October 23, 1999
$5 billion pay equity issue heads back to bargaining
But union vows it will only negotiate implementation, not moneyBy Tim Harper
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA - The federal government and the union representing its public servants are heading to the bargaining table to try to resolve a $5 billion political straitjacket for the governing Liberals.
Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard announced yesterday the government will defer a decision to appeal a Federal Court ruling that Ottawa owes public servants as much as $5 billion in a 16-year battle over pay equity.
Instead, Robillard said, her officials and the Public Service Alliance of Canada will begin talks Monday morning on the ramifications of Tuesday's decision by Mr. Justice John Evans of the Federal Court.
Last year, the public service union rejected a $1.3 billion offer from the federal government to close the file.
This time, they have a better bargaining stance because of the stinging rebuke directed at Ottawa by Evans and the belief, in some quarters, that Ottawa has no grounds to appeal a decision which would pay an average of $25,000 to some 200,000 mostly female government clerks, librarians and secretaries.
Nycole Turmel, the acting president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, reflected that bargaining position when she told reporters her union was not looking to negotiate.
``We can't negotiate a decision,'' Turmel said. ``We're not talking $3 billion, we're not talking $5 billion, we're talking facts, we're talking an Act, we're talking a decision, we're talking a settlement.''
Although no time limit has been placed on the talks, both sides hold a hammer should talks derail.
Robillard said the government could still appeal. It has30 days from Tuesday's decision to act.
Turmel said her union reserves the right to return to the Human Rights Tribunal which upheld its claim, a decision vindicated by the court decision, and ask the award be implemented. They already have meetings scheduled there in December.
`There goes the surplus. There goes tax relief.'
She made it clear she will be looking only at terms of implementation of the award and will talk to Ottawa about how the pot of money should be divided and over what time frame.
Robillard was offering no specifics on what the government will look for upon a return to the table.
``Before taking a final decision on the matter, the government has decided to resume discussions with the union to achieve a mutual understanding of the implication of the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal,'' she said.
The possibility of a government appeal remains, she said.
``All options remain open but before a final decision is taken, we'll return to the table.''
Turmel said she saw nothing in the Federal Court decision on which Ottawa could base an appeal.
``This is a big step to try to resolve the problem,'' she said of Monday's talks. ``We have been waiting for 16 years.
``We have retirees who have been waiting who are living below the poverty level, we have members who have died since the process began.
`We have been waiting for 16 years. We have retirees who have been waiting who are living below the poverty level, we have members who have died since the process began. It's about time we resolve this.'
- Nycole Turmel, Public Service Alliance of Canada acting president
``It's about time we resolve this.''
Only minutes before she announced the government decision to talk to the union, Robillard dodged a question in the House of Commons from Calgary Reform MP Diane Ablonczy, who called on the government to properly define pay equity because faulty legislation has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
The Reform party has called on the Liberals to immediately appeal the decision because it will cost Canadians promised tax breaks.
``Every other worker in the country can now kiss a tax cut goodbye, so the government can finance its loss to the Federal Court,'' said British Columbia Reform MP Philip Mayfield.
``There goes the surplus. There goes tax relief.''
Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray repeated assurances given earlier by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that any final resolution to the pay equity issue will have no impact on promised tax breaks.
``Look what the government has done to workers over the past five years,'' Turmel said.
``They took away the Unemployment Insurance fund, they took away our pension fund - they stole $30 billion from us - so don't talk to me about tax breaks.''
The controversy began in 1983 when the Public Service Alliance of Canada filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over pay for clerical workers.