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Members take part in the voting process at the 2013 Conservative Convention in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, November 02, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Members take part in the voting process at the 2013 Conservative Convention in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, November 02, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Union battles loom after Tories push to overhaul labour laws Add to ...

The Conservative Party's brewing battle with Canadian unions is taking shape, as party delegates have backed a push to overhaul labour laws with a series of new policies – including one backed by a cabinet minister pledging to "alter the dynamics" of federal collective bargaining.

While union members protested outside the party's convention in Calgary on Saturday, Conservative delegates voted to change party policy on a range of motions that would push for federal employees to be switched to a different pension plan, claw back federal employees' benefits, increase requirements on unions to report how they spend their money and allow union members to opt out in part or altogether.

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Altogether, six labour-related motions were passed on Saturday, the final day of the governing Conservative Party's biannual convention, and are now party policy. It's not yet clear if the Conservative government will enact all of them, though the government has already revealed plans for a sweeping overhaul of federal bargaining.

One of the motions – to claw back public-sector pay and benefits to private-sector standards – was backed by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the federal government's point man on reaching contracts with its civil service.

"This is exactly our position going into the next round of bargaining. For too long, there has been this major gap in wages and benefits between the public and the private sector, where the public sector is considerably more than the private sector norms.  This is not sustainable, it’s not right, it’s not conservative and it’s not in the public interest," Mr. Clement said to cheers from the convention Saturday, urging delegates to back the motion, which they did.

Earlier, he'd warned of tough negotiations ahead.

"I'm here as the chief negotiator with the public-sector unions. I can tell you we are taking a position that will respect taxpayers well into the future, and I believe are part-and-parcel with our ability to have balanced budgets for the next generation, not just for the next couple of years. So that means taking a position that will alter the dynamics of collective bargaining as it has been done in this country over the last few decades," Mr. Clement said in Calgary on Friday, after he'd sparred on Twitter with Robyn Benson, the National President for the Public Service Alliance of Canada. After the Conservative omnibus budget bill included sweeping changes to federal labour laws, Ms. Benson warned Mr. Clement wants to take away negotiated rights. He replied by telling Ms. Benson online that she "takes 'union boss' to a whole new level."

In Calgary, he invoked taxpayers' rights in signalling a battle with organized labour.

"I'm confident this is in the interest of Canadians and taxpayers. I'm confident they are behind us on this. And we're not here to buy labour peace through caving in to every single public-sector union boss's demands. We're not here to do that. We're here to represent the taxpayer. We're here to represent the public interest, and I will do so in a way I think is fair and reasonable, of course, and in a way which respects good faith bargaining. But let there be no question – I will be here protecting the public interest," he said.

NDP MP Peter Julian, who was attending the convention as an observer, said the union attacks are an obvious attempt to distract from the Senate spending scandal.

"And I don't think that's going to work – Canadians expect answers to the questions they're asking about Mr. Harper's involvement in all of these scandals. And I don't think Canadians will be distracted by this attempt to try to vilify working people," Mr. Julian said in an interview. He said there's "no doubt" collective bargaining delivers benefits to union members across Canada. "So for the government to try to attack those folks, whether it's Tony Clement or anyone else, undermines what I think is a pretty fundamental Canadian value."

The union measures presented to delegates had some overlap, but were all passed, making union rules the subject to see the most amendments.

One motion called on the government to ensure public-sector benefits and pensions are "comparable to those available to similar employees in the private sector," and "made comparable" if they are not. This was the motion backed by Mr. Clement.

Another policy motion called on government to switch its civil servants to defined contribution pension plans, rather than defined benefit plans, to "bring public-sector pensions in line with Canadian norms."

A third called for "full, transparent annual financial reporting" for unions for which dues are tax-deductible. The same motion also called on Ottawa to bring in a law requiring federal unions to "explicitly detail" what money it uses for political donations or activism, and allow members to opt out of paying dues to support political activism.

A fourth calls on the government to "prevent mandatory dues collected by unions from being diverted to fund political causes unrelated to workplace needs."

A fifth amended party policy to state a belief that mandatory union membership – and mandatory dues – "limit the economic freedom of Canadians."

And a sixth would allow optional union membership, including optional membership in students' unions.

The Conservative convention wrapped up Saturday.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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