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Canada’s largest public-sector strike happened at this time for a reason – it reflects wider salary frustrations across industries.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Rob Csernyik is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

In a future museum exhibit, the now infamous 80-second clip of MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen may play on a loop.

Spectators will roll their eyes as she tells employees concerned about staying motivated without bonuses not to live in “pity city.”

They will groan as Ms. Owen suggests the employees think about revenues the company needs rather than their own finances, and sidesteps that the company – which paid her millions in bonuses the previous year – has any agency over what happens. The adjacent label will note this as the moment one-sided discussions about compensation jumped the shark.

For proof change is afoot, look no further than the civil-service strike. Though the government and about 120,000 Treasury Board workers have reached a deal, this country’s largest public-sector strike happened at this time for a reason – it reflects wider salary frustrations across industries. The strike marks the beginning of a bigger movement.

Workers are tired of being condescended to in salary discussions, and having to put up with deflections and other excuses instead of having direct, honest conversations. Employers disregard this at their peril: More strikes will loom.

Despite recent, remarkable changes to some components of the compensation amalgam – think non-cash measures designed to improve work-life balance – an overhaul of how fiscal matters get discussed remains overdue. This spring will not be silent.

Robert Half’s 2023 Salary Guide reports 57 per cent of Canadian professionals feel underpaid and that 37 per cent would consider changing jobs for a 10 per cent increase in pay.

Precious few will see such an increase at their current gig. Actuarial consultancy Normandin Beaudry expects average salaries to increase by only 3.8 per cent in 2023. This could lead to a brain drain for employers, as workers seek better salaries with other organizations.

Long-standing issues with wage transparency and employee reticence to discuss salaries don’t help matters. For instance, a 2022 Indeed survey suggests about two-thirds of Canadians feel uncomfortable negotiating salaries.

But these issues appear to be shifting in real time. Employees running the gamut from Starbucks baristas to public servants are speaking out for higher pay as rising living costs squeeze their budgets. Employers who neglect to treat these discussions seriously do so at their peril.

Over my working life, managers have often tried to shift blame for suboptimal pay away from their own decisions.

As a writer, employers have expected me to be sympathetic that lowball offers are because of broader economic forces affecting the industry, no matter the financial health of the individual outlet.

In other jobs, managers not unlike Ms. Owen, have tried appealing to my sense of personal responsibility as a diversion tactic. In customer-service work I was constantly told if I wanted more hours, and thus higher pay, I needed to sell more to our patrons.

Over time, I noticed I had little control, despite how employers presented the scenario to me. Products chosen by buyers, effectiveness of marketing campaigns or other corporate strategies had bigger impacts on overall sales performance than I could achieve. Those intentional decisions by the company got excused from accountability in a way I wasn’t.

Such deflections are a type of gaslighting and expect workers to accept lines fed to them about their pay uncritically, even though they expect critical thinking and discretion as employees perform their jobs.

There’s a staggering amount of news articles, blog posts and other media proclaiming that employees care more about benefits than money.

A frequently cited Glassdoor survey reports 80 per cent of employees prefer additional benefits over a pay increase. Despite this, many of the most prized benefits such as health insurance, paid leave or tuition assistance are cash related.

The reason they’re more easily accommodated when bargaining is that they are easy for employers to claw back while salaries aren’t. But any belief that this means employers can withhold raises in favour of benefits is misplaced.

Though the public-sector union had been seeking a 13.5-per-cent raise over a three-year period during discussions, the government only offered 9 per cent over the same period.

But by striking, the union ended up with 12.6 per cent compounded over four years. WestJet employees, currently in a cooling-off period, appear poised to strike later this month. No doubt, they will see the public sector’s experience as a template. So will other employees as their contracts come up for review.

All the ingredients needed to usher in a new era of dialogue when discussing salaries are currently in place. There’s a critical demand, higher living costs and – perhaps most critical – a precedent.

Employees have watched other parts of their jobs get redesigned based on changes to reflect the way we live now. That’s why it’s foolish to expect that they will settle for old ways of approaching salary negotiations. If there’s any doubt, take in the size of the picket lines.

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