well as to the Association’s Finance Committee. They often act as CAPE’s representatives in consultations with the Employer, and strengthen the bond between the National Executive Committee, the National Office and the membership at large.
The challenge that our governance structure presents is one of ensuring that the concerns and interests of each bargaining unit, even a bargaining unit as small as CAPE’s 70 members at the Library of Parliament, are treated only on the basis of merit, and with equal care. For example, when our members at the Library of Parliament asked that we intervene in the Vaid case, CAPE’s National Executive Committee decided to intervene even at a significant cost to the organization. It was decided that the matter in itself was important to a section of our membership. Therefore, it was important to all.
CAPE’s Challenges
Now that you’ve got a little bit of our history and our governance structure, I would like to talk about the two specific challenges identified earlier.
1. Operating on Limited Resources
One of the challenges presented by the size of our membership is that we function on limited resources, yet represent three bargaining units. As such, we have multiple needs that have to be met. For example, in collective bargaining, we have over 10,000 members who are governed by three separate collective agreements. This, obviously, stretches our resources to the limit, no matter how efficient we try to be.
Furthermore, the nature of conflicts in the work place has dramatically changed and that causes an increase in the complexity of service to our members.
Fifteen years ago, members mostly approached the Association with problems emanating from the employer’s interpretation and application of a collective agreement. These problems were relatively easy to address from a union perspective.
Unfortunately, today an increasing proportion of cases are cases of harassment, accommodation, abuse of power and discrimination which are much more involving and time consuming to address.
This changing nature of workplace conflicts is a constant drain on CAPE’s resources. At the risk of repeating myself later, the coming into effect of the PSLRA and the PSEA add a significant burden to bargaining agents’ financial and human resources.
As I mentioned earlier, functioning on limited resources have implications for other operational challenges. For example:
i. Integrating Two Strong Organizations
The challenges of integrating two organizations that functioned in two rich but different union cultures into an effective, fully operational and fully bilingual organization, have been numerous, very trying, and in some instances, costly.
How did we achieve this goal?
During each metamorphosis of the predecessor organizations to CAPE, transitional measures were put in place to ensure that the interests of all parties were fully represented and that past practices were respected. Interim transitional committees were established. The National Executive Committee was structured in such a way as to guarantee equitable and democratic representation of all parties.
These measures were taken to ease concerns that by coming into the new relationship, autonomy and the right to represent the membership of the various bargaining units would, in any way, be compromised. This integration has worked, and. the two founding communities have been able to function both autonomously, when appropriate, and in unison.
In addition to the above measures, I think we achieved a successful integration by doing the following:
a. Maintaining the very different structure of the locals of each of the founding organizations with accommodations that allow CAPE to benefit from the respective strengths of the former CUPTE and of the former SSEA.
b. Providing simultaneous interpretation for all National Committee meetings in the National Office Boardroom to allow uni-lingual members to participate in our activities. The Boardroom is large enough to accommodate all CAPE committee meetings and it is considered one of the best facilities in the country for simultaneous interpretation. The challenge here is the cost. However, our members appreciate this, and recognize it a necessity, as it allows all members to participate fully in the political activities of our organization.
c. Setting common principles and procedures for providing services to all members.
In essence, integration has been an exercise of treating everyone equal, by giving value to and respecting differences.
ii. Representing All Bargaining Units Equally
Another example associated with operating with limited resources
is the ability to represent all bargaining units equally.
With limited resources, the challenge for us is to ensure that all members of our three bargaining units, even the smallest with 70 members at the Library of Parliament, are represented equally and are treated only on the basis of merit and with equal care.
The day-to-day representations of the members are the responsibility of CAPE management, professional and administrative staff of the National Office.
At the bargaining table, regardless of the size of a bargaining unit, CAPE provides the same service.
At National Executive Committee meetings, members are encouraged to keep in mind that they speak not on behalf of a constituency but on behalf of all members, and must come to decisions from the perspective of the common good.
iii. Communicating with Members
A third example of the impact of limited resources on our operation is in the area of communications.
We believe the more well-informed and educated our membership, the stronger our organization. However, the challenges presented in communicating with members spread across the entire country is overwhelming and very costly as the Association does not have regional offices. All communications and membership services emanate from the National Office.
The use of electronic communication is in its infancy for our organization and is currently not an alternative to postal mail outs which is the vehicle for reaching all members. For example, a call for AGM or an SGM, approval of the Association’s Annual Budget, amendments to the Constitution and By-Laws, Info-Bulletins, and any direct communication with members are conducted by post.
So you can understand why effective communications with our members is a huge challenge for us.
iv. Meeting External Expectations and Commitments
I must also mention that meeting external expectations and commitments seriously impact on our limited resources.
The challenge faced by CAPE in providing services to members become clear when we consider the expectations of and our commitments in working closely with other NJC Bargaining Agents, as well as with the Employer on a number of committees and working groups, mostly in an effort to contribute meaningfully to the welfare of all public service employees.
We are called upon to participate in all service-wide consultations because we are the third largest union in the federal public service. Plus, we are asked to consult with almost 70 departments, agencies and tribunals where our members work. This degree of consultations periodically strains our limited resources.
We play an active role on the National Joint Council, and are involved with several working groups and committees. At the last count, we have been involved in ten Committees. And that’s not all.
We are also present on the Public Service Human Resources Management Working Groups on Staffing Recourse and Staffing Tools and Models.
We have collaborated successfully with other unions on issues of community interest, an example is the recent negotiation of a tentative agreement regarding the Public Service Health Care Plan, after lengthy and sometimes very difficult bargaining.
Like most public service unions, if not all, our members and the Association are active on many fronts – taking initiative in matters such as health and safety, human rights, and federal government employee pensions. For example, most recently we intervened in the Public Service Alliance of Canada Vaid case, with which you are all familiar, and which finally clarified what we all knew to be fundamentally correct – that the Canadian Human Rights Act does apply to all who work on Parliament Hill. A fact that should have been blindingly obvious to the Employer, nevertheless cost bargaining agents significant time and money to have reaffirmed in jurisprudence.
v. The Public Service Modernization Act - Before and After
The last challenge directly associated with limited resources is the Public Service Modernization Act - before and after.
The burden placed on unions in the build-up to the PSMA, PSLRA and PSEA has only been a prelude to the increased load that we will be carrying as a result of the changes brought forth by these Acts. Both in terms of human resources and financial resources, the costs are mounting and will continue to grow.
Here, I must make a plea:
While bargaining agents, such as CAPE, attempt to minimize these costs by calling on our local leaders to participate in consultations, at the same time we call on the Employer to help us in accommodating the union representative who also has a regular job. To us, the Employer’s recognition, therefore, of the increase in the need for unionized employees to participate in consultations, is of paramount importance.
To a large degree, however, the consultations regarding the development of individual departments’ and agencies’ guidelines and policies, will be attended by CAPE’s professional staff. With members in 70 departments these processes will be an enormous drain in terms of time and resources.
The simple matter of keeping abreast of changes and differences in guidelines and policies over these 70 departments and agencies will be a herculean task, because while there will of course be commonalities among them, each Department or Agency will have its own personality, hitches and kinks.
2. Dealing with an Employer-Legislator
Now, this brings me to the second main challenge of a National Public Service Union dealing with the Government of Canada.
What I wish to share with you today is the challenge of advocacy in a reactive statutory environment. Some of us may not remember but many will recall the Reform Act, the suspension of collective bargaining, the suspension of arbitration, back to work legislation, all of which were features of the turbulent 1990s. They are examples of how an Employer could, would and did use its powers of legislator to react to problems.
In each instance, the Employer changed the rules of the game because these rules no longer suited its purposes. Thus, instead of engaging bargaining agents in a constructive relationship it produced and enforced a new statutory relationship that did not include the right to bargain, or arbitration or the right to strike.
2005 is a year of coming into force of more new legislation put together by the Employer. Ironically, these unilaterally determined changes to labor-management relations were meant to usher in a new era of collaboration and cooperation.
The challenge here for CAPE, and I would venture to say for all public service bargaining agents, is to ensure that the new legislative changes do indeed effectively promote productive labor-management relations for the entire public service.
In conclusion, despite these challenges, I believe that I can rightfully say that CAPE has been able to maintain a high level of quality service to its members through its organizational ability and governance structure.
Let me say that the Canadian Association of Professional Employees reflects our members commitment to professional labor relations within the federal government. We will continue to commit our resources to working closely with the other Bargaining Agents, where possible, for the benefits of our entire membership and for the benefit of all Canadians.
CAPE s strength lies in its efforts to represent what we feel are the inherent strengths of our membership: knowledge, analytical skills, communication skills and commitment to duty.
Ours is a community of interest, based on a strong commitment to uncompromising advocacy on one hand, and on the other hand, a collaborative approach to pro-actively seeking solutions in partnerships with the Employer to problems in the work place.
This will go a long way to improving employer - employee relations in the federal government, with the possibility that workplace improvements will ultimately put less strain on our limited resources.
We are professionals, representing professionals.