Public Service Week: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Twenty-two years ago, then-MP Marlene Catterall introduced a private member’s bill recognizing the third week of June as National Public Service Week, a week to celebrate the work and achievements of the people who make up the Public Service of Canada.

The bill was the idea of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the largest union representing scientists and other professionals in Canada. Despite being proposed by a union and sponsored by an opposition Liberal MP, the bill received the support of the majority Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and quickly became law. We celebrated PS Week from June 15 to June 21, but this year was different.

Most notably, the initiator of this great event, the PIPSC, following the lead of a larger and more militant union, asked its members to consider boycotting Public Service Week. What an asinine and unproductive move for any federal union, let alone the one that lead the creation of PS Week. It really sends all the wrong messages. Imagine a union urging government employees to ‘not celebrate’ their role and contribution to Canada and the public good–even as senior management does its best, within very limited resources, to recognize and promote a respectful and co-operative workplace. What are unions thinking? Or are they?

Governments come and go, but despite its size, the public service and public servants remain and hopefully, so will their unions. As management and labour move forward in a workplace that is more connected and growing more and more complex in terms of labour relations issues, there is an even greater need for constructive management and labour collaboration. It simply makes sense.

Encouraging its members to bail from PS Week activities does nothing to firm up the important relationship between unions and management. While union executives call for boycotts, the rank and file union members know and live the important labour-management relationship on a daily basis. Union members attend management-sponsored events, no matter what their executives say, and further weaken respect for the union movement. Besides, what is wrong with having a hot dog or ice cream with the Commissioner or the Deputy Minister? Well, it might be a way to get that all important message across!

More to the point, there is a huge difference between management and the government of the day. While the relationship with the government may be weak or strong, that relationship is totally distinct from the union-management relationship, which is specifically challenged with improving the workplace in an environment tasked with delivering quality public service to Canadians. Such collaboration is even called for in the (Public Service Labour Relations Act). What are unions thinking? Have unions forgotten their roots where they once were not even asked? Are they not looking to other co-operative models?

Unions and management must continue to work together, even as ideological agendas come and go. And they do come and go. It is important to remember governments change, and with the constantly shifting political ground, another government may make equally tough decisions with respect to its public service. What do unions do then? Do they ask for a repeal of the National Public Service Week: Serving Canadians Better Act? Is it any wonder that PS unions are getting such bad press?

Is it time for unions to stop providing the government with ammo? Is it time to recognize there is a need for even more participation in events like PS Week, not less? Is it time unions focus on things at the core of the movement instead of grandstanding with a weak message that buys them nothing but disrespect? Shouldn’t unions do what they have always done—focus on fair and competitive wages, pension and fairly representing their members in need?

In those areas, unions have always moved the bar and will continue to do so. They gain the respect of management by supporting their membership and by asking the tough questions from the inside.

In 2014, it is still not an exaggeration to say much of what we celebrate and take for granted as a nation—safe food, accurate weather forecasts, meaningful health and environmental regulations, an efficient and secure transportation network, even a fair tax system—are, in large part, thanks to the dedication, skill and perseverance of professional public servants. They deserve to be celebrated, perhaps now more than ever.
Gary_CorbettGary Corbett is Past President and CEO of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.