Should we give Harper what he wants?

Death of Evidence_small_10

A shift in the focus at NRC to strictly industry-based investigation. Misrepresentation of facts as to how scientific research is conducted by Government Ministers, requiring correction for the public record. Release of a “National Household Survey” with data so questionable and reporting so poor that Stats Canada won’t even release some of the results they did get (and yet somehow, we have a handle on how many Jedis reside in Canada). Laying off even more scientists and researchers at Agriculture Canada. Putting out notice that science in the arctic is about to change, “to make sure science is relevant” as the new chair of the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq, Conservative Minister of Health for the Canadian Government. And all this just in the past couple of weeks.

You can add to this heap the myriad of cuts to science in this country, outlined so well here, science jobs cut across the board in government departments, and the ongoing pile of rules and regulations which limit our effectiveness as federal scientists that I’ve outlined on this blog.

Someone looking at all this might conclude that the Harper Government doesn’t really appreciate science, particularly the science that his own public service generates.

So I’ll pose the question: what if we gave Harper what he seems to want? That is, provide a demonstration of what the public service might look like without science.

Government scientists are a unionized bunch. We have a union that is supposed to support us when there is an indication that our employers are negatively impacting our ability to work efficiently and effectively. If there was a health and safety concern at my office, restricting me from doing work in my lab, and my employer (the government) refused to do anything about it, I could turn to the union who would support my refusal to work in unsafe conditions.

It may not be risking my life, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that my employer is limiting my ability to effectively do my job. I require permission to seek the funding that supports my research, even before I apply for it, therefore limiting my ability to do said research. I require a manager to sign off on the papers I’ve written based on the research I’ve conducted on behalf of the crown, which has the potential to limit my ability to communicate the research I’ve conducted. I require levels upon levels of approval to hire even summer students to help me conduct my research (paid for by the funds I’ve secured), and frequently can only hire someone months after I needed them to begin initially. I work in an environment where I am actively discouraged from communicating my work to the public without expressed permission. And the more layoffs come, the more the remaining scientists are getting leaned on to pick up the slack and do the jobs of all the people who are gone in addition to their own responsibilities. I complain to my superiors about all of this, and all I hear is “this isn’t my fault, it comes from… [insert scapegoat here, including Minister’s office, Treasury Board, etc…]”.

So, here’s my proposal- if we as government scientists can’t effectively do our job, then perhaps job action is required. The Harper government doesn’t want science? Fine. Let’s see how well they do without us, and how they deal with the media circus around their own government scientists refusing to work under the current dysfunctional climate.

I am proposing that government scientists (myself included) should go on strike. PIPSC is our union. The RE group, to which we belong, has their annual general meeting June 1st, 2013. I think this should be a topic of discussion at that meeting. I’d like the Union to seek the input from its members on this, or provide some thoughts as to why this is untenable.

If not a strike, then some coordinated job action- work to rule. Refuse to participate in all those off-hand consultations that we do for the department just because we’re nice people. Walk outs. Coordinated protests. Let the media feast on government scientists in lab coats picketing right outside their government offices. We can’t talk, so our union reps can do the talking.

I’d welcome any feedback here on the topic.

I’ll say right now that this would likely be a tough sell- research scientists are deeply committed bunch to the work they do. But I am having a hard time imagining how we can expect things to get anything but worse given the direction things are going, and I don’t see how we as government scientists can sit by and watch this happen anymore. This is a majority government who we’re stuck with for at least two more years. Given their track record, I’m legitimately worried about how much more damage this bull will do in the china shop before someone finally shows them the door.

My first ever post on this site was a response to Andrew Weaver (climate scientist, and newly minted MLA in the British Columbia Legislature) that government scientists should rise up. In it, I outlined why this was a challenging thing to ask. As a single person, there is much to lose. But if we have the support of our union, there is strength in numbers.

The academic scientific community in Canada and the world has taken a stand and voiced their objections. Perhaps it’s time government scientists do the same.

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13 thoughts on “Should we give Harper what he wants?

  1. I would most definitely support any job action taken by government scientists to draw attention to the muzzling of scientists and to force the government to change their policies. Any country where a government that restricts the freedom of its scientists to speak out on issues is not a true democracy.

  2. Yes. Use your collective voice. The Harper government is using an old Roman tactic – divide and conquer. Don’t let history repeat itself.

  3. Lab Coat Zombie Walk @ Sussex Drive. 😀 Guillotines, nooses, ball and chains… maybe some medieval torture devices. My first thought. 🙂
    Some action to catch social media, and in turn, our lame-stream media is needed

  4. Another supporter here! Looking forward to your first post after the June 1st meeting 🙂

  5. Pingback: Links 5/19/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  6. Glad to see this discussion!

    Although it doesn’t address all of your areas of concern (e.g. applying for funding, hiring students), our collective agreement does have an article regarding publications. The next RE Group newsletter will be encouraging our members to consider filing grievances based on violations of that article. Note specifically (emphasis added):

    http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pubs_pol/hrpubs/coll_agre/re/re01-eng.asp#toc233610864

    7.02 The Employer agrees that publications prepared by an employee, within the scope of his employment, will be retained on appropriate departmental files for the normal life of such files. The Employer will not unreasonably withhold permission for publication. At the Employer’s discretion, recognition of authorship will be given where practicable in departmental publications.

    7.04(b) When approval for publication is withheld, the author(s) shall be so informed in writing of the reasons, if requested by the author(s).

    Regarding striking, see this article on the PIPSC website concerning the method of dispute resolution in bargaining – the choices being binding arbitration or conciliation with the right to strike:

    http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/news/magazine/spring2011/8

    Our last agreement was settled by arbitration in November, and doesn’t expire until October 2014. So even if the group goes down the conciliation/strike route, it would be some ways into 2015 before we could potentially be in a legal strike position (assuming negotiations reach an impasse). That said, the June AGM is the perfect time to bring up potential member interest in pursuing the strike route, as the bargaining team will be formed this fall. We’ve always opted for arbitration in recent memory, but if member attitudes are changing, we need to hear about it.

    Matt MacLeod
    RE Group Member-at-Large

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to leave an informative reply- I very much value someone from the union responding to this post.

      Thanks also for providing a link to the collective agreement. I now have to admit to not really having looked at this before today…

      You make a great point about our ability to grieve on the basis of publication interference. However, I wonder if one of the other clauses gives them enough wiggle room to get around it, specifically:

      7.04(a): The Employer may suggest revisions to a publication and may withhold approval to publish.

      And:

      7.04(c): Where the Employer wishes to make changes in a publication with which the author does not agree, the employee shall not be credited publicly if the employee so requests.

      Both these clauses seem to give our employer (the government) all the lattitude they need in managing what we can or can’t publish.
      I guess what needs to happen is that the employee will need to show that there has been some way in which the denial to publish would be seen as “unreasonable”.

      However, your response (specifically about the strike issue) got me wondering about a couple of follow-up thoughts:

      1. Is it not possible to re-open the current agreement? See:

      46.01 This Agreement may be amended by mutual consent. If either party wishes to amend or vary this Agreement, it shall give to the other party notice of any amendment proposed and the parties shall meet and discuss such proposal not later than one (1) calendar month after receipt of such notice.

      This would seem to suggest that it is possible to put ourselves in a position to legally strike prior to 2015.

      2. I can understand why arbitration has been the default position for this group in the past, but I suspect that there may be more support for adopting a strike position for the next round of bargaining (whenever it occurs). In my opinion, we’ve seen too many horrifying changes and too many of our colleagues lost to ideological whims of what this current government thinks science should be to leave our bargaining in the hands of someone else. Further, I think in the next round of bargaining, addressing the issues of approval for funding, and a consideration of revisiting publication approval procedures should be addressed. Regardless, any strike option is going to require some serious mobilization of people within the RE group to get people engaged- more than they have been in the past.

      3. I think there’s another section of the collective agreement that people could stand a very good chance to grieve (perhaps more successfully than the publication issue), that you might also want to consider highlighting in the newsletter:

      19.03(a)(i): Each employee will have the opportunity to attend conferences, symposia, workshops, and other gatherings of a similar nature, which the employee deems relevant and beneficial to the research program or the employee’s career development. The Employer shall make a reasonable effort to approve the employee’s request subject to operational requirements.

      Asking for a list of which conferences people want to attend 1.5 years in advance, and then providing them with a decision regarding their attendance mere days before that conference is supposed to take place (particularly when it’s denied) would seem to be something that should be highlighted as an opportunity for employees to grieve. Denial to attend conferences in my experience is far, far more common than the publication issue, but both have the same effect of restricting the communication of the work that we do.

      4. I also started wondering what a “work to rule” campaign would look like. As it says in the collective agreement:

      21.01 Upon written request, an employee shall be entitled to a complete and current statement of the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s position, including the position’s classification level and the position rating form.

      Presumably, each of us could use this as a “work to rule”. These statements are highly variable from one position to the other, so I don’t know how effective that would be.

      Once again, thanks for your comments. I hope you can move some of these musings and discussion along to the AGM.

      • Sorry for the late response, but here goes:

        0. Yep, it will be all about establishing what is ‘unreasonable.’ My point is just we can at least make them give us the reasons for withholding permission in writing, which gives us a basis to make our own determination of that, and take it to an arbitrator if necessary to see if they agree.

        1. We proposed a relatively simple re-opener last round, where we simply wanted to extend the agreement by a year, status quo (with the salary increase as mandated in the Expenditure Restraint Act), to get us back on cycle with everyone else. While TBS had to entertain the discussion, that certainly didn’t mean they had to agree to re-open. Which they didn’t. And one can’t go on strike with an agreement still in place.

        2. I fully agree that it would take a major shift in mindset, but also that given what’s going on, that shift might be there. I am fully supportive of going back to the members with a proper bargaining survey to gauge what’s important to them, and which route they’d be willing to go to get it.

        3. Good point about the Conference article. That’s relatively new language (I think it came in with the 2006 agreement), and also hasn’t been tested. It’s of course not as strong as what we initially proposed, but – like with the publication article – you don’t know how strong it is until people test it with grievances. If people feel they are being denied unreasonably, they should definitely get in touch with a steward and/or the executive. If one submitted a publication to a conference and is denied, one could conceivably grieve based on both articles. So far in DRDC management has been about as reasonable as can be expected with trying to still send people to conferences, so we haven’t had much occasion to consider action on this front – but it certainly may be different in different departments and agencies. We need to hear about the cases to do anything about it, though, and people need to be willing to push.

        4. That article is important for WFA reasons as well, when they’re deciding how to group people for competitions. It’s always a good idea to have one’s job description in writing, I would say. On a similar note, one can ask to see their personnel file once a year. I was surprised to discover that parts of one’s ‘file’ may end up living in 3 or 4 different places, depending on what you’re talking about (e.g. compensation in Winnipeg, performance reviews at Corporate in Ottawa, local copies at one’s centre). Another steward and I requested ours a couple of years ago, and we only actually got them after over a month, and actually submitting grievances (after which they appeared quite promptly).

        As for what PIPSC is or isn’t willing to do, as I often say a union is, quite literally, its members. There’s no ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Decisions are made by all of us, and the barrier to entry to becoming a representative – whether a steward, an elected official, or AGM delegate – is really pretty low. Anyone who’s interested in engaging members is quite welcome to pitch in.

        • Hi Matt,

          Thanks for continuing the discussion. I agree that there should be no perception of “them” and “us” when it comes to the union- with any luck, all this business will increase member engagement.

  7. Left as an anonymous comment at my contact page:

    HI, I am a GoC scientist and the chances of getting our union to support any sort of job action are about the same as my going to the moon tomorrow. I pronounce our union’s acronym (PIPSC) as PipSqueak. When PSAC members were on strike I asked PipSqueak if we were going to refuse to cross their picket line and I was told absolutely not. I had to report to work. So good luck with any sort of job action but if by some miracle you do get the union to announce a day of action or a wildcat strike I will gladly walk out. I assume you understand why I’m not giving my name or e-mail.

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