Canadian diplomats will trade their cables and briefing notes for signs and pickets as they step up pressure tactics in their contract dispute with the Harper government – a tactic that might soon be expanded to embassies around the world.
The two-hour "information pickets" – three mornings this week, starting on Wednesday, at the Foreign Affairs department's Ottawa headquarters, just down the street from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's official residence – is an attempt to force the federal government to go back to negotiations over their contract.
It is not yet a move to picket outside Canadian embassies around the world, but that could happen within a week if the government refuses to resume talks, said Tim Edwards, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers.
The unusual job action by a small union is already showing an undiplomatic image: foreign service officers on a work-to-rule campaign are being encouraged to wear "creative" attire such as hockey jerseys to desks in the Lester B. Pearson building, their HQ.
Members of the union who work in Ottawa will conduct the pickets. Mr. Edwards says they'll expand the information picketing to other Foreign Affairs and Citizenship and Immigration sites unless government negotiators come back to the talks within the next week or so – probably targeting big embassies like those in Washington, London and Paris, as they did on a small scale during a labour dispute in 2001.
"It explains to audiences abroad, to our clients and contacts, that Canadian diplomats are not being paid equally for the work that they're performing," Mr. Edwards said. "It also makes that point clear for our global management, our ambassadors and high commissioners. It's also meant to be a means to apply pressure on them to call back to headquarters to say, 'Look, it's not playing well, and we encourage you to find a settlement.'"
The union says its members, foreign service officers who are rotated to postings abroad, get paid less than civil servants doing similar work in Canada, and although it accepted the government's offer of a 1.5 per cent pay increase, it wants those long-standing "wage gaps" addressed. Its members voted for a strike mandate in March, but so far have chosen to escalate pressure tactics rather than walk out.
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Matthew Conway, said the government will bargain in good faith, but did not address questions about whether Treasury Board negotiators will take part in talks. "The foreign service is a highly sought after and well-paid posting," he said.
The dispute has sparked a reaction from government brass when foreign-service officers set auto-reply e-mails telling people making inquiries that service might be slow. The Treasury Board secretariat, the government department responsible for labour negotiations, warned that the tactic was a breach of government policies; the union filed a labour complaint, but suspended the action.
In the meantime, PAFSO, which represents 1,350 foreign-service officers, including immigration officers, has this week launched a work-to-rule campaign in which the workers leave their mobile phones at the office, keep to strict office hours, and refuse to answer after-hours calls.
Mr. Edwards said that's having an effect on planning for high-level visits and major events, and on the processing of visas for visitors and students. "Perhaps the most immediate impact is on visa quotas, which are no longer being met," he said.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Emma Welford said the department recognizes and respects the bargaining agents' right to undertake job actions.
"This picket will not impact on the services provided to Canadians abroad or the operations here at home," she said.
For some foreign-service officers, the dispute also reflects the low morale among diplomats deemed to have lost influence under the Harper government and whose budgets and benefits have been squeezed. The Harper government has made efforts to cut spending on their overseas housing – and repeatedly suggests that foreign-service officers have plenty of perks.
PAFSO members are paid between $58,000 and $112,000 a year, depending on their job classification, but Mr. Edwards said most make less than $82,000.