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Members and supporters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket outside the Harry Hays federal building during strike action in Calgary on April 20.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Public support – or lack thereof – for striking federal public servants could play a role in the outcome of one of the largest labour actions in Canadian history.

More than 100,000 workers represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada entered their second day on the picket line this Thursday, as the government and the union continued bargaining. The central dispute is over wages. The union has maintained that its wage-hike demand of 13.5 per cent over three years is reasonable, because it matches inflation. The government has so far refused to go higher than 9 per cent, calling it a fiscally responsible and fair offer that mirrors a recommendation from the Federal Labour and Employment Board.

“If the strike drags on and the government feels like they have to move towards back-to-work legislation, public opinion becomes a factor,” said Scott Reid, a long-time political analyst and consultant. If the public’s perception is that these federal workers are asking for too much, that could play into the government’s hands, Mr. Reid said.

Barely 48 hours into the strike, there has yet to be any polling done on public sentiment. Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, a polling company, said Thursday that her team was out in the field attempting to gauge opinions on the dispute.

When PSAC announced the strike on its social media pages Tuesday evening, the news was met with an overwhelming amount of vitriol from online commenters.

Robert Hickey, a professor of employment relations at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, said members of the public have a harder time empathizing with the federal public work force than they do with, say, teachers or health care workers. “You don’t think of the job of a food inspector when you shop at the grocery store. These are basically a whole bunch of workers who are largely invisible to the public,” he said.

The strikers are largely made up of administrative staff, maintenance workers at government buildings, and front-line workers at ports and federal fire departments. A majority of these workers, according to the union and the Treasury Board – their employer – make between $50,000 and $75,000 annually. Around 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers, who are represented by a different bargaining unit, are also on strike. Their average salary is about $68,000.

Charles Smith, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Saskatchewan, noted that these salaries are lower than many people outside of government might assume them to be, and that this misconception may explain the public’s difficulty sympathizing with the workers. “We’re not talking about public servants who routinely make six-figure salaries,” he said. “These are the same workers who were instrumental when the government was scrambling to dole out benefit programs to the Canadian public in the early days of the pandemic.”

Prof. Smith pointed out that every time public-sector workers go on strike there is uncertainty about whether they will win public support. He said the government is hoping the public will see these workers as overprivileged.

At Question Period on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not directly respond to a question from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh about whether he would rule out ending the strike with back-to-work legislation, which could impose contract terms on the workers, or send the dispute to binding arbitration. The NDP has repeatedly said that it would not vote in favour of any such bill.

Prof. Hickey said he believes the government is waiting to see where public sympathies fall before it decides whether to turn to legislation to end the impasse.

Public sentiment toward striking workers was vastly different just months ago, when 55,000 education support workers in Ontario, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, walked off the job for two days. The job action was launched in defiance of provincial legislation that invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strip the workers of their right to strike.

An Abacus Data poll conducted during the job action found that more Ontarians blamed Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government for the disruption to school services than the workers themselves. Half of those polled said they would support more unions walking off the job to protest with education workers.

Certain groups of workers enjoy a level of public respect, and education workers are among them, according to Alison Braley-Rattai, a labour-relations expert at Brock University. “Federal government workers do not enjoy that level of public support,” she said.

“That the education workers mostly worked with special-needs kids, combined with their pretty low wages, made them quite sympathetic. The Ford government’s draconian legislation only served to heighten that.”

Public support for or against the strike could fluctuate depending on how long it goes on, and how severe its effects are on Canadians. In 2004, the last time PSAC workers went on strike, cross-border travel was disrupted because Canada Border Services agents were on the picket lines. This time around, the service disruption appears to be limited to passport and immigration processing, and certain government call-centre services.

“Its effects are still small and not immediate. But if it goes on long enough, people will get anxious and their anger might be directed at workers withdrawing services,” Mr. Reid said.

“Eventually, however, people will turn on the government and say ‘we elected you to be in charge and you’re failing,’ ” he added. “But we’re not at that stage yet.”

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