On January 23, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) announced strike votes for more than 120,000 of its members over the coming months. These votes could lead to the largest strike against a single employer in Canada’s history. The 120,000 members are federal public service workers holding a range of different jobs, from program administrator, food inspector, and teacher to firefighter, cook, and hospital worker. This diverse coalition of workers is uniting to take on their unreasonable and unjust employer: the federal government.
Issues on the negotiating table
There are a number of negotiating issues that have brought this large and varied group of workers together to fight back against their employer. First and foremost is wages. All members want wages that keep up with the rising cost of living. It is no secret that the cost of food, housing, and other basic necessities have been increasing, forcing more people into precarity and increasing the wealth gap between the rich and the rest of us. Despite this affordability crisis, the federal government is offering PSAC members a mere two percent wage increase per year. This is an effective wage cut of more than four percent given the current rate of inflation.
Another issue that unites members is pushing back against contracting out and privatization in the federal public service. These practices decrease both job security for public servants and transparency around government decision making. This issue has been most publicly on display in the ongoing controversy surrounding the cozy relationship between the federal government and McKinsey—a consultancy firm who has received almost $120 million from the federal government since 2015.
McKinsey is not the only government-caused controversy impacting PSAC members. They have also had to deal with ongoing frustrations related to the government’s infamous Phoenix pay system. This system—provided by IBM and originally introduced by the Harper government—has underpaid, overpaid, or not paid more than half of the federal public service workforce. It has created stress, anxiety, and uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of federal workers stuck in limbo as they wait for their pay to be fixed. PSAC members want to be able to move on from this nightmare, but the federal government continues to drag its feet fixing the Phoenix mess.
Lastly, securing the right to remote work is a key issue for many PSAC members. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of thousands of public servants were directed to shift their entire work life to home. This often required purchasing office equipment, dedicating a part of their home to work, and sometimes even moving out of the city core so they had space to work. These workers proved that they could work effectively remotely and continued to deliver much-needed federal programs to Canadians over the course of the pandemic.
Despite this, the government has unilaterally imposed a return to work policy requiring workers to come into the office two to three days a week. They have justified the policy by stating that, “working together in person supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging.” This mushy appeal to the importance of ‘team spirit’ is a front for their real reason: they want more control over their employees. As Adam D.K. King noted remote work is a site of struggle in the fight for control over workers’ autonomy. The strength of an employer’s dictatorship in the workplace is commensurate with their workers’ lack of freedom. Any gain in autonomy for the worker is a loss of power for the boss. In this way, PSAC member’s fight to secure the right to remote work connects with the broader labour movement’s struggle to win more autonomy for workers.
We’re in this together
The issues on the table for PSAC members are the same issues that workers are grappling with across Canada and the world.
We have seen wages fail to keep up with the rising cost of living not only for federal public servants, but for workers everywhere. In contract negotiations spanning the country, workers have had to fight employers tooth and nail for every cent they deserve. Even the Ontario education workers — who led a historic mass mobilization to overturn anti-worker legislation this fall — still only managed to win a 3.6 percent wage increase per year. This increase is more than any other public sector union has been able to negotiate with the Ontario government, but it still falls well below inflation.
We have seen privatization continue to spread across the public sector; from the program administrator who’s replaced by a McKinsey consultant to the nurse who’s pressured to leave their hospital for a private surgery clinic. The expansion of for-profit business into every area of our lives will only worsen working conditions and social outcomes for the working class.
And we have seen bosses everywhere—from the Federal Government to Elon Musk—order their employees back to the office (with mixed results) in an attempt to decrease worker autonomy. For the bosses of the world, the fact that their employees are producing what is asked of them in their job description is not enough, they also require control. Control over where their employees work, when they work, what they wear, and so on.
But, we have also seen workers fighting back, realizing their strength, and recognizing that we’re in this together. As the Industrial Workers of the World rightly asserted more than a hundred years ago: an injury to one is an injury to all. This sentiment has never been more relevant than it is today. In the United Kingdom we see workers coming together to stand up to the bosses through the Enough is Enough campaign, which has in turn energized the launch of the Ontario Enough is Enough campaign. The campaign is an opportunity to advance a broad based working class response to the cost of living crisis.
PSAC members are ready to take action. They are ready to fight for fair wages, for worker autonomy, and against privatization. As the PSAC strike votes unfold in the coming months, it is incumbent on all of us to follow this struggle and support in whatever way we can—whether that means signing a petition, calling a member of parliament, or joining a demonstration. As workers, we know that PSAC members’ issues are our issues, and a win for them is a win for the working class.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate