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The federal government and unionized workers are preparing to lock horns over double-digit wage hikes to account for higher inflation and rules for remote work in what is shaping up to be a heated series of contract negotiations.

This year’s negotiations are particularly unusual and intense not only because of inflation, but because of the size and scope of public-service departments that are at the bargaining table, and the number of workers gearing up for strike votes.

The federal government is about to begin bargaining for new collective agreements for, or is already negotiating with, nearly all the unions representing more than 300,000 federal public servants.

The biggest and most fraught negotiation is between the Treasury Board and a group of 120,000 workers represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). The workers range from operational service employees who maintain federal government buildings to administrative staff in government.

“This round seems somewhat more contentious than in other years with a Liberal government. Both sides seem pretty dug in and now we’re seeing a bit of an air war,” said Charles Smith, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

In January, talks between both sides broke down after PSAC accused the Treasury Board of not coming close to meeting the union’s wage demands of annual salary increases that match inflation. The government’s offer was a 2-per-cent yearly wage hike over three years. PSAC then left the bargaining table and called for a strike vote, which is set to take place in April.

The Treasury Board said it was disappointed that PSAC decided to pursue a strike vote, and called on it to return to the bargaining table. “We believe there is lots of room to reach a fair and reasonable agreement for public servants,” the department said in a January statement.

Separately, approximately 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers represented by PSAC are participating in a strike vote from Jan. 31 to April 7, which could result in perhaps the biggest strike action by public servants in decades.

“It is particularly interesting this year because of the size of the bargaining unit that is seeking to go on strike and the potential repercussions that will have on other units in bargaining,” noted Robert Hickey, a professor of employment relations at Queen’s University.

While slow negotiations are typical in public-sector bargaining, PSAC seems to be stalling in order to generate a strong strike mandate from members and gain leverage when it returns to the bargaining table, added Prof. Hickey.

For the federal government, renewing collective agreements with public-sector workers is often a complex and arduous process simply because of the scale of the federal public service, the variety of jobs within it and the fiscal position of the government in any given year.

“It is ultimately a spreadsheet. You have a public-service wage bill that is roughly $50-billion and you have to determine who gets what currently, and what the pension liability will be down the road,” said Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council of Canada, who is now the Jarislowsky chair in public-sector management at the University of Ottawa.

Over the past decade, according to Mr. Wernick, there was a uniformity of sorts in the way wages were negotiated, with most public servants getting increases of 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent a year, which were in line with inflation. But this year is more complicated, he said, because of the return of higher inflation, which is affecting private- and public-sector compensation, even for non-unionized workers.

“If you’re gambling that inflation will stay high, you would want to maximize the settlement, but if you’re gambling that it is going to subside, you would not want to lock in big cost increases,” Mr. Wernick said.

Another factor complicating this round of negotiations is PSAC’s push to include clauses on remote work in collective agreements, even after the Treasury Board mandated last December that public servants return to the office at least two or three days a week.

The union has filed a complaint with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board against the government’s hybrid work mandate, and said PSAC would help employees file grievances related to the mandate. The Treasury Board has maintained that the location of work is the right of the employer.

But wages remain the biggest concern for the union, according to its president, Chris Aylward.

One particular PSAC bargaining unit called the SV group, which represents almost 10,000 operational services public employees such as firefighters, ship crew, cleaners and lighthouse workers, provoked the ire of the Treasury Board after asking for what the department says was a 47-per-cent wage and non-wage increase spread over three years.

The department filed a complaint to the labour board late last year, and the board recently ruled that PSAC’s asks would result in an “increase to compensation far beyond what is reasonable.”

PSAC argues that the wage increases it is asking for are based on compensation data from dozens of organizations representing thousands of Canadians working equivalent jobs. Cleaners and food-service helpers working for the government, for example, earn $21.37 an hour, the union says. It is asking for a wage hike of 12.7 per cent spread over three years to keep up with inflation and to close the wage gap with peers doing similar work.

The union also contends that the wages of ship crew workers – including assistant cooks, clerks, storekeepers, maintenance people and engine-room technicians – are not nearly enough to keep them from leaving for the private sector. These workers earn an average of $29 an hour, which the union describes as “uncompetitive.” PSAC is also asking for a 13-per-cent wage increase over three years for these workers.

In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, the union said the government’s projection of a 47-per-cent wage increase was wildly inflated because it included leave and benefits that the union had not even begun negotiating.

The negotiation process is bound to go on for the next few months, given that PSAC’s strike vote will only be complete in April, after which it could potentially reach a deal with the government without taking job action. “PSAC has never been known for their militancy, so a strike of this size would certainly be something to watch,” said Prof. Smith, of the University of Saskatchewan.

Mr. Wernick believes the union has other means of pushing the government before resorting to a strike. “In the past, unions tried things like lunchtime walkouts and picketing around federal buildings to put pressure on the government,” he said.

“But the union has to be careful. If they push it to a point where the public is seriously inconvenienced, there will not be a huge well of goodwill to draw on,” he added.

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