Federal IT workers fight proposed incentive cuts

Federal IT employees took to the streets Monday to protest a government plan to take away an incentive program that amounts to about three to four per cent of their salaries.

Demonstrations were staged in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Belleville by members of the Computer Systems (CS) Group of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). The union was meeting with representatives of Treasury Board on a new contract to replace the one that expired late last year.

At issue is the so-called retention allowance the government offered CS Group in 1998 as a way of keeping employees in the public sector. Treasury Board initially told members in December of last year it would be extending the allowance until June 21, which was the end of the first negotiation period. The union responded by filing an unfair labour practice complaint under Section 21 of the Public Service Staff Relations Act. The Labour Board ruled in favour of the union, but the allowance could still be eliminated in the new contract.

“The message was, ‘Either you accept this and we’ll push you out on strike.’ They couldn’t just stop it,” said Walter Belyea, CS negotatior for PIPSC, who characterized the mood at the negotiations as tense. “They have never taken this kind of aggressive, Draconian stance in the past.”

Treasury Board spokesman Rob Makichuk, who insisted the government wants to respect the negotiation process, said the original offer in December was not intended as a “Christmas poison pill,” which is how it was described on the CS Group’s Web site.

“We had proposed that extension to allow employees time to adjust financially,” he said. “We were not just going to cut it off after Dec. 21.”

PIPSC is not yet in a legal strike position, though Belyea said the union may move to a conciliation board to do so, depending on how the negotiations unfold. He said removing the allowance could have a detrimental effect on the CS employees, many of whom are already being reorganized under the government’s Service Canada initiative. 

“Why would you want to antagonize 15,000 computer systems people when you’re contemplating all these big changes and moves?” he asked, adding that the government has not rolled back wages since the Depression in 1932. “We’ve said to fold it into the existing wages and move on. We’re not wedded to this thing. It’s not magic for us.”

Makichuk said the allowance was originally intended to make the government a more competitive employer as dot-com firms and other private sector IT organization lured away top talent.

“Y2K and the whole tech boom was a fine example of how many people who worked in government migrated very quickly to the private sector,” he said. “Retention isn’t an issue in the CS group anymore.”

Belyea called that rationale formulaic and short-sighted. “People were streaming out the door,” he said. “There was a dip on the IT community, but in many ways that’s back in recovery. Is it expanding as much? No, but it’s a pretty healthy recovery.”

About 3,000 CS Group employees turned out for the rally in Ottawa, which Belyea said represents about 50 per cent of its workforce there.

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