155,000 federal public sector workers, with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) are on strike. It is the largest strike by a single union in Canada’s history.
The issues at the centre of this strike are wages, working conditions and the quality of public service. The striking PSAC members do a range of jobs for the Treasury Board and the Canada Revenue Agency – from clerical and custodial work to food inspectors and data processing. The majority of these workers make between $40,000 and $65,000 per year.
Background: jobs and services
Over the last 15 years workers in the federal public sector have had to weather a number of challenges. The deep cuts by the Harper government left the federal public sector severely understaffed: 25,000 jobs were eliminated between 2010 and 2015. This not only impacted federal public sector workers, but every person who relied on federal public sector services.
The attack on public services and the attack on public sector workers went hand in hand. When Harper was turfed from office in 2015, many of the issues remained. The phoenix pay system, introduced by Harper and rolled out under Trudeau was a complete mess. Over 100,000 workers have been impacted by payroll errors, including workers being underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all. This has caused massive hardship for workers in the federal public sector and has persisted for years, and is testament to the “efficiency” of contracting out.
When the pandemic hit, the demands on public service workers increased significantly. The government created new programs overnight, and significantly altered others. They were administered and serviced by public sector workers.
Then came the cost of living crisis. As with other workers, federal public sector workers need a wage increase to keep pace with rising inflation.
PSAC entered into negotiations in 2021 and reached an impasse in 2022. The union is demanding a 13.5 percent wage increase over three years, which is actually below inflation. The federal government is offered 8.2 percent over three years, revised up to nine percent. This is well below inflation for the life of the contract (2021 – 2023).
The union is also demanding shift premium top-ups, for overtime hours and hours outside normal working hours. PSAC also wants a new allowance for Veterans Affairs case workers who are underpaid. A huge portion of federal public service workers quickly were shifted into remote work when the pandemic hit. Now the union is demanding clearer rules about telework arrangements.
Over the course of March the union took a strike vote. Members returned an overwhelming strike mandate vote with a large turnout. PSAC members have had enough.
This would be the third major strike by federal public sector workers. In 1991 PSAC conducting what was then the largest single strike in Canada. Staring down a Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney government that wanted to impose a wage freeze (while giving managers a wage increase), members voted to engage in their first strike. The picket lines for the 1991 PSAC strike surprised the leadership, and proved that federal public sector workers were a fighting force. The massive public support for the strike further damaged Mulroney’s government. While the government passed back to work legislation, the terms of the contract were not as bad as before the strike.
In 2004, federal public sector workers again took strike action after years of Liberal cuts. But the strike shortly fizzled out as PSAC leaders ordered some units to return to work without a deal, while other workers remained on strike.
The experiences of the past PSAC strikes show both the power the state has in stripping away the rights of workers and the weakness of workers when they are divided. But the strikes also revealed that when workers fight, they can galvanize the entire class and push back on Liberal and Conservatives government attacks.
Solidarity with the strike
The current strike is just the latest expression of the cost of living crisis that is confronting workers. Governments and employers are looking to offload the rising cost of living on workers’ backs. But when workers organize and fight they can win and give confidence to other workers to join in.
The federal public sector service strike has also exposed the similarities between Trudeau’s Liberals and Poilievre’s Conservatives. While Poilievre has relentlessly attacked the Trudeau and the Liberals, he is more than willing to unite with them to oppose federal public sector workers. The warring cousins of the Liberal and Conservative parties express the overriding anti-worker agenda of the business class. The CFIB, the Fraser Institute and other big business lobby groups are pushing for back to work legislation. While the NDP has supported the strikers and says it will oppose any back to work legislation, its confidence and supply deal with the Liberals hamstrings its ability to truly lay bare the commonalities between the Liberals and Conservatives.
As with past strikes there’s the danger the state will attack workers, and we can’t wait for PSAC leadership to organize a broad fightback. But if we can build mass solidarity for PSAC members then they can strike back against Trudeau, expose Poilievre, and give confidence to others.
Find a picket line near you: www.workerscantwait.ca
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