Re – vitalizing Public Sector Unions

February 12, 2014

Public sector unions face major challenges with the passage of Bill C -4,and the relentless attacks on the public service by the present governement. While the new legislation is a major problem, an even bigger problem is the “divide -and- rule” strategy that the governement uses to control public sector unions.


It is a strategy that works. The Britishers used divide and rule methods very effectively in India, pitting one group or caste against another. Historians have often wondered how a few thousand Britishers could rule over a country of millions of people for over two hundred years. The answer is very simple: Divide and rule.


The federal government uses exactly the same strategy. Federal employees, by and large,all face the same issues relating to severance pay, sick leave, career development and job security. However, the government divides them into different bargaining units, reducing their strength. If one bargaining unit agrees to some concession, as a trade-off for some other benefit, the same concession is imposed on other bargaining units. This is classic divide and rule strategy in action.


The federal government used this strategy in negotiations over severance pay. One bargaining group agreed to limitations in severance pay, in exchange for some benefits. The same limitations were then imposed on other groups in subsequent rounds of bargaining.


The unions, unfortunately, sometimes buy  into this strategy. PIPSC, for example, has no less than 27 bargaining units for different occupational groups. While there are some unique elements in each bargaining group, such as different pay scales, there are far more issues common to all the groups.


Instead of buying into the federal government strategy, the unions need to adopt a very different approach.They could prepare a list of issues that are common to all bargaining units and try to reach an agreement with the federal government on these common issues. Once this agreement is in place, negotiations with each bargaining group could continue.


This would be a radical shift in the way bargaining is done.


In all likelihood, the federal government would not agree to this approach, as it will undermine its basic strategy. If this happens, the unions will need to get more aggressive about their requirements. They may need to re-examine where their strength lies and how to use this strength effectively. In essence, the unions have only two powers:


  • The power to unite people, and
  • The power to take collective action.


No amount of legislation can take away these basic powers. You cannot legislate against the unions role in uniting employees as this is a basic right. You cannot legislate against collective action in principle; only some forms of collective action can, on occasion, be legislated against, such as the right to strike. However, no legislation can force co – operation from employees.


Senior-management depends completely upon employees for delivering on its mandate. If the employees do not cooperate, management cannot accomplish anything.No legislation can take away this dependency. No department can function for even a week without the willing support of its employees.


These powers are rarely put to the test. Federal employees are largely knowledge workers who like to work closely with management most of the time. They dislike any kind of confrontation.  However, we live in difficult times when the very survival of civil service in its present form is at stake and some demonstration of collective power is required.


There are a number of ways to display this power. Sometimes, it is only necessary for a union to flex its muscles just to demonstrate the enormous power that it has. At other times, a more active approach may be required.


Of all the methods, peaceful, non violent techniques are the most effective. They are not subject to legislation, as they are perfectly legal. Gandhi used these technique very effectively and there was nothing the Britishers could do to withstand these legal, non-violent protests. Ultimately, they had to agree to his demands.


This type of collective action requires a high degree of co-ordination and some degree of support from the public. It has to be preceded by a public relations campaign, so that the public understands the issues involved and sympathizes with this approach.


Here are a few examples of what the public sector unions could do, to make their point.




The employees simply refuse to co-operate with the senior management without actually refusing orders. Thus, they may work hard but not produce anything on non cooperation days.  Work-to-rule could be an integral part of this protest but it is not the only method.


The unions can organize a “no output day” or even a “no output week” to demonstrate their power, using this approach. During this period, all normal work would be brought to a standstill, or at least, slowed down considerably.


They may also wear a black band, or some other visible symbol of protest.


ATIP requests


Access to information requests can be used as a more active form of protest. Every citizen has a right to file an ATIP request on payment of a nominal fee. If enough people file these requests, the entire machinery of government would come to a standstill.



Every employee has a right to file a grievance against a management action, within the prescribed time period. If enough people file grievances at around the same time, the regular business of government would be stalled.


These non-violent methods of protest are very powerful but they must be employed with extreme caution. They should be used only in desperate times, like at present when the unions are struggling for their very survival.


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