We got big news last Friday.
Some of it was clearly good. Thanks to our pressure, we received salary increases of 1.51% for Fiscal Year 2019-20, 2% for Fiscal Year 2020-21 and 2% for Fiscal Year 2021-22. We are no longer the only public servants who have not had a raise to keep pace with the cost of living since April 2018.
But the other message was one that is challenging to all of us. After almost thirty years, Treasury Board has divided the Legal Counsel Classification Series into two – one for Crown Counsel and one for all other Legal Counsel in government (mostly, lawyers working for LSB). This is an attempt to give us legally effective notice that it is no longer a term and condition of our employment that we will receive the same compensation as the Crown Counsel Association is able to bargain for itself. We are on our own.
The Government has been clear that this is not because we have sought collective bargaining rights. Although they are not as clear as to why they have done this, it is easy to understand. The Crown Counsel Association has a collective strength which, so far, we have been denied. The Government clearly does not want to exceed a 2% annual mandate and, in particular, wants to break the link between the salaries of provincial court judges and salaries of either the Crown counsel or ourselves, or both. They are not confident they can make this stick with the Crown Counsel Association, so they hope to make it stick with us.
We are faced with a moment of decision. Anyone who has been in government for a while has seen times of austerity and cutbacks, as well as times when government’s need for legal services – legal services it cannot cost effectively get from the private sector – has pushed it in the other direction. As budgets get squeezed again, we may face employer demands for concessions.
While we may be on our own, we can decide whether we are all on our own together.
Lawyers who have been in the Branch for a while remember that we did not always have salaries that were competitive with those in the private sector or other provinces (those interested can look at our website for more details). Crown Counsel salaries have more than doubled since 1994, far outpacing the rate of inflation. The Crown Counsel Association had to engage in walkouts and be legislated back to work to get progress. The change really occurred in 2007, when the government of the day agreed to a 12-year collective agreement with the Crown Counsel Association that allowed for catch up so that the most senior Crown Counsel would get to 80% of the salary of a Provincial Court Judge by the end of that time (2019): that meant annual increases of 1.27% over those given to the Judges. Prodded by our predecessor organization, Treasury Board Order 329/2007 provided that these increases applied to “all Legal Counsel.”
Treasury Board has now told us this is no more. We are seeking legal advice about our options and will report back. But one of our options is to do what the Crown Counsel Association did in the 1990s and early 2000s – and organize.
As you know, until 2015, the Government took the position that it was “inappropriate” for lawyers to bargain collectively. Since then, it has said we can only do so if we abandon the structure that we have had since at least 1992. As you also know, we have taken the Government to court for this position. It is only if we have the same rights to collective representation as Crown Counsel – and indeed other workers – that we will be able to protect our interests.
I find it interesting that in its June 4 order, the Treasury Board has opened a crack in the door of “no” to our collective aspirations to influence our terms and conditions of work, rather than have them decided for us. They express openness to changes to salaries that are “negotiated between the employer and any designated bargaining agent for Legal Counsel.” We will see whether this represents a softening of their stance on our freedom of association rights.
In the meantime, the most important thing we can do is to stick together and persuade our colleagues of the value of our organization. We need to remind newly-hired lawyers and more recent calls that things have not always been good on the compensation front and that we need to act together to maintain our position into the future. Members of the executive would all be happy to talk to any lawyer in LSB about how we got here and the importance of collective action to preserve the gains we have made. And of course we are also always happy to listen to your ideas and feedback.
For the Executive of the BCGLA