Over 100,000 Canadian government workers on strike


On Wednesday, April 19, about 155,000 employees of the Canadian government represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), currently negotiating contracts with the Treasury, went on strike following nearly two years of contract negotiations and a year and a half without a contract. In the words of Chris Aylward, national president of the PSAC, the strike is vital for securing “fair wages, good working conditions and inclusive workplaces. And it’s clear the only way we’ll achieve that is by taking strike action to show the government that workers can’t wait.”

Their demands revolve around ensuring wages keep up with inflation, encouraging workplace inclusivity, securing work-life balance, and fighting privatization and outsourcing.

Union demands

That the striking workers’ foremost demands revolve around wages is no surprise, as massive inflation and the growing cost of living over several years has served to severely reduce their effective wages. The 30,000 PSAC workers employed by the CRA are demanding wage increases of 22.5% over three years, while the other 120,000 are asking for 13.5% over the same period. However, the federal government has thus far refused to offer more than what they claim is a “fair and competitive” 9% over three years, claiming in a statement that the wages demanded by the union are “unaffordable and would severely impact the Government’s ability to deliver services to Canadians.”

This offer doesn’t cover inflation of 10.1% from the start of 2021 to the end of 2022, let alone even greater increases in the real cost of living due to supply line issues resulting from the ongoing COVID pandemic—and companies taking advantage of it—and other crises.

Discrimination against Indigenous peoples and other ethnicities, both union members and those attempting to use government services, is another key point on their agenda. The Canadian government currently faces separate class-action suits from both Black and Indigenous workers, who describe a “climate of fear and intimidation,” resulting from “ongoing and widespread discrimination, coupled with the threats of retaliation and the inadequacy of investigative or remediate efforts.” To ameliorate this, the PSAC is demanding stronger protections against harassment in the workplace, special bilingual and Indigenous language allowances, training on discrimination and Indigenous history, and leave for Indigenous cultural practices.

Working from home provides an opportunity for employees to save time and money commuting to and from work. However, attaining anything resembling work-life balance has become much more difficult as increased connectivity and the shift to work from home has blurred the line between the two. Employers have used this to encroach on workers’ lives off the clock, leaving many feeling like they are on call 24/7 and forcing them into unpaid labor. About 75% of workers with the PSAC have worked from home since the start of the pandemic, but one in five felt they were expected to work outside of their scheduled hours multiple times a week. In response, they are demanding that the “right-to-disconnect” and specific provisions for remote work be included in their contract.

Finally, the striking workers are fighting for job security and public services by demanding layoff protection and barriers to privatization. These include requiring layoffs to take place through joint decisions by management and the union, providing opportunities for retraining, and requiring the government to use existing employees or hire new ones before outsourcing work.

Inflation, cost of living, and housing are key issues

On the first days of the strike, workers in Saskatoon braved blizzard, sub-zero temperatures, and 50 kilometer per hour gusts to picket government buildings and voice their demands. On the picket line outside the Federal Building, we spoke with several of the striking workers to discuss the strike, including the president of the local immigration union, Aaron Kernaghan.

Asked why they are on the picket line, and what was at stake, she answered: “They’ve been using COVID as an excuse not to meet us at the bargaining table. We’re not asking for a tonne of money. The majority of people I personally represent are making $50,000 to $65,000 a year. There are people with a lower $40,000 pay scale, not in my specific department, but in our bargaining unit. Inflation’s been upwards of 10 percent on goods like housing and food. Those aren’t going to come back down, and if we don’t strike now, I don’t think there will ever be an opportunity for my members to have even the smallest amount of money to be able to make that sacrifice.”

“I think that for a lot of my colleagues with kids, right, they’re not making it work. I mean in this city, the aggregate rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Saskatoon is almost $1300. That’s a big part of the problem. Another big part of the problem is that the government hasn’t been responsible for paying its workers on time or correctly, and actually lost a class action lawsuit in 2017. But it has continued to be an ongoing problem. It hasn’t been resolved. So, we’d like it in the bargaining agreement that they’re responsible for paying us like any other operation or employer would be responsible.”

Regarding the government’s most recent offer, Kernaghan told Workers’ Voice: “Their offer is nine percent—three and a bit every year. If inflation keeps going up, well, that’s not looking like a whole much more than 2% next year, and 1% the year after that. … I don’t actually know [whether the contract will be retroactive], unfortunately, but I’d assume so because we have been working outside of a contract. But then that also means that we’ll be on strike or we’ll be in a position where we are out of a contract again within a year of the contract being signed if they sign it now.”

When asked if they had any message to send out to workers and activists in the United States, she said: “Yeah. I think it’s really important that we all recognize that anyone who is not holding capital is a labourer. The only difference between someone like me, or someone making minimum wage, as I’ve done for most of my life, or a doctor, is how many months they can go without being paid for their labour. Realistically, if we want a more fair and equitable society, we need a system that works for everyone instead of leaving behind the most vulnerable sectors of society, because we’ve built a budget shortfall into their lives, that forces them to work minimum wage jobs.”

The demands put forward by the PSAC reflect conditions faced by workers across the land occupied by Canada, and around the world. Alongside massive strikes in Germany, France, and Britain, and growing labor militancy south of the border, they represent growing opposition to wage cuts, cost of living increases, and erosion of workers’ rights. Victory by such a massive union would be a boon not only to its members, but all Canadian workers, providing inspiration for other strikes and paving the way for other workers to fight against effective wage cuts.

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