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PSAC workers and supporters picket in front of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier's office in Ottawa on April 21.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Only a third of Public Service Alliance of Canada members participated in their union’s strike vote, according to details in a recent labour board decision.

The Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board decision involved a complaint from PSAC member David Paterson, who alleged that, because of a date mix-up, the union improperly prevented him from exercising his right to vote.

But part of the decision included data provided by PSAC to the board about strike vote participation. Of the 120,000 federal public workers represented by the union, just 42,421 exercised their right to vote, triggering one of the largest job actions in Canadian history.

Union leader accuses government of trying to undermine strike action

Among those who did, however, more than 80 per cent voted in favour of a strike. For example, in the biggest bargaining unit, the program and administrative services (PA) group, with 103,000 PSAC members, 38,207 participated in the strike vote, with 31,348 voting in favour of a strike.

The union held strike votes between Feb. 22 and April 11. During that time, according to the board’s decision, some 65 per cent of PA group members did not vote.

The board did find irregularities in PSAC’s voting process, determining that the union had failed to properly let members know it had shortened the voting period by eight days, moving the deadline from April 19 to April 11.

PSAC had, to date, declined to reveal the exact number of its members who voted for the strike. Union president Chris Aylward had repeatedly said that an “overwhelming majority” were in favour of a strike.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail on Friday, Mr. Aylward said that increasing voter turnout is an issue that “all unions, organizations and governments grapple with.”

“PSAC’s voter turnout varies between bargaining rounds and different groups of workers and we’re always finding new and easy ways to increase membership engagement in our union,” he said.

He added that the “broad support” among his members for the strike could be seen in real time on picket lines across the country, as “over 100,000 members showed up to pressure this government to reach a fair contract for Canada’s public service workers.”

Legally, a union does not need the majority of its members to participate in a strike vote in order to get a strike mandate. There is no official data on strike vote participation in Canada, so it is often difficult to know how many members of a union have voted to strike unless the union makes those numbers public.

When Ontario education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) participated in a highly publicized job action last fall, more than 80 per cent of the 55,000 members participated in the vote, which took place over 10 days. Of those, 97 per cent voted in favour of a strike.

“Participation rates on strikes vary greatly amongst unions, and when unions go public with their results, it tends to be because they had an impressive turnout,” said Larry Savage, a labour relations expert at Brock University. Dr. Savage added that it was impossible to say if a participation rate of about 30 per cent was poor because of the lack of historical data on the subject, among both private- and public-sector unions. “But it does, to some extent, explain why the union did not want to publicly reveal its vote numbers,” he said.

PSAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The union and the government have been in negotiations for almost two years now, culminating in a nationwide general strike of more than 100,000 PSAC members this week. Central to the dispute is the question of wages and remote work. The union is asking for a 13.5-per-cent wage hike over three years, which it says matches inflation, while the government has offered a 9-per-cent hike over the same period.

The union also wants the government to include language in future collective agreements that will give employees the right to grieve a situation in which they feel they have been unfairly forced to return to the office. The Treasury Board’s current mandate says federal workers must be in the office two to three times a week.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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