The federal government is taking a harder line on collective bargaining, giving itself sweeping new powers to steer independent Crown corporations on their negotiations with employees over wages and benefits.
The main targets are the CBC, Canada Post and Via Rail.
The little-noticed measures were detailed for the first time in a budget bill introduced this week, and early reaction from labour groups is running from bewilderment to outrage, particularly from workers at the CBC.
The new hard line on Crown corporations "is part of a broader issue, which is aligning the public-service compensation and benefits to private-sector norms and expectations," Treasury Board President Tony Clement told The Globe and Mail.
The Conservative government's stand sets the stage for a looming confrontation with public-sector unions – at both Crown corporations and core departments – that could peak at the time of the next federal election in 2015.
While Ottawa will be watching over the contract negotiations of all Crown corporations – the government lists 49 on its website – "there's some that we're going to key in on more than others," Mr. Clement said, adding that larger ones with "viability issues" will top the list.
He specifically cited Canada Post – "it's common knowledge that they are struggling to re-imagine themselves with a declining demand" – Via Rail, which "has some struggles of its own" and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
"CBC is always struggling to put out good content at a time of sometimes declining ad revenues and other revenues," Mr. Clement said.
"These are all examples of Crown corporations [that], when their financial viability goes too far south, always then seem to be at the doorstep of the government of the day."
A section of the budget bill gives the federal cabinet the explicit power to give Crown corporations orders as to how they should negotiate with employees, both unionized and non-unionized. Further, the bill gives the government the power to have a Treasury Board official sit in on collective bargaining negotiations at Crown corporations.
The union representing employees at the CBC warns the new powers are a "ridiculous" infringement on the independence of the CBC.
"I don't know how anybody looking at that cannot see this as turning the public broadcaster into a state broadcaster," said Marc-Philippe Laurin, the CBC branch president of the Canadian Media Guild, a union that represents many CBC workers.
He rejected any concern about spending at the CBC, noting that its budget has been steadily shrinking for years when inflation is taken into account.
Angus McKinnon, a spokesperson for CBC, said the bill's potential impact is still being studied.
"We became aware of this legislation when it was tabled in the House [Monday]," he said.
The government has previously won praise from fiscally conservative groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for scaling back pensions and other benefits available to MPs, senators and workers in the core public service. However, Mr. Clement said there is more to be done on that front across the government.
Most contracts with the unionized public service expire in 2015, Mr. Clement said, adding that the bulk of the bargaining will take place in 2014, "which means you have to get your strategy sorted out in 2013."
That strategy entails bringing public-service salaries, benefits and pensions in line with what the government believes is the private-sector norm.
Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service union, noted that Crown corporations often compete for talent with the private sector and need flexibility.
"This is a strange move given that Crown corporations are designed to operate at distance from the federal government," he said.