Canada’s public servants are sick and tired of being sick and tired. A group of 120,000 federal public servants in Canada voted in favor of entering a legal strike position on Wednesday, with an additional 35,000 workers set to join them today. The bargaining groups under the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) could strike at just about any time. The Canadian public service employs roughly 336,000 people. Union leaders and observers warn that strikes could disrupt a number of state functions, including border crossings, employment insurance, passport applications, airport delays, and export hiccups. The government was quick to share a list of “essential services” that would not be affected by labor action.
Wages are at the center of the labor dispute. The Treasury Board bargaining group, a subset of the workers in a strike position, want wages to keep up with inflation. The government had offered an average bump of 2.06 percent over four years while workers asked for 4.5 percent. Average consumer price index inflation was 6.8 percent in 2022, a huge jump over 2021 and the biggest in four decades. Inflation is beginning to cool now. On April 12, the Bank of Canada held its interest rate at 4.5 percent. But the affordability crisis continues, particularly for costs such as food and housing, and workers have been taking effective pay cuts while higher prices eat away at their purchasing power.
Canadians ought to stand behind the public service and support their battle for higher wages that keep pace with rising costs. For decades, there has been a war against public servants and the government in general — a neoliberal crusade to undermine state capacity and public support for things we do together, outside of the market. The battles have been fought throughout the Global North, in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. People are told the state is the problem; the market is the solution. They are inundated with media and political messaging that denigrates public servants, casting them as lazy, entitled, privileged workers who return little value on the tax dollars spent on them. It’s bullshit, but it’s persistent.
The pandemic ought to have done away with any notion that public servants are anything but essential during good times and bad. Every place of employment has laggards and its share of poor systems, free riders, and intransigent holdouts who refuse to adapt to a new age. That is why carping about the mischief caused by loafers is the go-to rationale against public servants receiving fair compensation. “Lazy slackers are getting fat on the public dime,” is the staple pet peeve of those opposed to public workers being paid properly.
But to focus on the issue of free riders is a distraction from the broader issue: even in an instance where sectors of public service may require reform, the need to respect, care for, and properly pay public servants is not mooted. For one, it’s the right thing to do. For another, free-market proponents always say salary is how you attract and retain talent. Well, don’t we want to attract and retain talent in government?
Public service opponents will point to pay rates and pensions as reasons to oppose the union’s salary increase asks. This is a classic, shortsighted, self-loathing play. It would be far better for workers in the public and private sector to stand in solidarity and demand better salaries and pensions for all than to divide and let employers conquer. Besides, the claim about salaries is often false — or at least overstated. PSAC national president Chris Aylward points out that most members in position to strike make between CAD$40,000 and $65,000 a year. In 2021, the average private sector salary was about $58,800.
For the government’s part, they are trying to walk the line between lowballing workers and praising their work. They walk that line by, you guessed it, lowballing workers while praising their work in public. Prime Minister Trudeau praised the work of public servants, saying they “stepped up” during the pandemic before emphasizing that the bargaining table is where deals happen. He’s not wrong. But what happens outside the bargaining table shapes what workers get while at the bargaining table. Being in a legal strike position, over 150,000 strong, is going to help workers get a fair deal. If they must exercise their right to strike to seal that deal, then so be it. The union’s ask is reasonable; the ensuing mess will be on the government’s hands.
Public service workers’ struggle for higher wages is everyone’s struggle. Their battle to keep up with the long-rising cost of living is not occurring in a vacuum. Supporting their fight is the right thing to do, not only because these workers deserve better pay. Their successes at the bargaining table can set higher standards and expectations for workers across both the public sector and the private sector. As the old saying goes, together we bargain, divided we beg.
If we abandon public servants now, we not only fail them today but set ourselves up to fail tomorrow. Their struggle is our struggle, too. We should disabuse ourselves of tabloid prejudices against those who make possible the state programs we rely on and step up for them. That may require us to steel ourselves for service disruptions should a strike become necessary. The short-term pain is worth the long-term gains.