Charter rights and me.

Today I was officially registered in Ontario Superior Court as a litigant in a court case filed by my union (the PSAC) – one that could (eventually) prove integral to further defining the rights of unions and their members in Canada should it be accepted and heard through a labyrinth of legal proceedings. Since I’m not a lawyer, I have no idea the odds of a favourable outcome in a case like this, but as a unionized worker, a union representative and a woman working for the federal service I am hoping they are good.

The paperwork filed with the courts today is a response by the union and several individual complainants in response to the Expenditure Restraint Act and the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act tabled by the Tory government as part of the omnibus budget bill in January 2009. Among other things, the Acts opened up previously negotiated collective agreements, rolled back negotiated wage increases for some federal workers, severely curtailed the ability of federal workers to seek redress for gender-based pay inequalities, and removed the right of unions (under penalty of severe fines) to represent or advise its members on pay equity complaints. Further, it redefined a female-dominated pay group from one which comprised 55% of its population from women, to 70%. My pay group being one example – that at 69.1% women, we are no longer considered a female-dominated group and are now removed from the possibility of pursuing pay equity complaints in the future. As further insult, pay equity is now to be addressed at the bargaining table which gives you an idea of how backwards this legislation is – implying that basic human rights are up for negotiation and can be traded away for other “perks” like wage increases or dental benefits.

Quite serious stuff, particularly given that we are talking about the fundamentals of Charter rights in Canada – Freedom of Association (Subsection 2 (d)), Freedom of Expression (Subsection 2 (b) and the Right to Equality (Section 15). These rights don’t simply exist in documents but have been further reinforced by Supreme Court decisions like the 2007 HEU case which enshrined the right to collective bargaining in Canadian law (a decision which literally brought tears to my eyes).

I have before me the papers filed this morning and I wish I could do justice to the arguments summarized within for the purpose of this brief post – but at heart it really comes down to something which happened to a friend of mine last month. My friend B. is a painter – interiors, exteriors, you name it – and a good one at that. Having few opportunities for work in this declining economy, she took a job at a non-unionized worksite painting condo interiors in Burnaby – physically tiring work which demands a great deal of skill (I can’t paint a straight line to edge a ceiling for the life of me – can you?) After a couple of weeks it became apparent to her that she was being paid $2 less per hour than the men on the site, although her output and skill level was the same or greater of those she worked with. Afraid of losing her job, she said nothing for a couple of weeks, continuing to work alongside the men for less pay – but eventually she got fed up with it, particularly as she picked up the slack from those around her. She approached her boss and asked him (nicely) if she could get paid the same as every other painter on the site, to which he said nothing and walked away from her. At the end of the day he came and told her she was being let go because she complained too much and she could pick up her final pay a few days later. She has no real proof, of course, that she was laid off because she asked for equality, but there is no question that for several weeks she was paid less than the men she worked with because the boss thought he could get away with it. That’s just one anecdote from the trenches of unregulated, non-unionized work, but I guarantee stories like this unfold every day and are the reason women are still reported to earn 70% to every male-earned dollar in Canada (stat from 2005).

Although my friend is not unionized and not a federal government worker, in fact living a much more precarious employment existence than I do, her situation seems inextricably bound up in mine. While it is true that those of us in the unionized federal service are privileged in comparison to some, I also believe it gives us a greater responsibility to champion the rights of all. If the federal government can legislatively write itself out of its requirement to pay workers on a gender-neutral basis, then where is the incentive for any other employer in Canada to pay workers in an equitable fashion? If the federal government can muzzle unions that come under its purview and halt the right to representation, then how long is it before private sector employers lobby for legislation that would similarly limit all unions in Canada from supporting their members in any variety of rights-based cases? And most importantly, if women in the federal service are legally barred from achieving pay equity – how can Canadian women as a whole expect to close that 30% wage gap?

So I’m thrilled, you know, to come forward with a complaint that may do some real good in addressing these issues – but frustrated at the same time that we will spend tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dollars before this is all through. And it’s only one of many court challenges my union has filed over the years in response to legislation that aims to disadvantage those of us who chose to enter the federal service and thus serve the Canadian public and government. Sometimes we win (pay equity), sometimes we lose (pension grab) – but if we don’t defend our rights (and expand them), every other worker in Canada suffers somewhere down the line. Which may sound dramatic, but there’s no two ways about the fact that a government which changes the law to suit itself as an employer sets a bad example for employers everywhere to follow in whatever shoddy practices they engage in.

I notice here that I have failed to delve much into the wage rollback piece which I will do in another post – but for now I will leave off saying I am glad to contribute to this effort, proud to be a part of a union which is pushing ever forward the rights of workers in Canada.

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