In the minds of some federal unions, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer might as well be former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The giant Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) is building its campaign as a 2015 rematch, calling for public servants to vote for anyone but Scheer, who will “pick up where Stephen Harper left off” with a decade of job and spending cuts.

“I don’t want 2006 to 2015 to happen all over again, and I believe Scheer is as bad — if not worse — than Stephen Harper,” PSAC national president Chris Aylward said. “Look at the record. Everything points to being anti-workers and anti-union, for sure. How can any worker in the country vote Conservative?”

Historically, PSAC is the most political and militant of the 17 federal unions with long ties to the NDP. Its partisan stand that Scheer is bad news for public servants and the services they deliver to Canadians ruffles some members who prefer their unions remain non-partisan.

It resonates, however, with some unions’ positions in this election. The Liberals are also sending the same message in ads released in Atlantic Canada this week with Lawrence MacAulay, the Liberal candidate for Cardigan who was agriculture and veterans affairs minister in the Trudeau government, claiming Scheer wants to take Canada back to the Harper years.

Attendees of the Montreal Climate Strike march on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by Josie Desmarais

Climate crisis a top priority

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) isn’t going so far as to say "don't vote Scheer," but public-sector unions are wary of Conservative governments, president Debi Daviau said.

Daviau said PIPSC is “issues-based, not party-based.” The union will assess all party positions on its key concerns — climate change being number one — to help “inform” its members’ voting decisions.

“We don’t know if Scheer is the same as Harper, but Conservatives are already talking about austerity, limiting the size of the public service and cuts,” Daviau said.

“I think we are worried about a return to a Conservative government. If we had another Harper regime, like we did for nine years, we couldn’t survive another deficit-reduction plan and still deliver on Canadians’ priorities.”

PIPSC is making the climate crisis a top priority over the bread-and-butter labour and employment issues on which the union historically has focused.

Daviau said Canada has some of the best climate scientists, who need more resources to tackle the climate crisis. A newly-released PIPSC survey of federal scientists found that almost all, or 94 per-cent, said climate change is a crisis, while only a fifth said Canada is doing enough to fight it.

This is clearly a dig at the Conservatives, which PIPSC openly campaigned to defeat in 2015 over muzzling scientists and cutting 1,500 scientist jobs. PIPSC also pushed for tax fairness and led a campaign against the Harper government’s cuts to the Canada Revenue Agency, specifically the units that handle tax havens and fraud investigations.

PIPSC is now combining two of its 2015 issues in this election, calling for the government to crack down on tax cheats and “close corporate tax loopholes” to give scientists the money to find solutions and take climate action.

Harperman, a protest song written by a federal scientist in 2015. YouTube

No fire and unhappiness this election

But the public service of 2019 is very different from the bureaucracy of four years ago.

This election doesn’t have the fire and unhappiness with the Harper government that drove scientists and other professionals to call for the Tories’ defeat. No spending cuts, no job cuts, no strikes.

That hostility was embodied in Harperman, a protest song written by a federal scientist with the refrain “Time to move on.”

The public service was a campaign issue in 2015 and drew a record number of public servants seeking permission to run. The three major parties took turns wooing public servants with promises of reform, or sent "open letters" of praise. No one is talking about the public service in this election.

The Liberals undid Tory-era legislation that limited collective bargaining, the right to strike and ushered in a new sick-leave regime. It unmuzzled scientists, restored the long-form census, appointed a chief science officer and plowed money into rebuilding aging science labs.

It also embedded scientific integrity into the contracts of scientists, which will be very difficult for any future government to undo.

In fact, some argue federal unions have rarely had it better than under the Trudeau government. Daviau said the Liberals largely lived up to the promise to restore “respect” for the work of bureaucrats.

But then came Phoenix.

One of the images created to promote PSAC's "Burnt By Phoenix" campaign. PSAC screenshot

Bitterness over Phoenix remains

One of the biggest public-management failures in history, the Phoenix pay system has botched the pay of public servants for nearly four years. The unions blame the Conservatives for building it and the Liberals for going live with it.

PSAC represents 140,000 public servants, and workplace issues created by Phoenix are its top issue, but climate change is close behind followed by universal pharmacare, childcare and retirement security.

The union is demanding a bigger raise and a better damages settlement to compensate public servants for the personal hardships and disruptions caused by Phoenix.

The other 16 unions have accepted a Phoenix settlement, giving public servants five extra days of vacation over the next four years. Most have also reached wage settlements giving employees a seven per cent raise over the next four years.

But PSAC feels particularly aggrieved by Phoenix. The union was the first to sound the alarm about Phoenix and begged the Liberals to delay the rollout.

It represents the compensation advisers, hundreds of whom were laid off. The government has since hired back more compensation advisers than the 1,500 it shedded.

PSAC members were also among the hardest hit by Phoenix blunders. They tended to be paid less, so they felt the squeeze when Phoenix underpaid, overpaid or didn’t pay them at all. Many are shift workers, whose pay was built on the extra payment transactions that Phoenix botched.

PSAC maintains the settlement isn’t enough to compensate for the stress or opportunities public servants lost because of foregone financial decisions or promotions and other job offers rebuffed in fear of creating a change that could botch their paycheques.

Rather than vacation, PSAC wants an equal cash settlement for all employees: the same payment whether a senior manager or a clerk.

File photo of Scott Brison in 2017. Brison, a former Liberal who was president of the Treasury Board and has now left politics, led the government's digital strategy transformation. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Concern over automation, AI replacing jobs

Aylward said PSAC’s strategy to stop the Conservatives from getting elected will include supporting Liberal or preferably NDP candidates. It will also target specific ridings such as Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre’s Carleton riding.

Both PSAC and PIPSC also want to stop the privatization or contracting out of government work.

But several senior bureaucrats say they worry the Phoenix disaster could make politicians even more risk-averse and slow momentum to modernize the public service, the way it works and delivers services to Canadians.

Phoenix accelerated the government’s digital strategy to transform how government works, buys, builds and uses technology. It was led by Scott Brison, then president of the Treasury Board, and Chief Information Officer Alex Benay. (Brison has since left politics and Benay has gone to the private sector.)

Greg Phillips is president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which represents professionals from translators to statisticians to policy analysts.

CAPE’s big concern is the effect of automation and artificial intelligence on public-sector jobs, which none of the parties are talking about.

He said translators are already feeling the pinch; braced for machine learning to take over more and more of their work.

Machines will continue to improve at translating, but he argued they can’t match human oversight for catching subtleties, nuances and the effect of culture and context on language.

“The future is here and the reality is public servants are taxpayers too, and service has to be provided in a timely and cost-effective way. But at the same time we can’t turn everything over to computers. We have to maintain a skill set,” he said.