Six weeks after contract talks broke down and amid an ongoing public war of words, the union representing Canada's foreign service is offering to settle its dispute with the federal government by binding arbitration.
The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers made the offer to Treasury Board president Tony Clement in a letter sent Thursday. Meanwhile, the union threatened to continue its rotating strikes that have slowed visa processing abroad and undermined trade talks and international trips by federal cabinet ministers.
"Any major summit or event or meeting that cabinet members intend to travel to in the weeks and the months ahead will be targeted," if a deal isn't reached, union president Tim Edwards said at a news conference Thursday on Parliament Hill. In particular, talks on trade deals with Europe and Japan will be targeted by the union, whose employees are spread between the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. That means researchers in Ottawa, and on-the-ground staff abroad, will pull service during critical negotiations.
"It's a key part of their economic action plan, it's a key part of their global commerce strategy – to expand the network of [free trade deals] that Canada has abroad. And the foreign service job action will do everything it can to disrupt or delay that until the government decides to come back and negotiate in good faith freely and fairly," Mr. Edwards pledged, after earlier saying: "I think to a member, every single member of the foreign service regrets and takes no joy whatsoever in the impacts that are coming out of this job action."
The union began rotating strikes in April, and the two sides last met for negotiations on June 5. At that time, the union said it was given the same offer it had been given in fall of 2011, and the government offered no room for negotiation.
The government says it's a fair offer, comparable to those signed in other parts of the public service, that the union should simply accept. Treasury Board President Tony Clement traded public barbs with the union on Twitter this week, and has indicated the government is not open to bargaining. "I think the message is accept our offer. It's a fair and reasonable offer," Mr. Clement told The Globe and Mail earlier this week.
The letter says the union would prefer "free collective bargaining" but proposes binding arbitration. "We sincerely believe that Canadian taxpayers and Canada's economy have suffered enough and it is time to bring closure to our dispute," Mr. Edwards writes.
Mr. Clement's office confirmed he received the letter Thursday, but gave no sign as to whether it's interested in binding arbitration. "He will review it and act in due course. Our government will always put the interests of taxpayers first. We will continue to bargain in good faith," Mr. Clement's spokesman, Matthew Conway, said.
The union said if the government doesn't agree to binding arbitration by noon next Tuesday, it will cancel its offer. Mr. Edwards acknowledged the government could legislate his workers to stop rotating strikes, though not until Parliament resumes sitting – and it isn't scheduled to do so until fall.
The union said its estimated 1,350 members are paid less, on average, than other comparable government workers. It has agreed to certain government demands – including annual wage hikes of 1.5 per cent and doing away with severance pay for people who leave a job voluntarily – but wants the pay scale itself adjusted to match other deals. Depending on the employee, it's a difference of between $3,000 a year and $14,000 a year, the union said, and it estimates eliminating the wage gap would cost $4.2-million Mr. Clement has stressed that foreign service jobs are "positions that are highly sought after," rejecting complaints that they're underpaid. Mr. Edwards, the union president, acknowledged the positions are in high demand, but said veteran staff leave too soon.
"These people are interpreting legislation, they are making decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people every single year," he said Thursday. "Absolutely you want a trained professional in there with years and years of experience doing that job."
The union's rotating strikes have caused a system-wide slowdown of visa processing, particularly in major centres that are being targeted, including Beijing, Delhi and Mexico City. In those centres, the rate of travel visa processing has dropped as much as 65 per cent, Mr. Edwards claimed. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) has estimated the strike's impact on Canada's tourism sector will be $280-million this summer alone, by warding off tourists from emerging markets.
David Goldstein, president and chief executive officer of the TIAC, said he hopes the federal government is "exploring all possibilities" including temporary visas, online processing and back to work legislation. "We believe the government is doing its best to backfill where they can, but I get e-mails everyday about lost business to Canada," he said.