Ottawa should increase wages for public servants by 9 per cent over three years and allow employees to have more of a say in remote work arrangements, a new report from the federal labour relations board recommends.
The Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, a tribunal that manages disputes between the government and public sector unions, made the suggestions amid a continuing standoff over wages between the government and 120,000 public sector workers represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Both sides filed complaints with the board over the current round of bargaining and the dispute is threatening to culminate in a strike this spring.
Ottawa is negotiating numerous collective bargaining agreements with nearly all federal public sector unions, agreements that apply to more than 300,000 federal public servants. The biggest and most fraught negotiation is between the Treasury Board and roughly 120,000 PSAC workers, who range from operations service employees who maintain federal government buildings to administrative staff.
Negotiations have been under way for 18 months now, but broke down earlier this year when the two sides could not agree on wage hikes.
Ottawa had proposed a four-year term for a new collective agreement, with wage increases of 1.5 per cent for 2021, 3 per cent for 2022, 2 per cent for 2023 and 1.75 per cent for 2024. PSAC has demanded wage increases of 4.5 per cent over three years, which they say is in line with inflation.
After taking into account inflationary pressures faced by workers and patterns of wage settlements negotiated by unions over the past year, the board proposed that the government meet the union in the middle by considering increasing wages by 1.5 per cent for 2021, 4.5 per cent for 2022 and 3 per cent for 2023.
In a statement issued last Friday, the Treasury Board said the report provides a “clear path forward” for the government and PSAC to reach a new agreement, provided that “parties return to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith.”
PSAC, however, argues that the board’s recommendations on wages still fall short of inflation, and the union is urging its members to participate in strike votes held from Feb. 22 to April 19. The union has been gearing up for a strike since January.
“It’s clear we’ll need to continue to pressure this government to return to the table in April with a new mandate that provides fair wages in line with soaring inflation and better working conditions for PSAC members,” union president Chris Aylward said in a statement.
In light of inflation that has only recently fallen below 6 per cent after more than a year, PSAC perhaps has some negotiating leverage. Indeed, unions – especially private sector ones – have won wage hikes at the bargaining table that many have not seen in decades.
In Ontario, the average annual wage increase negotiated by a private sector union in 2022 was 3.6 per cent. In preceding years, it was between 1 per cent and 2.5 per cent, in line with inflation. For public sector employees in Ontario, the annual negotiated wage increase averaged at 1.8 per cent in 2022, but many workers are still under a wage freeze imposed by the province’s Bill 124, which caps wage increases at 1 per cent.
Federal data on union settlements also points toward a creeping increase in negotiated wages. In 2022, the average annual wage increase was 2.6 per cent, compared with 2 per cent in 2021 and 1.6 per cent in 2020.
In British Columbia recently, the Hospital Employees’ Union negotiated a wage increase for provincial health care workers that amounted to almost 12 per cent over three years. And across the country, among unionized and non-unionized workers, average hourly wages were up by 4.5 per cent in January, compared with a year earlier.
The federal labour board also addressed language about remote work in collective agreements, suggesting that the government allow employees to voluntarily request a remote work arrangement, or to revise their existing remote work setup. The board, however, emphasized that remote work arrangements should remain at the discretion of the employer.
PSAC filed a complaint with the board over the issue of remote work after the Treasury Board mandated the public servants return to the office at least two or three days a week starting January. For months, the union has attempted to enshrine remote work language into new collective agreements, which would essentially allow workers to individually negotiate with their employer about how and where they work.