By Crystal Warner,
As one of the largest components of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), with over 88% of our members directly affected by the beguiled Phoenix pay system, members of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) in Vancouver had been quietly making plans to occupy a federal government building for several weeks on February 28.
“Our members have long been calling for us to take increasing, escalating direct action tactics in response to the problems with our pay,” said Vanessa Miller, the regional CEIU Vice-President for BC. “So we thought, what better day then the second anniversary of Phoenix?”
Five months pregnant and with her husband currently off work on disability after a workplace accident rendered him incapable of using his right hand, Miller has been going for over a year alternating between not receiving a paycheck, or being charged an overpayment, at her job adjudicating Employment Insurance at Service Canada in Nanaimo, BC. There have been months that her family has come close to not being able to pay their mortgage.
Vanessa, and the over 193,000 federal government employees like her, continue to go to work everyday for the federal government not knowing if they will be over paid, under-paid, or even paid at all. For them the announcement made in the release of the federal budget on February 27 that the government intends to ‘eventually move away from Phoenix’ and explore the ‘next generation’ of pay system is welcome news. So too was the attached $16 million in funding over the next two years to research a new pay system, the $431.4 million over the next six years to try and fix the existing Phoenix system, and the commitment to increase pay centre staff from 550 to 1,500.
This new revenue into the Phoenix pay system brings the total bill to taxpayers to over a billion dollars. All this for a system that is ultimately going to be nixed. The countless ways those resources could have been better spent to benefit Canadians should make everyone angry.
A corporate boondoggle
We would be remiss to forget that Phoenix was supposed to save money for taxpayers, to the tune of $70 million per year, according to a report from the Auditor General. Interestingly, nixing Phoenix goes against the recent recommendations of the Auditor General, who advised that building a new system would create the same difficulties. But bowing to political pressure spearheaded by federal public sector unions, the federal Liberal government instead is moving in the direction to replace the plagued pay system.
Despite having spent over a billion dollars the government still does not expect to be able to fix Phoenix for several years. Public sector unions like the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPS) has for months been calling on the government to nix Phoenix and build an alternative system built by government IT professionals. CEIU released a Parliamentary petition two weeks ago calling for the same thing.
The federal budget does not clarify whether any new system would be built by federal public sector workers or even provide a timeline for implementation. And although the government said they would ‘look at it’, employees who were overpaid are still being forced to repay the gross amount instead of the net. Decisions that will continue to cause harm to over 193,000 federal government workers.
Keeping up the pressure
Despite the budget announcements, the PSAC moved full steam ahead with a national day of action on February 28. Without question, the mobilization of union members and public shaming of the federal government put the necessary pressure on Trudeau’s Liberals to finally begin to take large scale corrective measures in addressing Phoenix. But there is still much more to be done to make public sector workers whole after being subjected to two years of the beguiled pay system.
Federal public sector unions, with the support of the federal NDP, are seeking damages for our members. We are demanding that the government make the necessary legislative changes so that our members are not forced to repay the gross amount on overpayments. We need to ensure that the increase in compensation advisors is permanent and not temporary, and that all pay issues a worker is facing get resolved before the government recoups any overpayments.
As stated by Robyn Benson, PSAC National President, “We will only have a decisive victory when our members are finally made whole, and they’re paid correctly and on time. Until then, the government is not off the hook.”
Back in Vancouver, grassroots activists felt the same way. After the initial shock wore off that the government was actually listening to their demands, workers understood immediately the battle to be made whole was not nearly over. At 7am on February 28, PSAC activists occupied a federal government building near the corner of Burrard and Robson in downtown Vancouver, demanding an end to the Phoenix fiasco. In Montreal, several hundred PSAC activists came from across Quebec to block access to a federal building. Protesters waved flags, banged drums, and held signs appealing to Trudeau to act faster. Protesters gathered from Winnipeg, to Halifax, to cities across Canada, to say enough is enough.
The message is clear. Public sector unions will not let up pressure until this debacle is resolved. And while the budget announcements were a step in the right direction, they come two years too late, and do not nearly go far enough to begin providing workers with the damages they deserve. With a federal election on the horizon, any sitting Liberal Member of Parliament should be doing everything in their power to ensure this government meets the unions demands.