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From the Picket Line: What’s at Stake in the Big Strike

Workers discuss public perceptions of ‘cushy government jobs.’ Experts eye a path to a deal.

Zak Vescera 25 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Workers on the frontline of Canada’s largest strike in decades say their finances and careers could hinge on the outcome of the escalating labour dispute.

More than 100,000 federal workers went on strike last week after negotiations between the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the government hit an impasse over salaries and whether workers should have the right to remote work enshrined in the collective agreement.

The union has asked for 13.5 per cent over the three-year agreement, which would be retroactive to late 2021 when their last contract expired. The Union of Taxation Employees, which represents more than 35,000 workers at the Canada Revenue Agency, have asked for an increase of 20.5 per cent, on top of a one-time nine-per-cent raise.

The federal Treasury Board’s last public offer to both units was nine per cent.

On a rainy picket line in Vancouver, Matthew di Nicolo said stereotypes about federal public servants mask the realities of the job.

“If they had these cushy government jobs where they pay you to sit around, I’d love one of those,” said di Nicolo, who processes unemployment claims. “If they were offering those, I’d take one in a heartbeat, because that’s not my experience.”

The PSAC’s membership spans 155,000 government workers. They handle tax claims, cook meals for the military and inspect and maintain fisheries on B.C.’s coast, among other things.

The union says just under a quarter of those members earn between $40,000 and $60,000 a year and that almost 60 per cent are earning less than $70,000. PSAC says about 20 per cent are earning more than $80,000 a year.

Damir Moric says the wages used to be enough to get by. But now, he’s facing higher interest payments on his mortgage and rising costs as inflation spiked in 2022.

“I do worry about being able to just afford my home and whether I’m going to be able to keep making those payments,” Moric said. “It was adequate for me starting out. Now I’m not able to really make it.”

Moric and di Nicolo were among dozens of PSAC members at a picket line in downtown Vancouver on Friday. Many huddled under archways for shelter or crowded around a folding table overflowing with Tim Hortons’ doughnuts and lukewarm coffee.

Others paced around in the rain, carrying white placards that said “2% is for milk,” a reference to part of the government proposal.

At another picket line up the street, a group of bemused strikers watched as a dark blue sports car was towed away. Members are receiving $75 a day in strike pay.

The PSAC has picketed more than 250 locations across the country, the union says, and is now also stopping work at some federal ports to ratchet up pressure at the bargaining table.

On Monday PSAC members began picketing the Cascadia Terminal on East Vancouver’s waterfront, halting work at one of the country's largest export grain terminal.

Milton Dyck, president of PSAC’s agriculture union, said the union plans to picket more locations if a deal isn’t reached, part of a broader plan to ratchet up economic pressure on the government.

“We’re not trying to close the entire port down. But we want to start selectively choosing parts here and there,” Dyck said.

“What we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be hitting different spots and scaling up.”

PSAC president Chris Aylward and the federal government traded accusations this weekend about who was responsible for the pace of talks. Aylward said the union was willing to target “strategic locations,” including ports.

The union can legally picket grain terminals because roughly 290 of its members work at the Canadian Grain Commission and are in a legal strike position, including workers at Cascadia. Dyck said other union workers at that terminal, including the Grain Workers Local 333 and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, respected the picket line.

Dyck said his goal is a fair deal for his members, who he said are often asked to do overtime because of staff shortages across the grain commission. But the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association worries the union’s plan could inflict economic pain on farmers. Association president Gunter Jochum said lengthy delays at grain ports could back up supply chains, increasing costs and potentially hurting Canadian grain prices.

“The companies will just pass that cost up down the line and it ends up at the lowest common dominator, which is the farm,” Jochum said.

The Canadian Grain Commission, which regulates the handling and export of those crops, says exports are still flowing. Spokesman Rémi Gosselin said the commission was allowing grain companies to collect samples on the commission's behalf. Gosselin said those samples were then being tested and evaluated by commission managers so they can still be exported during the strike.

PSAC represents roughly 65 per cent of the commission's employees, Gosselin said, something he said has had a "significant" impact on their operations. "We totally respect our employees' right to strike, but at the same time we have a mandate to fill," Gosselin said.

Jochum has called for the federal government to allow private inspectors to do the work, something PSAC would likely viscerally oppose, since those workers would need to cross picket lines and would undercut their pickets.

The Cascadia Terminal is jointly owned by agriculture giants Viterra and Richardson International and has more than 280,000 metric tonnes of storage space for canola, barley and other grain. A Viterra spokesperson declined to comment on the picket line when contacted on Monday.

A bearded man wearing a red T-shirt and grey vest stands in front of a concrete grain elevator.
Milton Dyck, president of PSAC’s agriculture union, said the union would expand pickets at grain terminals that are critical to exports. Photo by Zak Vescera.

PSAC president Chris Aylward and the federal government traded accusations this weekend about who was responsible for the pace of talks. Aylward said the union was willing to target “strategic locations,” including ports.

University of Saskatchewan political science professor Charles Smith said the PSAC doesn’t have a tradition of labour militancy.

He said the strike is part of a larger period of labour upheaval sparked by high inflation, rising interest rates and low unemployment rates that have made workers seek better working conditions and in a strong position to get them. The COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said, likely amplified that since many public federal workers were asked to continue reporting for work and launch new programs in a period of uncertainty.

“The PSAC were asked to do a hell of a lot of work in a way they were not trained for and get the job done, and they did,” Smith said.

Public opinion on the strike appears to be slightly favourable towards PSAC. An Angus Reid poll conducted last week found 48 per cent of respondents supported the union’s wage requests, compared to 40 per cent who opposed it and 12 per cent who were unsure. The online poll was conducted among a representative randomized sample of 1,276 people and had an estimated margin of error of 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Mark Thompson, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, said federal public servants typically are not as sympathetic to the public as their provincial counterparts, who are often more visible and provide more direct services.

“Not very many of us have direct interaction with federal people. And it’s not always something that we relish. If you cross the border and you want to wait in line, you just want to get it over with,” Thompson said.

A person with a beard, wearing a black jacket, orange safety vest and black hat saying 'Solidarity.'
Matthew di Nicolo says any perceptions of cushy government jobs don’t reflect reality. Photo by Zak Vescera.

But he said the federal government’s wage proposal was likely too low to secure a deal. Most provincial public servants in B.C., for example, secured a wage increase of between 10.74 to 12.74 per cent over three years for most positions, with the final total depending on the rate of inflation in the years of the agreement.

Thompson said the most interesting part of the dispute is remote work. Many federal servants began working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and did not return to the office until this year, when the Treasury Board set a requirement for employees to report to work in person at least twice a week. In a statement, the government said it made that decision because working in-person “supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging.”

PSAC now wants the right to remote work enshrined in collective agreements, something that has been controversial in other organizations.

In B.C., the government resisted requests from unions to guarantee remote working privileges in collective bargaining last year, leaving it up to managers to decide. But the province has also signalled it wants to be flexible about remote work and that it wants more workers in different regions of the province outside Victoria and Vancouver.

Vanessa Radunz, who works in procurement services for the federal government, says being able to work remotely has saved her hours of commuting each day on transit plus associated costs. She says she is able to do her job — which involves helping multiple federal departments buy anything they might need — from home with ease.

“It’s an extra two hours a day. You have to set all your equipment up, troubleshoot any technical things, pack it all up at the end of the day and go home,” said Radunz.

But the biggest sticking point on the picket line is still wages. The federal Treasury Board has said the union’s requested pay increases are unreasonable and that its revised offer of nine per cent reflects the recommendations of a Public Interest Commission Report. The reports are part of the process in federal labour negotiations.

Steve Claxton, a supervisor who has worked for the government for 24 years, says salaries have become less competitive over time compared to the private sector or working for the provincial government. He said many of his colleagues also worked extensive overtime at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, and were hopeful the next collective agreement would acknowledge that contribution.

“No one knew what the pandemic was going to end up like or how dangerous it was at the time, and they came in every day without a contract,” Claxton said.

Di Nicolo joined the public service in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He met some of his colleagues for the first time in person on the picket line. During the pandemic, he said, he worked overtime hours to stand up the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for the millions of workers who lost their jobs in the first months of the pandemic.

“During the pandemic we got a lot of kinds words. They were saying, ‘You guys are doing a lot of work, you’re essential.’ And then two years later we’re looking for a cost of living adjustment and we’re not getting it,” Di Nicolo said. “The words are great, but I cannot buy groceries with some kind words.”  [Tyee]

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