If the current strike by thousands of public sector workers is successful, it could have a domino effect for unionized workers in other industries, labour experts say.
“Strikes in the federal public service are extremely rare. So the fact that PSAC followed through with job action is really significant,” said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University.
Thousands of public-service workers began their strike Wednesday morning after the federal government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, representing some 155,000 federal workers up for bargaining, couldn’t reach a deal in negotiations that began almost two years ago.
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Almost a third of all federal public servants are involved in the strike, and the union and government alike have warned of disruptions to tax season, border operations, Employment Insurance, immigration and passport applications.
Union militancy, which includes labour disputes, strike votes and strikes, has been more common amid persistently high inflation, said Savage. And it can be contagious, especially if a strike manages to deliver higher wages and better working conditions.
“A successful strike by PSAC members can have a domino effect,” he said.
He said the striking workers have been without a contract for around two years, meaning as inflation climbed they saw zero increases in their wages.
“I think this clearly signals that they’re fed up, and now they’re turning up the heat.”
Jock Climie, a management-side labour and employment lawyer with Ottawa-based Emond Harnden, agreed that inflation is lending itself to higher militancy in unionized sectors, and that PSAC’s strike could have far-reaching effects beyond its own members.
“The reality is that when the largest … federal public service union goes on strike and gets what it’s asking for, say they do, it’s going to have a profound impact on every bargaining table that comes after it, not just in the public sector,” he said.
Wage increases are one of the biggest sticking points in this dispute, with PSAC pushing for 4.5 per cent raises annually over the next three years to keep pace with inflation. The Treasury Board has said it offered a nine per cent raise over three years on Sunday, per the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission.
The two parties began negotiating in June 2021, and the union declared an impasse the following May. Mediated negotiations began in early April of this year.
Normally bargaining works on a relatively consistent cycle, said Climie. In times of fiscal restraint and slow growth, workers make fewer gains, and in times of growth and higher inflation, unions can bargain for more.
“What we’ve got here (are) cycles moving in different directions colliding with each other,” he said.
For years, Savage said, unions have been “treading water” on wage gains, managing to get increases that keep pace with inflation.
“As long as they kept pace with inflation, we did not see significant work stoppages,” he said. “But high inflation is driving workers to use their right to strike. And there’s no question the uptick in militancy is being driven by inflation.”
Statistics Canada data shows that while there were fewer individual work stoppages in 2022 compared with 2021, the average length of those stoppages more than doubled.
Inflation has been outpacing wage gains for most of its reign, but in February, average hourly wages began rising faster than inflation.
Inflation in March was 4.2 per cent, down from last summer’s highs but still above the Bank of Canada’s target of two per cent. Meanwhile, in March average hourly wages rose 5.3 per cent.
As inflation comes down, it will be easier for unions to match it with wage gains – but they have a lot of catching up to do if they want to actually make up for the purchasing power their workers have lost, said Savage.
But a lower inflation rate could have a psychological effect that makes workers less militant, he said.
However, unions will be fighting for higher wage gains over the next couple of years as contracts expire, even if that militancy wanes, said Savage.
In the private sector, too, workers are asking for more and getting it, such as in the Ontario construction sector last year, said Savage.
“I think people are rediscovering the right to strike,” he said.
Climie thinks the increase in union militancy will continue throughout 2023, with higher wage demands on the table as high inflation and its effects linger. Eventually, however, bargaining will return to its cycle, he said.
“I think there’s no question that as inflation drops, if it continues to drop, you will see less aggressive positions being taken at the bargaining table as far as wages are concerned.”