End of federal strike action good for some businesses, not so good for others

Devinder Chaudhary, Scott May SoPa
Aiāna Restaurant Collective owner Devinder Chaudhary (left) and Bar Robo owner Scott May are two of the organizers of the new SoPa downtown entertainment district. File photo

Even on a rainy Monday, most clouds have a silver lining. 

At least one business owner is breathing a sigh of relief after the federal government reached a tentative agreement with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, ending the 12-day strike for more than 120,000 public servants.

It meant that the majority of PSAC workers who had been on the picket lines since April 19 were expected to sign in for duty on Monday morning or at their next scheduled shift.

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Étienne LeBlanc-Cameron, owner of Cobblestone Tours, Gray Line Ottawa and Lady Dive Tours, was panicked at the prospect of a long strike — his kiosks on Sparks Street rely on foot traffic from tourists, which was hampered by the picket lines.

Today was to mark the beginning of LeBlanc-Cameron’s ramp-up efforts in anticipation of the tourism season, including more pickup spots for tour buses and more employees and kiosks, all on Sparks Street. Last week, LeBlanc-Cameron told OBJ that if the strike were to continue, it would be “devastating” to his business. 

But now, there is not a “single person” picketing in the area, a refreshing change from the “chaos” he said he saw during the first 12 days of the strike.

“I’m super happy, honestly, and very relieved, I guess you could say,” LeBlanc-Cameron said. “There’s no one there and it’s great timing for us.

“Our bookings this week are crazy, it’s back to almost 2019 and definitely more than last year. It’s almost back to normal,” he added. “So I’m very happy to see that. It’s very early in the season, so I can’t say much. It’s starting to align like it’ll be a good year, but time will tell.”

The end of the strike action is more bittersweet for other business owners. Scott May, owner of Bar Robo at Queen St. Fare, was enjoying the increase in foot traffic that the strike brought and that made the last two weeks “far and away” the busiest since the beginning of the pandemic, he told OBJ last week

Today, the quiet in downtown Ottawa is more akin to the post-pandemic norm, he said. Since public servants began working from home during the pandemic, Bar Robo has been trying to stay afloat in a market that relied on downtown government workers.

“If we had everybody back all the time, that would be best,” he said. “We’re trying our best to cover as much as we can, but it’s difficult to pick the whole venue up and move it to the suburbs. But in the last two weeks, with tens of thousands of strikers looking for coffee and lunch, it was a market shot in the arm for downtown business.”

May said it was “lovely” to see the buzz of activity again while the picketers were around.

“To see the workers back downtown for two weeks and the sense of camaraderie and congeniality that existed between workers that hadn’t seen each other since pre-COVID … It was really nice to see,” he said. “I hope they were able to resuscitate or spark that interaction and creativity that they missed when they were working from home. It was palpable, the sense of joy to get to see their co-workers again.”

“PSAC members held the line together and secured a fair contract that keeps up with the cost of living, increased protections around remote work and creates safer, more inclusive workplaces,” Chris Aylward, the union’s national president, said in a statement.

The tentative agreement announced in the wee hours of Monday morning came after the Treasury Board, which oversees the administration of the federal government, tabled what it described as a “final offer” on Friday.

“This wasn’t easy. We negotiated, we compromised and we found creative solutions,” Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said in a news conference Monday afternoon.

“And after many long days, nights and weekends of hard work, we’ve reached fair and competitive deals for employees.”

The tentative deals come after a push from the union for wage increases that compensate for inflation, along with a host of other demands, including language on remote work arrangements, referred to in the public service as telework.

The agreements include 11.5 per cent wage increases over four years, with an additional 0.5 per cent group-specific allowance in the third year of the contracts.

Previously, the federal government had offered a nine per cent wage increase over three years, while the union was asking for 13.5 per cent.

With the tentative agreements, the union says the compounded wage increases total to 12.6 per cent.

Workers will also be receiving a one-time, pensionable $2,500 lump sum payment that represents an additional 3.7 per cent of salary for the average union member in Treasury Board bargaining units.

The union said members will have access to additional protection when the employer makes arbitrary decisions about remote work, and managers will have to assess telework requests individually, not by group, and provide written responses.

The tentative agreement also includes protection against the contracting out of work. According to the union, in the event of a layoff, an employee who can carry out work that is being conducted by a hired contractor will not lose their job.

PSAC said the tentative deal also addresses its demands regarding seniority rights in the event of layoffs.

It said both parties have agreed to jointly submit a proposal to the Public Service Commission of Canada to include seniority rights in future “workplace adjustment” plans — or changes to the workforce to reflect the executive’s priorities.

Some 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency employees were still on strike Monday — the day of the federal tax-filing deadline — as negotiations over a separate collective agreement continued.

“We are going to resume activities as fast as we can,” Fortier said about the disruption of federal services.

Initial negotiations on a new collective agreement had initially begun in June 2021 and the union had declared an impasse in May 2022, with both parties filing labour complaints since then.

With files from The Canadian Press

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