By Crystal Warner, PSAC Metro Vancouver Coordinator
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) held its Triennial Convention between April 26 and May 2, 2015. The ultimate governing body of the PSAC, comprised of 17 components, dozens of Directly Chartered Locals (DCLs), seven regions, and roughly 180,000 members, ended with a shift to the left, and a war cry from National President Robyn Benson to stop Stephen Harper in the next federal election.
Roughly 500 delegates and 200 observers spent a week in what many are calling one of the most progressive conventions in PSAC history. PSAC delegates, compromised mainly of federal public sector workers, answered her call by passing an emergency resolution to spend $5 million to organize and mobilize, to take legal action to defend our constitutional right to free collective bargaining and to elect a federal government that respects workers and union rights and the federal public service.
PSAC delegates went on to adopt a resolution calling for a large scale campaign to combat contracting out, and an another to lobby for the creation of a national childcare program. Monies were allocated for leadership training for aboriginal women as well as a lobby for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Delegates also voted in favour of lobbying the federal government to adopt gender identity into the Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as the creation of regional racially visible conferences, and domestic violence education. Answering the outrage expressed by employees of Service Canada on convention floor, PSAC delegates also passed a resolution to lobby the federal government to extend Employment Insurance benefits. Time and again, federal public sector workers voted to raise their dues, and the bar, to benefit all working Canadians. A definitive sign of a shift in public sector activism, the PSAC is demanding expanded and improved public services.
This is not the same union that emerged from its last, highly contentious, round of bargaining, which left a divided membership. In a show of confidence, convention delegates acclaimed the National President and National Executive Vice President, Chris Aylward, to second terms.
Without question, the most politicized group at this convention were the young workers. The realities of changing demographics in the federal public sector mean more are entering the workforce in their late 20s, and most of those new employees are faced with staffing freezes preventing them from becoming permanent employees until their 30s. In response, PSAC delegates chose to raise the definition of young workers from 30 years of age to 35.
The elected young worker coordinators from each of the PSAC’s seven regions mobilized at convention with a grace and ease that left even the most experienced activists impressed. They knew what they were up against – three years ago, the same resolution was defeated on convention floor. This time, the coordinators were determined and defied naysayers who accused them of simply wanting more years to ‘hold onto their titles’ by making a joint pact not to reoffer for their positions.
“We all agreed that this would be about ensuring others got the opportunity to do this role,” says PSAC BC Young Worker Coordinator Vanessa Miller. “We will remain on the committees to support our successors and mentor. But we’re showing people that this wasn’t about protecting our positions. It was about the longevity of the young worker committees and about being able to pay it forward in a real way. Now we’re going to organize around labour education and doubling the size of our young worker committees across the country.”
University sector DCLs, comprised of mostly graduate student workers and post-doctoral fellows, predominantly from Ontario and Quebec, also felt strongly about raising the age definition. Victor Bilodeau, a delegate from Quebec, felt this change would give more opportunities to members of DCLs to get involved in the union because their members generally start their career later in life. “Raising the age gives us a chance to still get involved once we’ve set into our new work environments. This offers us some continuity.”
DCL delegates also organized against a resolution that would lower component delegate ratios to the PSAC convention while leaving DCL ratios the same, along with a second resolution that would see a component president join the Alliance Executive Committee (a governing body of the PSAC compromised of regional executive vice-presidents from each of the seven PSAC regions, who are already elected by DCL and component members alike).
“Having those resolutions voted down was key to preventing an eventual scenario where we would become second class members,” says Ontario DCL delegate Christo Aivalis.
Underlying tensions at the highest ranks of union leadership appeared to rear themselves through heated debates at the microphones on the last day of convention leaving delegates wondering what might be happening behind closed doors. But despite the going ons between senior leadership, this public service union appears to have found its place in political and social activism. Mirroring the public service by staying out of the political arena appears to be a sentiment of the past as the National President pulled out her NDP card to show delegates where her values rested federally. Guest speakers Hassan Yussuff from the Canadian Labour Congress, Daniel Boyer of the FTQ and Béatrice Vaugrante of Amnesty International pledged support to PSAC and urged delegates to fight for workers and human rights. Alex Himelfarb, the former head of the federal public service, encouraged PSAC members to fight austerity and inequality.
In a final show of solidarity, locals and components raised more than $57,000 for striking workers in Hay River and the PSAC offered to match the support dollar-for-dollar. Social justice, succession planning, and the fight of a lifetime at the bargaining table defined this convention. There is a shift running through the PSAC as a new generation of leadership is emerging, and the future looks promising.