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Federal government workers are on strike: “We can take on the employer and win”

Chantal Sundaram

April 14, 2023
This interview was done days before the PSAC strke began. To find a picket line and support the strike see here:
In an interview with Socialist Worker/, Alex Silas, a key organizer for the largest union of federal government workers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), talked about engaging thousands of workers who were key during the pandemic and are now devalued by a federal government that has given them no choice but to wage a massive strike vote campaign to fight for a fair deal. 
Socialist Worker: PSAC members at the Canada Revenue agency and other core sectors have secured strike mandates. There are now 155,000 workers preparing to take action. Can you describe the events that have led to this massive strike vote campaign?
Alex Silas: The contract expired June 2021, we’ve been at the table since then, we’ve tried every good faith effort to reach a deal with the employer, but unfortunately after exhausting every option we’re at the point that the only way we’re going to get a deal or see any movement at the table is by taking strike votes, and if need be, going on strike. If the employer at the Treasury Board had come ready with a mandate to bargain on day one, we were prepared to bargain on day one, but the employer’s negotiating team did not feel they had any real mandate to discuss any of our priorities, and their offer on real wages fell far short of what workers in the public sector need.
That’s the main issue in this round for us, wages: our proposal that we tabled back in 2021 is 4.5% as an average each year over three years, when we weren’t expecting inflation to be where it’s at now. We’re standing firm on that because to go back on that would be bad faith bargaining. That’s why some of our teams who tabled their wage proposals after our Treasury Board teams, their wage ask is higher to try to keep up with inflation and the cost of living. With inflation projected at 7-8% we feel our ask of 4.5% per year over three years is reasonable for the employer and for taxpayers.

SW: In addition to fighting for wages that aren’t swallowed by inflation, how would you describe the key issues at stake?

AS: One of our other priorities is remote work, which is not new in the federal public service: even before the pandemic, the federal public service was transitioning towards a hybrid work model which was accelerated by the pandemic. Telework doesn’t apply to a lot of PSAC members, like firefighters, lighthouse keepers, trades people, lab technicians, they can’t work for home. But for a large portion of our membership, their working conditions were significantly changed, and it wasn’t an option. Any time there is any major change in working conditions, we have to negotiate to reflect that change. We’re asking for a fair, universal process across the federal public service, regardless of department or agency: if you make your request for telework, it won’t be at management discretion, whether your manager likes you or not, and whether you ask for full or hybrid arrangement, it will be treated the same way, and not unreasonably denied and can be grieved.
This disproportionately impacts women in the workforce. We’re in a childcare crisis on affordability and availability, and a lot of workers had to adapt to childcare closures and do their jobs and continue delivering services: they did that and they proved they could do it. For the Treasury Board to change their tune around telework seems politically motivated: the return to office mandate was rushed, the offices aren’t ready or safe. If remote work is going to continue, and we think it will, we need language in the collective agreement that reflects that new working condition.
SW: Have you seen an impact on the employer so far?
AS: Their initial proposal was 1.75% as an average and they have now moved to 2%, but it’s important to understand that’s not 2% per year, that’s averaged out over 4 years. That’s not nearly enough movement on wages, or on remote work, or an anti-racism training as well, there’s no appetite to discuss it: it’s just a no, it will cost too much.
Round after round this is the employer’s reaction: they expect us to take less than what we’re worth, to roll over to concessions and they doubt that members are going to fight, but members are ready to fight for these things.
I mentioned the anti-racism training, that’s a huge priority for members in this round and would be an important step forward in the fight against systemic racism. We’ve seen a lot of examples of Black, racialized and Indigenous workers in the federal public service reporting being harassed, discriminated against, issues that have spanned their entire careers where they’ve constantly felt they’ve been passed over, in particular Black workers, which resulted in the Black class action. 
Clearly the Treasury Board and the Liberal government of Canada don’t understand the depth of systemic racism in the federal public service and we’re trying to change that at the bargaining table where we can be the most powerful and concrete in the change we bring to the workplace. We hope it will create not only more inclusive and equitable workplaces but a more representative public service of the public that we serve, and that by creating a standard in Canada’s largest employer, we hope it will create a standard for all workers against systemic racism.
And that is front of mind for me, and for a lot of PSAC activists: because of how large this group is, across five tables - we’re talking about a group of 155,000 workers - we hope that any standard we set there will be a benchmark for all workers and all employers will have to follow as a trend around wages that keep up with the cost of living, anti-racism training, remote work, and also more specific work like workers who work in call centres. That work is stressful, traumatic and currently in Canada there is no minimum standard for time between calls. We want to negotiate a minimum of thirty seconds between calls, but even that the employer has not wanted to discuss whatsoever. 
Another thing we’re bargaining for is to expand the bilingualism allowance to include Indigenous languages for roughly 400 workers who use an Indigenous language as part of their day-to-day functions to serve the population. Their work deserves to be valued and would cost the government next to nothing but would recognize the value of Indigenous languages within the federal public service and would be a small step towards Reconciliation. We don’t understand why the employer doesn’t want to even discuss that: the Liberals want to present as friends to Indigenous peoples but when it comes to putting money where their mouth is, they’re not walking the walk. 

SW: If a “PSAC general strike” happens now it could be bigger than the historic PSAC general strike of 1991, which was the biggest strike by a single union in Canadian history. What would this look like and what impact could it have on the Treasury Board?

AS: We’re building up towards the same thing now, the largest single-union strike in the history of Canada, and it would break that record, because the membership has grown since 1991. We’ve had smaller and successful strikes since then, but having all these tables in strike position at the same time, that hasn’t happened in three decades. So it’s a momentous time for PSAC and I would say in a larger sense for the labour movement, and we have a place in that. 
We were inspired by the fight that our siblings in OSBCU [CUPE education workers] led last fall. And by the one-day work-to-rule that border officers in our own membership led in fall 2021 that shut down all the borders. A Treasury Board strike would bring the government to a screeching halt. If PSAC workers are forced to withdraw their labour, the government doesn’t work without our members. 
The goal is a fair contract: pushing back against concessions, and getting a fair wage increase and working conditions. Our membership is struggling with the cost of living like everyone: we have members in the federal public service who have to go to food banks. Working people have been left behind for generations while the rich only get richer, and profit from crises like the pandemic, and workers didn’t cause inflation, so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
There is a myth of jobs in the federal public service: “a good stable job, good pension, good benefits, you’ve got nothing to complain about”. First, everyone should have that, but second it’s being eroded. There is a two-tiered pension in the federal public service now: newer workers don’t have the same pension as those who are retired. The conditions of work have gotten worse. There’s workload issues, there’s health and safety issues, there’s job security issues with more and more work being contracted out. It’s a myth that doesn’t hold water anymore.
This would likely be the largest strike in the history of Canada and it would absolutely shut down the federal government.

SW: How is the rank and file preparing on the ground to move from strike votes to strike readiness if necessary?
AS: We’ve been inspired by the fight that CUPE education workers led last fall. Here in Ottawa we supported those lines to provide support to our CUPE siblings in that fight, and in doing so we learned a lot. We exchanged ideas and strategies, and we’ve been learned from the model that those workers put together. And it’s not necessarily the most revolutionary or out-of-the-box thinking, it’s just getting back to basics, focussing on membership engagement, talking one on one. You don’t take on the employer and win with ad campaigns, or social media, or even necessarily in the media. You win by having one-on-one conversations with members and really getting workers to tap into our collective strength when we unite and stand together.
One thing I tell PSAC members all the time is, we understand that taking on the government is overwhelming. How do we take on all these big-wig people? But with the numbers that we have, we can be overwhelming. Workers have proven that time and time again: CUPE OSBCU members proved that, PSAC members at the borders and at the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last winter proved that. When workers unite and fight for a common goal, we can take on the employer and win. Talking with the members, engaging the members, that’s what I’ve been doing, that what PSAC as a whole has been doing, as a priority for most of this round of bargaining, for the better part of the last two years. We’re really focussing on building that capacity. Because of how huge this bargaining group is there are challenges to reach everybody, but we’ve been doing a good job at that. I think if we do need to go, the members are going to be ready to go.
SW: What’s your sense of the mood on the ground?
AS: I think people feel undervalued by the government of Canada, they feel there’s a lack of respect for the work they do, and for the service they provide to Canadians. People are frustrated, and rightfully so.

SW: How can supporters show solidarity?
AS: That’s a great question. Our focus has really been on engaging members, that’s a lesson we really got from the CUPE folks, that’s what’s going to help us win this fight, and we’re continuing to focus on that. But we feel the public will be behind this effort.
We started ramping up the pressure publicly last June with rallies, and since then the message in the media, to our members, and to the employer, has been that PSAC is gearing up for a strike. That message has been getting out since last June which is a real testament to PSAC activists. It’s been successful in that when we announced we were holding strike votes, Treasury Board President Morna Fortier immediately called our national President Chris Aylward. For context, since she stepped into her office, we had not heard anything from Morna Fortier. We got their attention, and that led to having more dates in April.
If we need to declare a strike, we will, and how can the public support us? By joining the picket lines and giving us supportive honks. I think the mistake employers make is thinking the public is not going to support a strike. I think that’s wrong, there’s tons of evidence that has shown the contrary. The general public understands that the services they receive, it’s workers providing that service, not management, not Justin Trudeau and Morna Fortier. It’s PSAC members who supported them throughout the pandemic, who inspected food to keep it safe, who made sure that CERB payments were paid out – those were members at the CRA and Service Canada.  I think the general public will understand that PSAC members are here for them, and I think the public will be there for us. And again, a big part of this fight is about raising a fair standard not just for us but for all workers.
Quand qu’on est solidaire, when we show our solidarity, when we’re unified we can win, and we will win.


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