After one of the most public battles the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers has seen, the incoming head of the diplomats' union is suiting up for potential new fights with the Harper government over contract negotiations and a benefits review.
The union that represents Canada's foreign service workers made headlines as it butted heads with Treasury Board President Tony Clement in heated contract negotiations and rotating strikes in 2013, with results that the union considers successful. Much of this was thanks to its ginger-haired and media-savvy president, Tim Edwards, who left the union job this summer after three years and is now moving across time zones to do foreign service work in The Hague.
Mr. Edwards is passing the baton to another Timothy: Tim Hodges. The bespectacled policy wonk has some 30 years of experience in diplomacy, working significantly with multilateral institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organization and G8. Mr. Edwards describes his elected successor, a Carleton University graduate of a bachelor's in history and English literature, as a thoughtful and substantive contributor.
Mr. Hodges now works as a senior policy adviser in Foreign Policy Planning division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, taking on the role as PAFSO president earlier this summer after two years on the union's executive committee.
Mr. Hodges knows there are fights to come. But he says PAFSO, which has been "punching above its weight" for a union of around 1,400 members, has tactical and strategic experience that even bigger unions don't have. For one thing, they're a union full of trained diplomats and negotiators.
"We're a small union…small but strong," Mr. Hodges said, sitting in a meeting room at the PAFSO office in Ottawa's ByWard Market.
The six months of rotating strikes last year, which the group believes was the longest strike in federal public service history, gave them a level of street cred, he added, and a built-in platform to being more active.
"My predecessor Tim Edwards certainly paved the way," and helped earn more profile for the association, Mr. Hodges said.
The union and government reached a tentative agreement last September. It was the first strike in the union's history, according to a December 2013 press release.
"If nothing else, the job action confirmed that if you're determined and if you're not afraid of the spotlight, you can advance your interests."
Rounds 2 and 3?
One of the possible fights brewing for PAFSO will sound familiar. Just months after the contract dispute was settled with the Treasury Board and a collective agreement signed and ratified, dating back to 2011, it expired on June 30 of this year. The union will have to get back to bargaining soon, although the timeline isn't quite sorted yet.
In a phone interview with Embassy, Mr. Edwards said most of the concerns from the last round of negotiations were dealt with. He did note, though, that PAFSO and many other unions dealing with federal government employees all need to renegotiate contracts and are concerned about the government's moves around sick leave in the public service.
Mr. Hodges agreed: sick leave will certainly be a sticking point.
He said the system was working fine—maybe not perfectly, but not completely broken—so many were taken aback, "puzzled," he said, when Mr. Clement put sick-leave changes on the table. Mr. Clement's plan is to get rid of the existing bankable sick-leave system, which he calls outdated.
"The good news is that we all see it the same way," Mr. Hodges said. "The unions are very, very much together and co-ordinated on this, and that will help in firming up our position. And it'll be a position of strength."
Another battle looming is one over supports for workers abroad called foreign service directives, which are meant to provide Canadians with the same standard of living in an overseas posting as they have back home. The directives are benefits for PAFSO members, as well as executives and employees of other departments that send people abroad (Mr. Edwards pointed to the Canada Border Services Agency and Agriculture Canada as examples).
PAFSO is worried about cutbacks to the program. "The government has signalled clearly since budget 2012 that they're looking to use these foreign service directives as a cost-saving measure," Mr. Edwards said over the phone.
He added that the directives aren't about protecting entitlements, but about "incentivizing" foreign service work. It's becoming harder to find experienced, seasoned officers to live in high-risk locations, Tripoli for instance, and cutting back supports that could make things better isn't going to solve the problem, he said.
Mr. Hodges noted that the cost of going abroad is increasing and bringing children and spouses along, which obviously is the ideal thing to do for diplomats, isn't cheap and easy.
Andrew Saxton, parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president during the strike, at the time said most Canadians "could never even dream of" the benefits for diplomats serving abroad, citing private schools for their kids, cars shipped to them and paid dry-cleaning. The union shot back that there were a lot of strings attached to any benefits they may receive.
Wheeling and dealing around foreign service directives won't begin for months. Kelly James, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat, noted in an email to Embassy that the parties involved have agreed to provide their proposals by Sept. 30. Work to develop the directives will likely start late in the fall and continue into early 2015.
The issue of cost-cutting touches upon pretty much every other concern that Mr. Hodges says PAFSO is dealing with.
Top of mind is safety for diplomats. Canada has a foreign policy that's harder hitting than in other times, he said, and while it's not the policy that's an issue—diplomats are there to support and advance it—it's just the reality that Canadians abroad are exposed to dangers.
Mr. Hodges said that even in his short tenure as president he's already heard concerns about additional death benefits and insurance, so that if the worst happens, which are realistic concerns for workers in places like Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip, a diplomat's family is supported.
The new president also said he's worried about the effects of living and working abroad without proper supports for families, and the role of spouses. The spouse question, in a world of two incomes per family, has been a big one for some time.
Marrying a diplomat and moving abroad means you lose income, "unless one is able to find, with the help of the department, or others, or through their own skills, moxy and good luck, some kind of good job," Mr. Hodges said.
"They lose traction in terms of career if they have a career and invest in a career, most people do, so they lose that. They lose [Canada Pension Plan] benefits, employment insurance is non-existent," he said. "Those are huge penalties over time."
It's a real set of problems because it ultimately affects who joins the foreign service, Mr. Hodges added.
Hodges, the writer
Mr. Hodges, more animated when revealing that policy wonk side, said he's working on a book about negotiations he was involved with while on the ground in Washington—part autobiography, part textbook—that won't see the light of day until he retires from the federal government. He served as an economic counsellor in Washington and head of the Canadian Embassy’s Environment and Fisheries Section.
He noted that he intended to take on more postings in London, United Kingdom, the hometown of his wife Kathryn Davis and a place he visits often, or Chicago, but has decided to plant his feet firmly in Ottawa for now, focusing on PAFSO and the things he can accomplish for the foreign service as its president.
"It's not clear to me what exactly our role will be in the future," Mr. Hodges said. "But I'm convinced we will continue to play a central role in delivering on foreign policy priorities, which are not just general relations but of course economic, security, development issues."
"Those aren't going to go away." And for now, neither is he.