Union School: Interview with Larry Rousseau on defeating the Conservatives

with Franck Binard
Question: Can you speak a little bit about the role that PSAC played on October 19?
From a communications point of view, one of most interesting aspects of the mobilization of our members was that when I would meet with our members, they already knew what they had to do. The rallying message was that on October 19 we had to get rid of the current government. Over the past two years we’ve run several communication campaigns—“We Are All Affected,” “Stop Harper,” and so forth. Our strategy was to talk about the cuts and how they affected Canadians, rather than the erosion of public sector benefits. We communicated that this wasn’t about removing Harper, but rather about preserving what mattered to Canadians. Our emphasis was to highlight and stop the cuts to specific and essential services, such as food inspections, environmental and industrial inspections, veteran affairs, as well as the search and rescue programs in BC and Newfoundland.
These campaigns brought us to the summer, and what was consistent was the messaging. We had the support of our members, but there was still a feeling of fear. PS employees have always fought for more beneficial collective bargaining agreements, but this was the first time that a union was engaging members politically with the specific objective of regime change. While common in other countries, this was unprecedented in Canada. The desire to remove the Harper government consolidated movements across the nation. In the end, it is Harper’s ideology and dogmatism that united us. We knew we had we had no choice because he would destroy our union and the union movement.
The objective of the Conservative agenda was to render the government incapable of achieving its core mandate of serving Canadians. That agenda is led by austerity, which is led by corporations. Most corporate wealth is concentrated in the top 1% of the world, which means that whatever agenda makes the 1% even richer at the expense of the middle class needs to be attacked. When Mulcair proposed to increase the corporate tax from 15% to 17% in order to keep balanced budgets, he was crucified in the media. This media attack was fuelled by corporations, and quite ironically created an opportunity for the Liberals to use austerity as a weapon against the NDP – Trudeau understood that he needed to keep corporate interests happy in order to get elected, and he chose instead to present deficits in the first three years of his mandate, with a balanced budget in the final year. Because he leads an establishment party, he could get away with advocating for a deficit, whereas if the NDP presented deficits, they would have been mercilessly attacked by the corporate forces of high finance and austerity. It put the NDP in a corner.
Question: Recently, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, which aligns itself with the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, not to mention the Conservative Party, published an article harshly attacking the alleged abuse of sick leave by public service workers. The article is visibly part of a political agenda to influence public opinion and the new government before the next round of collective bargaining in the federal public service. It’s consistent with the tactics regularly used by Conservatives. Does this type of article raise concerns? Should we worry that the Liberal government will turn into a new iteration of the Harper government?
Let’s clear something up first. The article on sick leave contains several inaccuracies. Specifically, it omits the fact that the study covers all levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal. Remember also that, in the private sector, there are often no collective agreements providing for sick leave.
I’ll be keeping an eye on the Liberals because once bitten, twice shy. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to go back to the way things were before the Conservatives. However, we are now in a position to regain some ground. Our role is to push hard to turn back the clock as much as possible. Let’s not forget that in 2004, it was a Liberal government that passed the Public Service Modernization Act. This legislation put forward the best fit principle which replaced skill- and performance-based hiring with subjective staffing methods based on loose and meaningless concepts. The best fit opened the door to nepotism, favouritism and unfair hiring practices where allies (like-minded people), friends and even relatives in some cases, can be hired under pretext that they would be “more appropriate”.
The idea behind this legislation was to bring public sector practices in line with those of the private sector, to offer management greater flexibility. In reality, it helped managers get around skill-based staffing. I would like to see a return to the merit principle and to an objective assessment of candidates applying for public service jobs.
Question: Obviously, Liberals could be tempted to resort to practices we got used to under the Conservatives. But getting back to our question, what will you do to ensure that Liberals stick to the promises they made to us in exchange for bringing them to power?
Over the next few months, we will be engaging in collective bargaining with a focus on sick leave. We will also keep a close watch on actions taken by the Liberals and make sure that they are held accountable. Getting back to the article, our strategy is not to respond to right‑wing attacks, but rather to win our battles at the bargaining table. It’s worth noting that this study was not conducted by the government, but by the private sector. All of this is interconnected. Take austerity. It profits big business, the 1%. If you were rich before the Conservatives came to power, you’re even richer now after 10 years of their austerity regime. It’s definitely profitable for the 1% to relentlessly attack the public sector and reduce tax rates. We can build on the momentum gained before the elections, for example making a link between austerity and other issues such as climate change. Today, we have a government that claims to have a new approach, but austerity and climate change go hand in hand. It’s in the interest of private companies that benefit from austerity policies to ensure that the battle against climate change is unsuccessful.