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Picketers line the sidewalks as more than 155,000 public sector union workers with the Public Service Alliance of Canada remain on strike, in Gatineau, Que., on April 20.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

The labour leader representing Canada Revenue Agency employees says comments from government department leaders to public servants about their right to keep working during a strike are at odds with Ottawa’s pledge to legislate a ban on replacement workers.

In a new era of hybrid work, an employee could potentially cross a picket line simply by logging in on their home computer, avoiding the cat calls from colleagues that could occur by physically passing through striking colleagues to head into an office.

More than 155,000 federal public servants spent a second consecutive day on picket lines across the country Thursday as union leaders and government officials said they continued to hold discussions in an effort to reach an agreement and bring the strike to an end.

Marc Brière, who represents unionized workers at the Canada Revenue Agency as national president for the Union of Taxation Employees, said he’s concerned that government officials keep pointing out that workers can continue to receive their full pay if they refuse to join the picket line.

He says it goes against the spirit of the government’s pledge to adopt anti-scab legislation.

“I find this very aggravating coming from employers of the federal government who are looking at establishing anti-scab legislation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Both his union and the larger Public Service Alliance of Canada have recently issued statements criticizing what they describe as “union-busting” messages delivered internally to workers in federal departments and agencies. At a technical briefing for journalists Wednesday, government officials stated that workers who choose to continue working and not go on strike will continue to be paid.

The government insists it is simply providing factual information in response to questions from employees.

The government negotiations with the CRA are taking place separately from the broader public service talks. The larger group of about 120,000 workers represented by PSAC are seeking a 13.5-per-cent wage increase over three years. The CRA workers, represented by the UTE, are asking for a 22.5-per-cent wage hike over three years. Ottawa has proposed a 9-per-cent increase over three years to both bargaining groups.

In an interview, Mr. Brière said it’s too early to say whether some union members will cross the picket line by working from home and collecting their full pay. The unions are tracking the participation of their members at in-person picket lines to confirm eligibility for union-funded strike pay.

The minority Liberal government’s supply and confidence agreement with the NDP calls for the introduction of a law by the end of 2023 “to prohibit the use of replacement workers, ‘scabs,’ when a union employer in a federally regulated industry has locked out employees or is in a strike.” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s March 28 budget repeated that pledge.

Government consultations on the promised legislation recently wrapped up, but a government bill has not yet been introduced. A consultation document suggests it would apply to federally regulated private-sector work forces, such as banks and airlines, as well as Crown corporations, but does not reference the core federal public service.

Workers who cross the picket line during the current strike will face penalties from the union, as well as social consequences from their peers, said Mr. Brière. “The longer it lasts, the more temptation there will be out there for some people,” he said.

“I’ve seen what it’s like in the workplace after the 2004 strike. Some people basically left employment or changed places because they were ostracized by their coworkers who gave it to them non-stop for years. Nobody would talk to them. So it’s pretty lonely when you do that.”

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan launched consultations on a new federal law at a news conference in October with NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. The NDP MP has put forward Bill C-302, which would ban the use of replacement workers, including existing employees who choose not to go on strike.

Monica Granados, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, said in a statement Thursday that employees “can choose to strike or come to work,” provided they are not listed as essential workers.

“Managers across the public service have been receiving many questions from their employees who are unclear about the implications should they wish to continue working, including impacts on their pay,” said Ms. Granados. “What’s more, we have seen that potentially misleading, incorrect and in some cases threatening information about participating in strike activity has been circulated publicly, for example in social media.

“Departments and agencies have a responsibility to provide factual information to their employees. We will continue to ensure that this information is available so our employees can make informed decisions. To be clear, the employer does not in any way encourage employees to cross the picket line,” she said.

At a picket line on Parliament Hill Thursday, Service Canada worker Robert Grace said he doesn’t like the idea of people crossing the picket line by continuing to work from home, although he doesn’t know anyone who is doing so.

“It creates a lot of animosity, and a lot of disrespect,” he said. “People don’t forget.”

Mr. Grace said federal ministers are “certainly not discouraging” public servants from continuing to work. “They’re adding much more of an incentive to work from home,” he said.

Maya Stanley, a Department of Justice employee, said that “it hurts” that some public servants may continue to work while others strike.

“Obviously, it’s your choice to strike,” she said. “But no matter what, everybody is going to be benefiting in the end. … It’s important to stand together.”

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