More than 100,000 federal public servants could go on strike this week after a majority of them voted to walk off the job, the latest action in a protracted labour dispute over wages between Ottawa and the union that represents the workers.
On Wednesday, the Public Service Alliance of Canada announced that an “overwhelming majority” of members it represents voted in favour of a strike mandate for the union, which is currently in negotiations with the Treasury Board over a new collective agreement. The union is in a legal strike position as of midnight, April 12, if the two sides do not reach a deal.
“The majority of our members participated in this strike vote and gave us a clear mandate to take job action,” said Chris Aylward, president of PSAC. “Certainly, having this mandate gives us leverage at the bargaining table, and our message to the government is to come back with a better deal.”
The federal government has been in negotiations for new collective agreements with nearly all the unions representing more than 300,000 federal public servants over the past year. The biggest and most fraught bargaining has been between the Treasury Board and a group of 120,000 workers represented by PSAC. The workers range from operational services employees who maintain federal government buildings to administrative staff in various departments and agencies.
In January, talks between the two sides broke down after PSAC accused the Treasury Board of not coming close to meeting its wage demands for annual increases that fall in line with inflation. The government’s offer was a 2.07-per-cent yearly wage hike over three years. PSAC is asking for a 4.5-per-cent annual increase over the same period.
The union then left the bargaining table and called for a strike vote, which has been conducted over the past two months.
Last month, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board, a tribunal that manages disputes between public sector unions and the government, suggested that Ottawa meet the union in the middle by considering a cumulative wage increase of 9 per cent over three years – 1.5 per cent for 2021, 4.5 per cent for 2022 and 3 per cent for 2023. The board made the suggestion after taking into account inflationary pressures faced by workers and patterns of wage settlements negotiated by other unions over the past year.
Another factor complicating this round of negotiations is PSAC’s push to include remote work clauses in bargaining agreements, even after the Treasury Board mandated in December last year that public servants return to the office at least two or three days a week.
The union argues including remote work language would help employees file grievances related to a forced return to work. The Treasury Board has maintained that the location of work is the right of the employer, and the labour relations board subsequently stated that remote work arrangements should remain at the discretion of the employer.
On April 2, the government and PSAC entered mediation. The government has said that it is “optimistic discussions will be productive” and that it sees a clear path forward to reaching a deal.
Meanwhile, 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers also represented by PSAC voted to strike last week, a strike that could potentially come at the height of tax filing season. The CRA workers will be in a legal strike position as of April 14 if the union and the government do not reach a settlement.
PSAC is asking for unprecedented wage increases of 4.5 per cent in 2021, 8 per cent in 2022 and 8 per cent in 2023, arguing that is in line with inflation and that private sector workers have seen sizable wage gains over the past few years.
The Union of Taxation Employees (UTE), an arm of PSAC that represents CRA workers, has said its wage proposal aims to address an imbalance in pay between CRA employees and Canada Border Services Agency employees. The two agencies functioned as one entity from 1999 to 2003, when they became independent of each other. The union argues that wages of CRA employees are roughly 9 per cent below those of their CBSA counterparts.
Mediated negotiations between the government and UTE are set to take place next week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in Winnipeg, told a news conference on Wednesday that federal public servants had stepped up in recent difficult years to do “extraordinary work” delivering programs such as CERB, small-business supports and seniors supports that made a huge difference.
“On the collective bargaining that’s going on right now, it’s really important that that happens at the collective bargaining table. That’s where the best and the right deals get done, and that’s why we’re going to continue to engage in a constructive way at the bargaining table,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Asked if a work disruption could have an impact on the delivery of government services, Mr. Trudeau said the government is looking closely at that point to ensure that services continue to be available. He did not provide any specifics on this issue.
Federal public sector unions could face a hiccup in this and future rounds of bargaining on the wage front given the government’s recent budget, which proposed a 3-per-cent reduction in spending by federal departments and agencies by 2026. This effectively reduces the government’s budget for its departments by $7-billion over four years.
Mr. Aylward told The Globe and Mail that he was disappointed by the proposed budget cuts, and said they would inevitably affect the quality of service provided to the public. “The government likes to say there will be no job losses because of attrition, but they won’t replace those jobs once workers leave the service,” he noted.
With reports from Ian Bailey