Bargaining Agent Profile

In our continuing series of bargaining agent profiles, we introduce Milt Isaacs, President of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers. The ACFO represents NAV CANADA employees who work in the area of financial administration.

Could you please describe your membership demographics?

We have about 3,800 members across Canada, 57 per cent of whom are female and the average age is 39. We used to have about 80 per cent of our members located in Ottawa, but now it’s more like 60 per cent, reflecting an increased requirement for Financial Officers to support programs in the regions.

Your NAV CANADA membership is quite small – about 20 people. As these are your only members employed outside the public service, do you bargain separately for this group?

Yes, we bargain separately for our NAV CANADA members. And for Financial Officers across the government departments, we bargain as one unit. So, we have two separate collective agreements – one for public service employees and one for NAV CANADA.

Who serves as the chief liaison with the NAV CANADA membership?

Dan Larose, our Executive Director, and Scott Chamberlain, one of Labour Relations Advisors, who’s also a lawyer, are on the NAV CANADA Joint Council. Their relationship with NAV CANADA predates my arrival as President in 2005. So for continuity’s sake, and because of the good working relationship they have established with NAV CANADA, we decided not to change things. They keep me informed on a regular basis.

How are the NAV CANADA members different?

In terms of collective bargaining, their interests are about the same: salary, career advancement and development, being well treated and respected for the job they perform.

What types of functions do Financial Officers perform?

They’re involved in things like controllership, financial policy development, financial systems development and implementation, cash and budget management, financial analysis and financial strategic management.

Given the increased financial accountability structures we’re seeing in organizations, has this changed the Financial Officer’s role?

Absolutely, it has. Today, many key business process systems, such as SAP and Oracle, have financial management at their hub. Now that business processes are more integrated, Financial Officers need to have an appreciation for all of them. Take Engineering, for example: they need to know things like how long it takes to do a spec, who has to review it, how long the approval process typically lasts, etc. – so they’ll know when to advance the money. It’s much more than accounting for cash. With all the information they have at their disposal, they’re in a position to be able to challenge managers on their forecasts or predictions, and their organizations are stronger for that.

How would you describe the aims and objectives of ACFO?

The core of what we do is collective bargaining. Our aim is to create a competitive environment that will attract the best and brightest to want to work for the employer.

It begins with dollars, but it’s more than that. We see ourselves as a voice for change. If people are in an environment that’s sceptic, either through policy or management practices, then we advocate on behalf of members to seek change in that environment.

Can you give an example of how you do that?

Because we’re a smaller union, we’re not necessarily at the meetings that we should be at. So, about a year ago, we got a departmental representative program off the ground. We train Financial Officers who are interested in becoming departmental reps. One of our Labour Relations Advisors will attend the meetings with them as an initial support, until they can fly on their own. The program gives us better insight into the environment our members are working in.

How did you become involved in ACFO?

I was a long-standing member of the ACFO during my career in the public service, but my real involvement began when the President invited me to participate in collective bargaining. From this experience, I became inspired to help shape the future direction of the organization. I served as Vice President of Communications for four years before being elected as President in 2005 for a three-year term, and this year was re-elected for another term.

In charting the organization’s future direction, what were some of your priorities?

One priority, which I didn’t see coming, was handed to me on the very first day I took over as President in 2005. I got a phone call from our political advisor saying the Ontario government had decided to cut out Labour Sponsor Investment Funds (LSIFs), which represented about 50 per cent of our revenues.

We have been lobbying the Ontario government ever since. We managed to get a stay of execution until 2008, and that has now been extended to 2012. But now the Ontario economy has gone south, more people are saying we need to keep these LSIFs.

The LSIF issue led to another priority I have been very engaged in, and that is building coalitions with organizations who share similar interests. We found other unions that were involved in LSIFs in Canada. So, from an organization with 3,800 members on this issue, we built a coalition of 300,000 members. And we became the voice for that group – not bad for a small union!

We’ve also built coalitions with accounting bodies, such as the Certified International Financial Professional Association, to give us a seat at the table on matters that concern our members. Professional credentials would be one example. And we’ve built coalitions with universities too.

At the association level, what changes did you introduce?

I wanted to build up our in-house expertise, while at the same time maintaining our overall costs. We were spending about $100,000 in lawyer fees during our collective bargaining. We decided instead to increase our in-house labour relations capacity, and now have four Labour Relations Advisors, three of whom are lawyers, and one who is a sociologist.

We did the same with communications. We used to hire several communications firms to provide us with communications services, but the lack of continuity made our communications less effective. We now have a Communications Officer on staff, for the same cost as the consulting services, and are moving ahead on modernizing our web page, branding ourselves more effectively, and producing our series of papers called Checks and Balances.

We’ve also introduced electronic voting, which can be done from a member’s work station.

As well, we’ve placed more emphasis on bilingualism in our hiring and now have the ability to serve our members in both official languages, whether in our administration, our front office, or labour relations.

With respect to member’s priorities, are you seeing any new trends?

Quality of life issues, such as more flexible leave arrangements, are emerging as new priorities, especially for the younger demographic.

Right now the retirement wave is just a trickle, but it’s beginning to flow more, and there will be the need to hire. And, even though we’re in an economic downturn, the unemployment rate is still quite low, at six per cent. That means the employers, no matter how bad the economy gets in the next little while, are going to be in a competitive hiring environment.

As an association, we don’t like to go to the employer with issues. Our approach is to be preventative. So, we advocate for a quality working environment that allows the employer to attract the best and the brightest. We say hire the right folks, use them to the best of their capacity, create the right atmosphere, and these Financial Officers will find the solutions that you are seeking.