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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.
"I do worry about being able to just afford my home and whether I’m going to be able to keep making those payments," says PSAC member Damir Moric.

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.

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. 

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.”

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