More than 150,000 federal public servants – including 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers – could go on strike by Wednesday if a deal is not reached with Ottawa, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing the workers.
The strike could have a significant impact on public services across the country, including immigration and passport processing, employment insurance claims and tax filings – just as the April 30 deadline to file approaches.
“We are still too far apart on key issues, including wages, job security and remote work language,” said union president Chris Aylward at a news conference in Ottawa Monday morning.
Mr. Aylward said that if no deal is reached by 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, the union will authorize a national general strike involving all its members, starting Wednesday at 12:01 a.m.
“The mood at the table is becoming very frustrating. That is why we are setting the clock. There is no need for this to drag out any longer,” he said.
At a news conference in Ottawa Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was hopeful of an agreement.
“We recognize we need to make sure we are properly supporting those who work in our public service. That’s why conversations have been ongoing at the bargaining table for weeks now. There have been constructive advances and offers, and we’re very hopeful that we’re going to be able to resolve this, but it’s at the bargaining table that these things happen, and we will continue to be there in good faith and work on trying to resolve this for all Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The federal government has been in negotiations for new collective agreements with almost all the unions representing more than 300,000 federal public servants over the past year. But the biggest and most fraught negotiation has been between the Treasury Board and a group of 120,000 workers represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Its members range from operational service employees, who maintain federal government buildings, to administrative staff in government departments and agencies.
In January, talks broke down after PSAC accused the Treasury Board of not coming close to meeting its wage demands. The government initially offered a cumulative wage hike of 8.2 per cent over four years. PSAC demanded 4.5 per cent a year over three years. The union subsequently left the bargaining table and called for a strike vote, which saw the 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) workers and the 120,000 Treasury Board workers hand it a strike mandate, putting them in a legal position to walk off the job as of last Friday.
The government has since increased its wage offer to a cumulative 9-per-cent hike over three years, in line with a suggestion from the Federal Labour and Employment Board’s public interest commission. Mr. Aylward acknowledged the government’s offer but said it did not come close to matching inflation.
“Especially at our operational service bargaining unit, where we represent workers like firefighters, what they are making now versus what workers in the private sector are making is simply not comparable,” he said.
The government has said that if PSAC’s total wage and non-wage demands for the Treasury Board workers are factored in, the union is essentially asking for increases of between 25 per cent and 47 per cent over three years.
For the CRA workers, PSAC is asking for a wage increase of 4.5 per cent in 2021, 8 per cent in 2022 and another 8 per cent in 2023, arguing that it is in line with inflation and pointing out that private-sector workers have seen sizable wage gains over the past few years. The union has said the government has yet to come to the table with a wage offer for these workers.
Recently, the government reached a new collective agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing approximately 1,100 public servants, which included a wage hike of 10.5 per cent over four years. Mr. Aylward said PSAC has yet to see a cumulative wage offer of more than 10 per cent for the workers who could go on strike.
He warned Canadians that a strike could be disruptive, as PSAC workers in ports across the country will also be on strike, potentially causing supply chain disruptions.
The government could introduce back-to-work legislation for front-line workers deemed to provide critical services, but such a heavy-handed move might seem at odds with the government’s pro-labour stand.
Indeed, the government has committed to passing a bill proposed by the NDP last year that prohibits the use of replacement workers in labour disputes. Business groups, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, have for months been lobbying Ottawa to delay passing the bill, arguing that if workers such as air and rail employees cannot be replaced during strikes, it could have a detrimental impact on supply chains.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told a news conference ahead of Question Period on Monday that it is his view that the workers do not want to go on strike. “That’s the last thing they want to do. They want to work, but the government has a responsibility now to negotiate a fair contract and respect these workers.”
He said the NDP has made it very clear that it would not support back-to-work legislation in this dispute.
There have been two general strikes by PSAC workers over the past three decades. The first was in 1991, when 70,000 striking workers caused delays to flights, cross-border travel and grain shipments. They were legislated back to work by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney after three weeks. In 2004, PSAC workers in federal offices, ports and tax filing centres set up hundreds of picket lines before a deal was reached a few days later.
With a report from Ian Bailey in Ottawa.