Saturday, November 23, 2013

CSE employees headed to conciliation

Contract negotiations between the Communications Security Establishment and the union that represents its employees are at an impasse, so the union has applied for the establishment of a conciliation board, reports David Pugliese ("CSEC spies head to conciliation as Tories move to limit union’s bargaining power," Ottawa Citizen, 22 November 2013):
Some of Canada’s spies are going to a conciliation board over pay and other benefits, a move that could potentially put them in a legal strike position sometime in the spring. But the push by the Conservative government to bring in new labour legislation covering federal workers could derail any attempt to walk off the job.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents around 1,400 employees at the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), applied Nov. 7 for the establishment of a conciliation board, said John MacLennan, president of the Union of National Defence Employees.

The workers include those in a wide variety of positions, ranging from mathematicians to clerical staff, added MacLennan, whose organization is part of PSAC.

[PSAC represents all CSE employees except those in management positions, so I'd be surprised if the total number affected isn't closer to 1800 or 1900.]

The federal government and union have held a total of 37 days of negotiations since early 2012. The last face-to-face meeting was held on Oct. 10. But according to a statement from the union in its request for a conciliation board, CSEC has declined to discuss anything substantive, including monetary issues and vacation time.

“We were in negotiations but that’s now fallen apart so there is no face to face,” said MacLennan. “That’s why we’ve asked for conciliation.”

The request was made to the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

The resulting conciliation report would be sent to CSEC management but it is non-binding. The union would also present the report to its members who could decide to vote to strike, said MacLennan. That process could happen as early as February or March.

Andy McLaughlin, director of public affairs at CSEC, sent an emailed statement to the Citizen noting that “CSEC welcomes the request for a conciliation board to help reach a collective agreement with PSAC.”

But MacLennan said the CSE management is taking a hard line on most issues. “They’ve dug their heels in so they’re not talking about anything,” he explained. “They think these employees aren’t militant and nothing will happen.”
The article also notes that
the Conservative government is moving ahead with proposed amendments to the Public Service Labour Relations Act and is hoping to get that in place by Christmas.

The changes would effectively put the government in the driver’s seat when determining which unions get to strike and which ones go to arbitration to resolve any contract disputes. They also give the government the exclusive right to decide which workers are essential and can’t strike. Changes also reduce the independence of arbitrators and ensure they base their awards on the government’s budgetary priorities.

Union officials warn that the changes will effectively strip them of their ability to bargain.
Next we get this comment:
Bill Robinson, one of the few analysts who monitors activities at CSE, has noted in the past that the likelihood of a strike happening at the agency is very remote.
I have indeed said that. And I would still say it.

There have occasionally been rough patches in the past. CSE's relations with its union grew quite tense in 1999, but in the end everything was resolved without a strike. (More here: Kathryn May, "Spies near strike: 'We can't talk about it'. A very quiet kind of labour dispute," Ottawa Citizen, 10 March 1999.)

As I noted in an earlier post, the only serious labour disruptions known to have occurred within the UKUSA community happened to GCHQ, which experienced a work slowdown in the winter of 1979-1980 and a one-day strike in 1981. These actions were cited as one of the reasons then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided in 1983 to ban unions at GCHQ, which led to a bitter dispute that continued until the decision was eventually reversed by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997.

I don't see much likelihood of CSE's staff writing a new chapter in the history of UKUSA labour interruptions.

Pugliese's article also mentions that
CSEC management is balking at continuing with the market allowance for specialized skills. The market allowance, around $10,000 a year, is a financial incentive for specialists to continue working at CSEC.

In the past the union has negotiated a market allowance for engineers, mathematicians and other specialists who are in demand.
In 2009, the union won a dispute with CSE management over eligibility for that allowance, with the result that more employees were recognized as being eligible for it. (See Public Service Labour Relations Board decision 2009 PSLRB 121.)

The most recent (now expired) collective agreement between CSE and its employees, and earlier versions, can be found here.


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