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More than 150,000 federal public servants went on strike on April 19 in one of the largest labour actions in Canadian history.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

More than 150,000 federal public servants represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada went on strike on April 19 in one of the largest labour actions in Canadian history. PSAC and the federal government reached a tentative agreement on May 1 to bring employees back to work.

PSAC is one of Canada’s largest unions, but the country counts more than 100 unions representing more than four million workers in both private and public sectors.

Close to 30 per cent of Canadian workers are unionized, a much higher rate than France, the U.S. or Britain, where union membership rates hover slightly above 10 per cent.

Unionized workers span industries from public servants to teachers, construction workers, nurses, journalists, professional athletes and more.

Inside the emboldening of Canada’s unions

PSAC’s historic strike took place as inflation and demands for higher wages revive Canada’s dormant labour movement, putting unions back on the forefront of economic discourse.

What are unions and what do they do?

A labour union is an organization formed among employees in a particular trade, industry or company that aims to advance common interests. By joining together in a union, the employees negotiate employment terms through collective bargaining.

When successful, the bargaining process results in a written contract known as a collective agreement, which sets working conditions such as pay, schedules and benefits, for a certain period of time.

Skyrocketing inflation and stagnant real wages have been at the forefront of unions’ negotiations, but the pandemic also ushered in new concerns around work-from-home arrangements.

Unionized workers, on average, earn more per hour than non-unionized workers, but in the past five years, the wage gains of non-unionized workers have far outpaced those of union members. In 2021, the average annual wage increase negotiated by unions across Canada (representing bargaining units of more than 500 people), was 1.9 per cent, while the average inflation rate that year was 3.4 per cent.

The chart below shows the average hourly wage growth in Canada up until November, 2022.

What are strike mandates?

The process of negotiations leading up to a collective agreement involves many offers and counteroffers on both ends. A negotiation tool often used by unions is a strike mandate, which can be achieved through a vote among union members.

By voting in favour of a strike mandate, union members indicate that they support the demands of their bargaining team and enter a legal strike position. A mandate and strike position alone don’t always mean that the employees will strike, as they may put pressure on the employer to make more concessions to avert labour stoppage.

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

If no deal is reached, as in PSAC’s case, the union may move forward with a strike. PSAC started its strike on April 19, a week after entering a legal strike position, after failing to reach a deal with Ottawa for a new collective agreement.

“Our issues at the bargaining table have still not been addressed by the employer. We do not have a tentative agreement. Our 155,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada will be on strike as of 12:01 a.m. tomorrow,” said Chris Aylward, president of PSAC, at a news conference on April 18.

What are strikes and how do they work?

Do unions need to provide notice before they strike?

If no deal is reached and workers decide to strike, they may be required by law to provide notice. Unions governed by the Canada Labour Code are required to provide the employer with a 72-hour notice, but unions governed by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act, including PSAC, do not need to provide notice before going on strike.

Do workers get paid when they strike?

Workers who go on strike don’t receive pay from their employers, but they may receive “picket pay” from their union.

During the PSAC strike, workers had to show up at picket lines for four hours a day to receive $75 in daily strike pay. The workers had to scan a barcode at their picket location to receive their pay throughout the strike.

How long do strikes last and how do they end?

Strikes last until an agreement between the union and the employer is reached or until the government steps in to force employees back to work.

On May 1, PSAC and the federal government reached a tentative agreement which includes a 12.6-per-cent, compounded wage increase over four years, a one-time lump sum of $2,500, and new language surrounding remote working that the union lauded as a step forward.

What is back-to-work legislation?

To end a strike without a deal, federal and provincial governments can pass back-to-work legislation, which forces workers to end the strike. Unions and workers that continue a strike after a back-to-work bill is passed can face thousands of dollars in fines each, with unions sometimes covering workers’ fines.

Late last year, Ontario passed back-to-work legislation to end a Canadian Union of Public Employees strike, threatening to fine workers $4,000 for each day they spent off the job, and $500,000 a day for the union. CUPE ended its education worker strike after Premier Doug Ford committed to repealing the legislation.

Who is allowed to strike, and when?

Workers who are not unionized are not legally allowed to go on strike. Unionized workers can, but not outside of the collective bargaining process, and not without holding a strike vote.

Some workers who are deemed essential – such as hospital workers, electricity and water supply, or law enforcement and firefighting – are not allowed to go on strike. Some essential workers have used other ways to put pressure on their employers despite being forbidden from striking, such as Montreal’s police officers who wore non-regulation colourful cargo pants for three years to protest municipal pension changes.

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Police officers stand on a street in Montreal on Aug. 7, 2014. They are wearing camouflage pants as a sign of protest.The Canadian Press

The PSAC strike sent roughly 120,000 Treasury Board workers off the job, whereas 47,000 others were deemed essential and kept working, according to the union. Another 35,000 workers from the Canada Revenue Agency went on strike.

Strikes that happen outside of these legal boundaries still occur and can garner public support and awareness. In the case of illegal strikes, also called “wildcat” strikes, workers are often ordered back to work by their labour board and can face fines.

Historic Canadian strikes

Canada has a long history of labour movements that have changed many aspects of the average worker’s life. Here are just a few strikes that shaped the labour landscape:

The Toronto Typographical Union strike and the Trade Unions Act, 1872

Toronto’s print workers walked off the job when demand for a shorter work day heightened. This strike was part of the international “Nine Hour Movement” and caused Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to introduce the Trade Union Act on April 18, 1872, legalizing and protecting unions.

1919 Winnipeg Strike

One of the most significant labour strikes in Canadian history lasted six weeks and involved approximately 30,000 factory workers, store workers and transit workers demanding better wages and working conditions. The strike was violently broken up by the authorities, many strikers were arrested, some were hurt, and two people were killed.

1965 Public service workers win bargaining rights

In 1965, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) made several demands, including the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, higher wages and improved management. The union took action by organizing an illegal, countrywide strike that ultimately led to an extension of collective bargaining rights to public service workers.

With a report from Vanmala Subramaniam