Bargaining with Treasury Board can seem like an obscure process where a bunch of people spend time talking at each other at random intervals for months or even years before anything happens and we end up with a new collective agreement.
But the truth is, there is actually a lot more to the process than that, and there are very clear milestones we need to reach as we negotiate your next contract. Here’s a quick primer on how Treasury Board bargaining works, from getting input from you – the members – to leveraging our union’s strength at the table and securing a fair contract.
The work to get ready to bargain
- The process starts with our members before the current agreement ends
Well before PSAC actually starts meeting with Treasury Board, we survey members to find out what they think are the key issues to improve their work life. It could be more leave, better work-life balance, salaries that cover the cost of inflation, better health and safety protection, actions to stop harassment and discrimination, or other issues. Locals are asked to provide their input. At the same time, the union also looks at the changes we were not able to achieve during previous rounds of bargaining and what other unions are negotiating, as well as new workplace trends.
- We talk about what will become bargaining demands
Once we’ve received all the proposals and input, we bring a representative group of members together at a bargaining conference to let us know what they think. They discuss the proposals and the priorities for the upcoming round of bargaining. These discussions will guide the bargaining teams later in the process when we have to make decisions during negotiations.
- Ideas are turned into bargaining demands
Members who will sit on the bargaining teams are elected at the bargaining conference. Each bargaining unit – PA, SV, TC, EB, FB – has its own team. The members on each team are from within the bargaining unit. PSAC strives to make these teams as representative as possible so that they cover a variety of occupations, regions, departments, components and equity groups. The composition of the team is complete with the addition of a staff negotiator and a research officer.
Each team is responsible for reviewing the input and feedback from the bargaining conference and putting together a final set of proposals to improve their collective agreement at the bargaining table. These are our bargaining demands.
It may be confusing, but some important issues are negotiated separately. Benefits such as health care and dental plans have their own schedule for bargaining. Other unions representing others who are not PSAC members are also involved because these benefits cover the entire federal public service.
- Where the demands are negotiated
In the case of our Treasury Board agreements, bargaining also takes place at what is known as the Common Issues table for the proposals that apply to all our Treasury Board members, like remote work, the right to disconnect and addressing systemic racism and discrimination. This bargaining team has representatives from each of the bargaining units. It has its own negotiator and research officer. When the union and employer agree to proposals at this table, they are included in each of the bargaining unit agreements.
How bargaining works
- Putting the employer on notice
Sometime within four months of the end of each agreement, PSAC advises Treasury Board that it wants to bargain changes to the current agreement. This is known as notice to bargain. And while each agreement has an end date, the terms and conditions continue to apply until they are replaced by a new agreement or a strike takes place.
- Meeting to bargain
The next step is to talk with the employer to set up meeting dates. Once dates have been agreed to, PSAC and Treasury Board each bring their team to the meetings. The union isn’t the only side to propose changes; the employer does too. Union demands focus on improving wages and working conditions; employer demands often involve concessions.
During the meetings, each side has an opportunity to explain their proposals and argue when the other side doesn’t agree. Depending on how responsive – or not – each side is to the other’s demands, these meetings can go on for many months.
While bargaining with the employer continues, PSAC teams also make time to meet alone. They talk about the employer’s reaction to the union’s demands, and how to respond to the employer’s demands. Bargaining is a process of give and take, and as talks with the employer continue, the team will decide to withdraw some demands in favour of others that members have told the union have a higher priority. Both sides may also modify their original proposals as discussions continue in an effort to reach agreement.
- Reaching a tentative agreement
- The best outcome of these meetings is when the union and the employer agree on the changes that will be made to the agreement at this stage of the process. The changes are contained in what is known as a tentative agreement. It is tentative because it doesn’t become final until members have had an opportunity to vote to accept or reject it.
- Supporting the work of the bargaining teams
Bargaining teams can’t do the hard work of negotiating alone. The employer needs to know from the outset that members are serious about their demands. PSAC and the teams regularly update members on how bargaining is progressing while mobilization activities are organized to show support and put pressure on the employer. These can include sending emails or calling the Treasury Board President and others, putting pressure on through social media, holding information and mobilizing webinars and meetings, and holding rallies. These activities can be fun and bring people together, but they always have a serious message. Our bargaining teams are only as strong as the members who support them and mobilize to show the employer we’re prepared to fight for a fair contract.
When bargaining breaks down
- Reaching impasse
At some point, if the union and the employer can’t reach a tentative agreement, they can declare an impasse. In other words, they have gone as far as they can with no resolution in sight. At this stage, either the union or the employer can apply for conciliation.
On receiving a request for conciliation, the Chairperson of the Federal Public Labour Relation Board may recommend that a public interest commission be established for conciliation of the matters in dispute. The PIC is a panel of three people – a chairperson appointed by the Labour Board and nominees appointed by the union and management. Once the PIC is created, hearing dates are set where both parties give arguments in support of their positions. This process can take several months.
Hearings are scheduled for the union and the employer to present written and oral arguments in support of their outstanding bargaining proposals. Once these hearings are completed, the PIC members review the evidence and arguments. Their role is to make recommendations to the union and the employer that could help them reach a settlement. The recommendations are not binding and neither side is required to accept them.
The best outcome at this stage is for the union and the employer to resume bargaining in light of the recommendations.
- Getting ready for a strike
When bargaining breaks down, members have a critical role in putting pressure on the employer in order to reach a fair settlement without having to resort to a strike. While bargaining progresses, members have a responsibility to stay informed by signing up for bargaining updates and information events. They can show the union is serious by calling and visiting their Members of Parliament, asking for their help in moving the employer to make a better offer. And they can start practicing for a strike by organizing and joining information pickets and demos.
Locals are provided with strike training so they can organize members in preparation for a possible strike. The more the employer knows members are mobilized, the greater the possibility there will be a settlement without a strike.
- Bringing a strike vote to the members
When bargaining has not gone well and a Public Interest Commission has been set up, members may need to take strike action to get the improvements to the agreement they need. This is a possibility during every round of bargaining.
When there are big differences between the changes members want and what the employer is prepared to offer, and it looks like it will take more than talk to move the employer, PSAC organizes a strike vote for members in the bargaining unit. Members have an opportunity to vote for or against strike action. The vote usually occurs around the release of the PIC recommendation because the results of the strike vote can only be used for 60 days.
- Preparing for strike action
If bargaining hasn’t produced a settlement, certain conditions first have to be met before members can take strike action.
- It is at least seven (7) days since the Public Interest Commission has issued its recommendations
- The union and employer have agreed on which positions are essential services
- A majority of members have voted in favour of a strike and no more than 60 days have passed since the strike vote results were released
- PSAC’s national president authorizes the strike
- Finalizing essential services before a strike
During the bargaining process, the union and the employer work to determine which services will be considered essential and continue in the event of a strike. Members in these positions will be required to work during a strike but can support striking members in other ways.
- Averting a strike at any time
Taking a strike vote doesn’t automatically mean that there will be a strike. There is nothing stopping the union and employer from meeting again at any time. Sometimes this happens with the help of a neutral third party, such as a mediator. It may happen before a strike occurs or while a strike is taking place.
The best outcome is when the parties reach a tentative agreement before a strike takes place. But sometimes it takes a strike to get the employer to make a better offer by showing how seriously members support their bargaining demands.
When a strike takes place, the parties usually reach an agreement voluntarily.
- Choosing the type of strike
The purpose of a strike is to put the maximum amount of pressure on Treasury Board in order to reach a settlement. When talks break down, the union assesses what kind of action may be needed to get the employer to make the best possible offer.
While the common perception of a strike is everyone off the job and out on a picket line, there are other types of strikes. A strike could start with employees working to rule. They follow to the letter their job description and all the rules and regulations that are part of their work. Or there could be selected, targeted or rotating strikes as part of a strategy to escalate the impact on the employer. This happens when members in a certain work location, a city, a region or province or across the country are organized to set up picket lines for one day at a time or a series of days. And sometimes, it takes all members out on strike to get the employer to take our demands seriously.
- Finalizing a new agreement
Whenever the union and the employer agree on a tentative agreement, the members have the final say. Meetings are held to explain the changes in the tentative agreement and a ratification vote is held. If a majority of members vote in favour, a new collective agreement will be signed.
If members reject the tentative agreement before strike action has been needed, this could trigger more bargaining and/or a strike. If a strike was already in progress, it may continue. At some point, the strike will end and there will be a new agreement.
And then the process begins all over again for the next agreement!