In a normal world, this report would be discussing my activities at the PSAC Atlantic Regional Triennial Convention, the Canadian Labour Congress Triennial Convention, and various Local visits. But the normal world has been cancelled. This is the world of COVID-19, which has completely transformed the way we live and work. Unfortunately, some parts of the Department did not get the memo.
In terms of member representation, during the period from May 1-September 30, 2020, I was able to successfully resolve two return-to-work files, seeing two of our members return to meaningful work within the Department after being off for quite some time on Long Term Disability. I presented a grievance related to COVID-19 699 leave, which was a frustrating experience because the Employer simply does not accept the severity of the mental health impact caused by this pandemic.
I continue to work on a very complex Regulation 20 complaint, having to navigate multiple roadblocks thrown up by the Department with alarming frequency. There are more than half a dozen Duty to Accommodate files on my desk. In each case one of the main issues is getting the Employer to accept the medical information they have been provided. In one case the medical provider spoke directly to the Employer to determine exactly what it was they required. The Employer was not able to articulate what it was they required, noting only that they would “know it when they see it.” The Employer’s practice of repeatedly asking for updated medical information until they find something they can use to justify refusing the request remains an ongoing uphill battle. I have also provided consultations to numerous locals on representation issues, and I am pleased to note that several of them were resolved without having to resort to a formal grievance process. I continue to hold monthly conference calls with the Presidents in the Atlantic Region. This has been an invaluable forum for the Locals to consult with each other, and for us to coordinate our advocacy in the Region.
There have been some changes to how the RVPs operate. In April 2020, a trial project was launched to fully liberate the RVPs. This means that, while still being paid by the Employer, we are liberated from our regular VAC jobs and do Union work full time. I cannot express just how beneficial this has been. On a personal level, this has allowed me to rebuild a proper work/life balance. Make no mistake, being an RVP is a full-time job. Working two full-time jobs at the same time is not sustainable. It requires significant sacrifices; working every evening and weekend, doing Union work during vacation periods, declining invitations to social activities because there was Union work with tight deadlines. Liberation has alleviated these problems and allowed me to commit the proper time and attention to representing the members in Atlantic Canada. It is my fervent hope that RVP Liberation becomes a permanent arrangement.
In June 2020, the NEVP and I were appointed to the Department’s National Occupational Health and Safety Policy Committee. I was chosen by the National President as I am the Unions Mental Health Champion. This is a significant change to this committee; the first of many. For far too long the Department has treated this legally required committee as a rubber stamp to whatever they wanted to do. UVAE has changed this. With three members on the committee (The RVP-Head Office is the Bargaining Agent Co-Chair) we have been pushing the committee to change how they operate. We are demanding that the committee be involved in OHS issues right from the start, instead of being “advised” of OHS initiatives at the end of the design and implementation process. The Occupational Health and Safety laws and Regulations are very clear on the authority of this committee and the local OHS Committees; a legal framework that the Employer has been completely ignoring for many years. Historically this committee met four times per year, but UVAE has won a commitment from the Employer to have this committee meet bi-weekly until the Bargaining Agents are fully satisfied that the committee is operating in accordance with the legal framework.
UVAE has also organized a separate Bargaining Agent NOHSPC monthly meeting. This is an opportunity for the five Unions at VAC to meet and coordinate our activities, so that when we do meet with the Employer it is with a fully informed united front.
One of the major issues confronting the NOHSPC at the present time is the conflicting messages coming from the Employer about a Return to the Common Office. It has become perfectly clear that Field Operations is ignoring the direction provided by the Deputy Minister and is moving forward with plans to return to the office sooner rather than later. Let me be perfectly clear on this issue – in the Atlantic Region, I will not support any return to the office plan that is not 100% voluntary. I appreciate that some people are unable or unwilling to telework for the long haul. I support those who wish to work from the office to do so, but only if it is safe to do so. Any move to rush a return to the office places the nation at risk, and that is simply unacceptable.
As the Component’s Champion for Mental Health and Workplace of Choice, I have had limited success in getting the Employer to engage in meaningful consultations. On the Employer’s side, the Deputy Minister is the Champion for Mental Health. However, the DM has delegated this role to a revolving door of various Managers. I have been working closely with the National President to force the Employer to provide requested documentation, or even respond to my email messages. It is obvious that the Employer does not take mental health seriously (despite their continued reminder that they have won an online mental health award).
While the Employer does not take the mental health of their employee’s seriously, UVAE does. I have worked with our political consultant to design and release a member survey on “Harassment/Discrimination and Mental Health.” This survey was sent to the members on September 24, 2020. This survey will allow the Union to get a better understanding on our members experience of harassment and discrimination, and the overall mental health barriers our members are facing. The 2019 Public Service Employee Survey, and the Employer’s own Pulse Survey has shown that VAC faces a mental health crisis, and that harassment and discrimination occur well above the national average. But the Employer continues to stall, preferring to talk about things they may consider doing at some point in the distant future instead of acting in the present. With the data collected by this survey (with the early result already disturbing me greatly!) I will be able to confront the Employer with hard data that they cannot ignore.
One of the long-standing issues that the Employer has been ignoring is the unacceptably high level of discrimination in the Department. The two most common area of discrimination are disability and race. I have been involved in human rights work for 30 years and I have worked with multiple organizations facing the same issues VAC is facing now: the fear of talking about discrimination. The Department has been actively avoiding talking about issue of discrimination for fear of upsetting or offending the majority. In doing so, they continue to silence the voices of the minority. Things will never change until the Department is willing to have open and honest uncomfortable conversations. It will not change until the Department lets go of the fear of saying the wrong thing and commits to doing the right thing. The situation will not change until each and every employee is willing to accept that we all say and do discriminatory things every day – the system we live in is built on discriminatory practices – and commit to creating a new system in which we listen to others when they identify our microaggressions and changing our behaviour accordingly.
Sadly, the Union mirrors the Employer in most things, including how we face a system built on discrimination and exploitation. Even though we should know better and do better, we are only as good as what we have learned, and what we have learned is a very skewed version of history and society. It will be important for the Union and the Employer to put aside what we think we know and start really listening to the minority voices within our organizations. We need to give our members the permission to criticize without fear of retribution. We need to learn to not take it personally when minority voices shine a light on how we benefitted from our particular privilege. We need to accept that we will commit microaggressions without even thinking about it or realizing we are doing it – this is what systemic bias does.
We need to listen and learn when we are called out for our aggressions; and we need to be gentle with our aggressors, because they are often not even aware of what they are doing. We need to commit to reforming our structures to build places that are safe and welcoming for minority voices, regardless of the financial cost or institutional inconvenience. This will be hard.
This will be very uncomfortable. But until we do this important work, our members will continue to report unacceptably high levels of discrimination both at work and within the Union. We cannot demand that the Employer do something that we have not already done. On this issue, vocal support is not enough. We must take immediate action. Passivity and neutrality only support the oppressor.