Striking diplomats confident they have 'slam dunk' case

The union representing striking foreign service officers hopes a labour board hearing today will find the federal government has been bargaining in bad faith, which could lead to binding arbitration in its contract dispute.

Union seeking forced arbitration with government at labour board hearing

Foreign service officers have refused to process visa applications at 15 of Canada's busiest foreign offices until the government accepts binding arbitration. A labour board hearing into their complaint the government is bargaining in bad faith began today. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The union representing Canada's foreign service will try to persuade a labour board today that the federal government has been bargaining in bad faith.

If the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers is successful, the two sides could be forced into binding arbitration to settle a contract dispute that has been dragging on for months with no end in sight.

"We think we have a slam dunk case," Tim Edwards, PAFSO president, said Tuesday, ahead of today's hearing at the Public Service Labour Relations Board in Ottawa where the complaint is being heard.

"And we think that the arbitrator will find that the government has been dealing with us in bad faith and hopefully order us both into binding arbitration, which is the responsible way forward to solve this dispute."

Edwards was at the hearing that kicked off around 9:30 a.m. ET. PAFSO's lawyer, Andrew Raven, laid out the union's case for the adjudicator, Margaret Shannon.

He told her there is no doubt the government is guilty of bargaining in bad faith and that "the public is crying out for a solution."

"There's no question there has been a significant impact on a host of different groups with a financial impact directly felt by Canada," he said.

Decision could come in a few weeks

Richard Fader, a Treasury Board lawyer, is representing the government's side at the hearing, which is expected to last the day. A decision could be announced within a few weeks.

Treasury Board's position is that either party has the right to suggest pre-conditions which the other party can choose to accept or reject, and that the duty to bargain in good faith doesn't impose conditions on a consensual process.

PAFSO filed the complaint after the government sought to attach six preconditions to the union's offer in July to go to binding arbitration. The union said the conditions Treasury Board president Tony Clement wanted to impose at the arbitration table were unreasonable and "paralyzing."

The union argues it was an attempt to predetermine the outcome of arbitration, and that it was a violation of the government's duty to bargain in good faith under the Public Service Labour Relations Act.

The labour board hearing the complaint is an independent quasi-judicial tribunal that deals with grievances; it can also act as a mediator in resolving disputes related to collective bargaining.

The main sticking point in the contract dispute is salary. Foreign service officers say they don't get equal pay for equal work when compared with government employees who do similar work — as trade or policy analysts for example, but who aren't members of the foreign service.

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers president Tim Edwards says his members want binding arbitration to settle a contract dispute. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

According to PAFSO it would cost the government $4 million bring their salaries in line with other employees but Clement's office won't budge on the wage hike.

"The foreign service, which is already well paid and a highly sought after posting, is asking for a hefty wage hike that is neither fair nor reasonable for taxpayers," spokeswoman Andrea Mantel-Campbell said in an email Tuesday.

"Foreign service officers have unique jobs that cannot be compared to others. These jobs are substantively different from public service lawyers, economists or commerce officers," she wrote. "The foreign service also has no recruitment or retention issues."

Edwards said the salary increase being asked for is a "tiny fraction" of the economic impact of the contract dispute. Diplomats started temporary rotating strikes at embassies in the spring; certain services have been affected at different times.

The biggest effect has been the complete withdrawal of visa processing services at Canada's 15 busiest centres abroad — Beijing, Cairo, London, Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Shanghai are among the offices affected.

Citizenship and Immigration has taken measures to ensure visas are still being processed, but there has been a slowdown and that's caused big concerns for the tourism and education sectors.

Edwards said that job action will escalate in the fall, with more political, diplomatic and trade officers joining visa and immigration officers.

"The government's approach to this just defies common sense and all reason," Edwards said. "We hope the arbitrator sees it our way."

Wednesday's hearing is to determine whether the government has been bargaining in bad faith and whether to send the matter to an arbitrator. It will not consider arguments on the contract issues.