Canada’s Largest-Ever Strike Against a Sole Employer Is Underway

Setting up 250 picket lines across the country, 155,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada have gone on strike. The walkout, the country’s largest strike ever against a sole employer, is a fight against inflation eroding wages into a pay cut.

Federal government workers stage a protest outside a Service Canada building in Scarborough district of Toronto, Canada on April 19, 2023. (Mert Alper Dervis / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Canada is in the midst of the largest strike against a single employer in the country’s history. On April 19, 155,000 public sector workers — who have been without a contract for more than two years — walked off the job, setting up 250 picket lines across Canada. Thus far, the government’s approach to negotiations with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has been, at best, ham-fisted.

The bulk of the workers — 120,000 employees of various government departments who answer to the Treasury Board — are asking for an annual 4.5 percent wage increase retroactive to June 2021, when negotiations with the government began. The government initially offered them 2 percent, which is why many workers on picket lines across the country held placards reading, “2% is for milk.” In the days leading to the strike, the government belatedly came around to the compromise of 3 percent, as offered by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board in February. But with inflation sitting at 4.3 percent, after reaching a high of 8.1 percent in June 2022, the government’s offer amounts to a significant cut.

Workers at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), represented by the PSAC-affiliated Union of Tax Employees (UTE), are asking for a more ambitious 7.5 percent annual raise. The government, however, is offering the same 3 percent to all federal employees. The reason UTE is asking for a larger wage increase is the imbalance that exists between its earnings and those of Canada Border Service Agency workers, who serve a similar function in administering excise taxes.

The workers who walked off the job aren’t the fat cats living off the public dime that right-wingers like to portray. They make an average of Can$40,000 to $65,000 a year, meaning many make below the average Canadian salary of $58,800. They issue passports, process immigration applications, deliver income support (including the support rushed out at the pandemic’s outset), assist veterans, and work in correctional facilities. Due to Canada’s troubled Phoenix payroll system, adopted in 2016, some employees were underpaid and forced to take on debt. Meanwhile, others were overpaid and forced to work for free to repay the excess income, even though it wasn’t their fault.

Treasury Board president Mona Fortier says the government can’t “write a blank check” for public employees, yet a union contract is precisely the opposite of a blank check. It clearly outlines wage and salary expectations for its duration. These workers are simply asking to prevent the further erosion of their wages through inflation, as well as for a suite of other sensible, inexpensive demands.

Remote Work: A Top Concern

PSAC is not only pushing for a wage increase but also aiming to establish the right for workers — whose jobs can be done remotely — to choose whether they want to continue working remotely or return to the physical workplace. By fiat, Fortier demanded public sector workers return to the office at least two days a week by the end of March. “In-person work better supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging,” she said. Elsewhere, the government was more blunt, arguing that the ability to work remotely would “severely impact the Government’s ability to deliver services to Canadians and would limit its ability to effectively manage employees within the public service.” In other words, it’s about management’s control over the workforce under the guise of fostering a sense of community.

Workers, of course, began working remotely because they were forced to do so during the pandemic. Now they’re once again being forced to change their work arrangements on the government’s command. For workers who were hired during the pandemic, remote work is all they’ve known. “We’d like the terms of our work to be subject to negotiation, not dictation,” Keegan Gibson, a strike captain with UTE in Edmonton, told me on the picket line.

Chris Aylward, PSAC’s president, said many offices were poorly prepared for workers’ return. “We’ve got members that go into the workplace now, there’s no desk, there’s no computer for them to work at. They’re getting back in their cars and driving back home again,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. PSAC is calling for the government to provide workers with “ergonomic workstation furniture,” as well as a computer and monitor, if necessary. It’s remarkable that this even needs to be requested.

Intimately connected to the freedom to work remotely are questions of work-life balance, particularly for those who commute to work from the suburbs in Canada’s largest cities. Heather Adair, who works for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in Vancouver, lives in the suburb of Langley. She told online news outlet PressProgress that the three hours she spends commuting to Vancouver every day could be better spent with her family. “Not only are they dipping into my pocket, they’re really affecting my work life balance,” Adair said. “A big reason why I joined the government was work life balance, my family is important.”

Toward a More Inclusive Workplace

Workers also want to see enhanced diversity and inclusion efforts in workplaces, including mandatory unconscious-bias training, more support for workers who’ve faced harassment or discrimination, and efforts to have Canada’s diversity reflected in the workforce. Currently, unconscious-bias training is only mandatory for management, while new employees must take an orientation course “which includes diversity and inclusion components,” according to the Treasury Board. Other courses on indigenous issues, anti-racism, and how to deal with harassment in the workplace are optional. A 2020 survey of public sector workers shows that just 8 percent are satisfied with how concerns of racism are addressed in their workplace.

To recruit more indigenous employees, the union is requesting a $1,500 annual bonus for workers who can speak an indigenous language, almost double the $800 bonus for bilingual workers who speak English and French. PSAC is also asking for indigenous employees who have been employed for at least three months to receive five paid days off annually to engage in traditional practices, such as hunting, fishing, and harvesting. The provincial government of British Columbia and territorial government of Nunavut already offer paid leave for indigenous cultural practices.

Additional enticements are necessary to convince indigenous people to work for the very government that dispossessed them and stole children from families to fill Canada’s residential schools. A briefing document from PSAC notes that it’s “incomprehensible” that the federal government, with its stated commitment toward reconciliation with indigenous peoples, “would not offer a modest financial recognition to those (very few) employees who use their Indigenous language at work in service to Canadians.”

Two-Faced Trudeau

In its most recent budget, the federal government committed to passing anti-scab legislation by the end of the year. Additionally, companies that want to take advantage of the full subsidies for green energy investments outlined in the budget will have to pay union wages. These are no doubt positive developments, but the way the government has handled this labor dispute raises questions. “They support us when it’s convenient for their messaging purposes, but when it comes time to pull out the cheque book, they’re a little hesitant for some reason,” Caitlin Fortier, an Edmonton-based Service Canada worker who processes employment insurance and pension payments, told me, expressing a frustration felt by many public workers.

The government hasn’t ruled out imposing back-to-work legislation to break the strike, as it has already done twice during its tenure in power — in 2018 to force postal workers back to work, and again in 2021 to force dock workers at the Port of Montreal to end their strike. This threat has similarly loomed over this current labor dispute. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has only said PSAC must return to negotiations “right now,” adding that “Canadians have every right and expectation to see the services that they expect delivered.”

The government has made an effort to notify CRA workers that they will continue to receive full pay if they cross the picket line. As UTE president Marc Brière notes, this is a confounding message to hear from a government that promised anti-scab legislation less than a month ago. The longer the strike continues, the “more temptation there will be . . . for some people” to cross the picket line, Brière added. The government maintains that it is merely apprising everyone that there’s nothing stopping workers from returning to work during the strike. But this is disingenuous — it conveniently omits the fact that this would amount to being a scab, which would have profoundly negative consequences for the strikers.

To his credit, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh has ruled out supporting back-to-work legislation, but this is not enough. The minority government led by Liberals made a deal with the NDP to gain the necessary support to form a government. For its part, the NDP entered this arrangement in order to secure concessions, such as introducing a means-tested dental-care program and strengthening labor rights. However, the Conservatives, in spite of their right-wing populist leader Pierre Poilievre’s purported support of working-class Canadians, are almost certain to support back-to-work legislation.

Singh has the power to abandon his agreement with Trudeau, forcing the prime minister to rely on the support of Conservatives to implement his agenda. He should do so the second the Liberals violate the spirit, if not letter, of their agreement by ordering public servants back to work. At that decisive moment, Singh must let Trudeau show his true colors while the NDP leader washes his hands of any involvement with a government intent on union busting.

The union’s demands are eminently reasonable. All PSAC asks is for its workers to have the same spending power that they’ve had previously, to allow them to choose where they can work in instances where remote work makes sense, and to build more inclusive workplaces. If that’s a bridge too far for the government, then it says more about Trudeau’s priorities than PSAC’s.