Globe and Mail

Civil servants win on pay equity

Ottawa suffers total defeat as court upholds award of up to $5-billion for 200,000 workers

Parliamentary Bureau; With a report from Margot Gibb-Clark in Toronto.
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, October 20, 1999

Ottawa -- The Federal Court ruled unequivocally yesterday against the Chrétien government in a long-running pay-equity dispute that could cost Ottawa $5-billion, half its estimated surplus next year.

The court rejected every government argument in a stinging rebuke in which the judge said the dispute had been dragged out far too long and that a further appeal would probably be unsuccessful.

Nycole Turmel of the Public Service Alliance of Canada said she was "ecstatic" at the news, but she and the 200,000 mostly female workers who have fought the case for up to 15 years also vowed to defy any further attempts by Ottawa to appeal.

"The federal government thought that because we are women, we'd roll over and be quiet," said Colette Gervais, who expects $40,000 compensation for being underpaid as a payment clerk for 40 years. "I hope that they've learned that we are more than second-class citizens."

In his decision, Mr. Justice John Evans refused the federal government's request to send the dispute back to a tribunal of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

He urged a quick end to the dispute, saying that the matter has already "dragged on for far too long, and at a far too great cost for all concerned.

". . . Justice unduly delayed in this context is indeed likely to be justice denied."

Judge Evans also suggested that an appeal to Canada's top court would probably be unsuccessful.
He criticized the government for paying only "lip service to the regular admonitions from the Supreme Court of Canada . . . that human-rights statutes are to be interpreted in a broad and liberal manner."

The federal government did not say yesterday whether it would appeal.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the affected workers, ruled out accepting an out-of-court deal. Last year, Ottawa offered $1.3-billion to close the file.

"I don't think at this point that there is any room for a negotiated settlement," said Ms. Turmel, PSAC's acting president.

Yesterday's ruling was Ottawa's second major defeat in this dispute. Last July, the tribunal awarded a multibillion-dollar settlement to about 200,000 clerks, librarians, secretaries and other federal employees in female-dominated positions.

The tribunal ruled that these employees were underpaid for up to 13 years in comparison with employees in male-dominated jobs, and deserved an average of about $25,000 each from Ottawa.

The federal government appealed, arguing that the tribunal had chosen the wrong methodology to translate the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value" into a cash settlement.

Workers will retaliate with protests and sit-ins if Ottawa appeals again, Ms. Turmel said.

"Our members will be so angry if they do, that there will be a reaction. [The government is] talking about surpluses everywhere, so it's about time that they resolve that problem and it's about time they recognize the work of women in Canada."

Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard said she will announce Ottawa's intentions by the end of the week. She said she needed time to analyze the decision and consult her colleagues.

"I'm not delaying anything. I received the decision at 10 this morning," she said.

Ms. Robillard urged the current and retired public servants affected by the dispute to be patient, and said the government remains committed to the "principle" of pay equity.

Ms. Robillard said that the government had appealed the tribunal decision because it wanted a clear interpretation of the Human Rights Act. "As long as that clarification is offered [in the ruling], we will be able to go further with our partners," she said.

The mood among workers was defiant yesterday, with people fully aware that Ottawa retains control over the timing of any settlement.

Elizabeth Millar, PSAC's pay-equity expert, said that someone gave her some champagne when the tribunal ruled in the union's favour last year: She's still waiting to open it.

"It'll be more subdued until we see the money," she said.

Experts said that the decision sends a clear message to employers: Stop using narrow legal arguments to avoid catch-up raises to women staff.

"It says to employers, you've got to live with pay equity," said Toronto labour and human-rights lawyer Mary Cornish. "You've got to move on and implement the legislation. Stop taking these overly technical positions."

Although the ruling formally applies only to the government and to federally regulated industries, it tells other companies that the courts won't support technical hair-splitting to avoid equity payments, she added.

Yesterday's ruling reinforces a recent Supreme Court of Canada refusal to allow Bell Canada to appeal a pay-equity ruling that went in favour of its employees, said Scott Streiner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In both cases, the court awarded legal costs to the unions "which is a bit of a signal by the court."

The New Democratic Party, the Bloc Québécois and the Progressive Conservative Party all urged Ottawa to implement the tribunal ruling.

NDP Leader Alexa McDonough said the large size of the settlement is not an excuse for more delays.

"The government had 15 years to consider this issue, to prepare for today's court ruling. More delays, more wrangles, more excuses just aren't going to cut it," she said.

The Human Rights Commission also sided with the workers. "The federal government has every right to appeal this decision, but it would be a waste of the public's money," said Chief Commissioner Michelle Falardeay-Ramsay.

The Reform Party, however, said that protecting taxpayers' money justified an appeal.

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