One of Canada’s largest public service unions spent two years developing a proposal for a pioneering guild-style organization to represent professionals in precarious work, only to have the idea defeated by members in a recent vote.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) was pushing for the establishment of Professionals Canada, a nonunion labour organization that would only organize professionals doing gig work in the private sector. The idea was to help position the labour movement for the tidal wave of new technologies that will shift labour and the nature of work.

But the proposal was soundly rejected at PIPSC’s annual meeting last month. The strongest resistance came from the union’s 16,000 technology workers, who are keenly aware how new technologies could eliminate all or parts of many jobs – including theirs.

“Fear and pessimism won out,” said Steve Hindle, vice-president of PIPSC. “It will require more effort to break through the traditional union model and take that big, bold step. We had the opportunity to do that but we chose not to.”

Hindle said he’s disappointed PIPSC isn’t the first out the gate, leading the way with a new union model but, he said, it “won’t be long before someone else steps up to say this is a good idea and tries it.”

Professionals Canada would have started by offering dental, medical and vison-care benefits packages; advice; advocacy; and a “community” of interest. The long game, however, was to build a large membership, exploiting the power of numbers to become a “benefits hub,” a benefits bank, to which employees and employers would contribute. Workers could take those benefits from job to job.

“It would have replicated what employers used to provide, but in an association, because these workers are moving from job to job and those stable employers today are few and far between,” said Eddie Gillis, PIPSC executive director and the architect of the Professionals Canada proposal.

Professionals Canada is the type of new model that policy-makers and researchers are exploring to meet the challenges of precarious employment ─ how employers and employees can manage increasingly insecure work, and governments’ roles in regulating it.

It would have been a big shift for PIPSC. The union represents more than 60,000 professionals working in the public service, from scientists and engineers to auditors and technology workers — which is why it seemed perfectly positioned to target similar professionals outside government.

The resistance was rooted in PIPSC’s longstanding campaign to reduce the government’s reliance on contractors, especially technology workers. The government is one of the country’s biggest users of contractors, consultants, temporary help, term workers and casual workers for work that, the union argued, should be done by public servants.

After years of this campaign, members just could not reconcile Professionals Canada organizing contractors in order to protect their rights and offer them benefits, while PIPSC was campaigning to reduce the number of contractors.

Canada’s legal framework does little to protect precarious workers, who now account for 30 percent of the workforce. The Trudeau government revamped employment standards, but these apply only to employees—not to gig workers. The emergence of digital platforms, which connect the sellers and buyers of goods and services, brought the issue to the fore and is forcing a redefinition of what is work and who is an employee.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Daisy.

In the absence of legislation, courts in Canada and around the world are deciding whether Uber and Lyft drivers, and Deliveroo and Foodora workers who deliver food, are employees or contractors. If they are classified as employees, then gig workers are entitled to statutory employment protections and other benefits.

And companies are prepared to fight against this classification. Uber has consistently argued that it is a technology company and its drivers are independent contractors, not employees.

But, Gillis said, the tag “precarious worker” does not just apply to Uber and Lyft drivers.

It includes highly skilled professionals who work as contractors going from job to job and project to project. They are “dependent contractors” who work exclusively for a single company; they are employed full time in small or start-up companies that can’t afford to offer benefits.

Gillis said Professionals Canada was built on the founding principles of guilds. Guilds attracted independent skilled artisans who, as a collective, were able to set prices for their goods and services. He said today’s professionals need a model similar to that of workers in the construction trades, film and television industry.  These workers also work project-to-project, but their unions negotiate with multiple employers, and the guilds and employers contribute to and jointly administer pension and benefits plans that workers can take with them from job to job.

Gillis said legislation would be necessary in order to force thousands of businesses in the gig economy to contribute to benefit plans and allow an organization such as Professionals Canada to be the “benefit hub” that administered the plans. Until that occurs, employers might choose to voluntarily contribute to such benefit plans to give them a competitive edge in attracting and keeping workers.

The debate over how gig workers should be protected and represented is just beginning, says Lori Sterling, a former federal deputy minister of labour.

The Prime Minister’s mandate letter to Labour Minister Filomena Tassi instructed her to pursue a $15 federal minimum wage and to “develop greater labour protections for people who work through digital platforms, whose status is not clearly covered by provincial or federal laws.”

Meanwhile, an expert panel on modernizing the workplace is expected to deliver its long-awaited report to Tassi.  The panel is examining issues like a federal minimal wage, labour standards for precarious workers, portable benefits and a collective voice for nonunionized workers.

Sterling said Canada is the only country that does not have a definition of “employee,” so she wouldn’t be surprised if the expert panel recommended such a definition that would distinguish among employees, independent contractors and dependent contractors.

There has already been some discussion about a new employment classification and giving dependent contractors some protections, or the same protections as employees. In the spectrum between employees and independent contractors, dependent contractors are closer to employees.

The question is whether companies will change the way they operate so they fall outside the law and therefore don’t have to offer standard benefits.

“This begs the question of which protections are appropriate for the dependent contractor,” said Sterling.  “Also, will hiring bodies alter their contracts with gig workers so that they become more clearly independent contractors and without any protections?”

She said that, in addition to introducing more employment protections, the government could help precarious workers by finding new ways to offer them greater social security. This might include changing eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance or CPP, or exploring the creation of new federally regulated programs to address the lack of pension, benefit and training for contract work.

“There has been a very significant increase in [raising] the bar of employment standards in the last four years, but federal reform is not over,” said Sterling. “In the coming years, there will likely be clarification and expansion of protections for at least some gig workers.”

Photo: Shutterstock, by YanLev.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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