Bargaining continues as federal workers picket, major service disruptions expected

Canada’s largest federal public-service union and the federal government remain at the bargaining table as workers strike and service disruptions begin to be felt across the country.

Federal workers were hitting the picket lines on Wednesday after the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the government failed to reach a deal on a new collective agreement by a Tuesday evening deadline.

The union is advertising some 250-plus picket line locations countrywide and calling the strike action, which officially began at 12:01 a.m. EDT, one of the largest in Canadian history.

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Liberal ministers were at pains to say that their priority was a quick, fair and competitive deal on Wednesday.

They sidestepped questions about the potential for back-to-work legislation even as the NDP, which is supporting the minority Liberals in a confidence-and-supply deal, said it would staunchly oppose such measures.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier wouldn’t stipulate her government’s position on a back-to-work bill, and instead said she was hopeful that progress could be made with the union.

“We will continue to work with the PSAC to reach agreements that are fair and competitive, but we cannot do that unless the union is prepared to compromise. We cannot write a blank check,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said that negotiations were paused and called on the union to come back to the table. For its part, the union said it was waiting for a better offer from government before resuming talks.

But a couple of hours later, Fortier confirmed that negotiations were ongoing.

A late Tuesday news release from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said that the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada were still at odds when it came to key contract issues for both sides.

The bargaining groups involve some 155,000 federal public servants, including 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers.

PSAC’s national president Chris Aylward said Wednesday that 97,000 workers are on strike nationwide to push for higher wages and better working conditions.

“Workers are fed up, workers are frustrated and workers are saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to take the garbage anymore,'” Aylward told reporters on Wednesday.

The union leader said that if the federal government doesn’t start negotiating “seriously,” federal workers “will stay out here for as long as it takes.”

Outside Parliament Hill on Wednesday, people on the picket line were holding signs that said: “Fair deal for workers”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh met with union members to offer his support and took photos with them. In an interview, Singh put blame on the federal government for failing to deliver a “fair deal.”

“These are workers that were the ones that delivered so much important supports for Canadians when we needed it most in the pandemic,” Singh said. “And now they deserve respect.”

Singh said he’s made it clear to the Liberal government that the NDP will not support back-to-work legislation.

To date, Trudeau’s Liberal government has largely had a friendly relationship with the labour movement.

Recently, the Liberal government has worked with unions and labour groups on various priorities, including the pursuit of anti-scab legislation. Its recent federal budget promised that such legislation, which would prohibit the use of replacement workers during a strike or lockout, would be tabled this calendar year.

But a fracture is forming as the union pushes the federal government for wage increases and other demands, including shift premiums and telework arrangements.

The union is asking fora pay raise of 13.5 per cent over the next three years. It says the increases are necessary to keep pace with inflation and the cost of living.

The Treasury Board said it has offered the union a nine per cent raise over three years, on the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission.

And the CRA said it also offered its workers, who are represented by PSAC and the Union of Taxation Employees, a nine per cent raise over three years.

However, the agency said the union’s bargaining unit countered with a proposal of 22.5 per cent over the next three years, which includes a market adjustment of two per cent.

Where the Opposition Conservatives stand on the union’s demands is unclear.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Tory MP Stephanie Kusie offered sympathy to workers who are struggling with the cost of living while blasting what she called Trudeau’s “incompetence.”

“We are calling on Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government to get their act together to resolve this strike, to come to an agreement,” she said, noting that Canadians will bear the brunt of service disruptions.

Since the strike involves nearly one-third of all federal public servants, both the union and the government have warned of such disruptions, including what could amount to a complete halt of the tax season.

Other concerns include slowdowns at the border and pauses to new EI, immigration and passport applications.

While federal workers who are deemed essential will stay on the job, many services do not fall under that category. For example, the federal government says passport applications will only be processed in emergency or humanitarian cases.

In the federal ministers’ news conference, Families Minister Karina Gould offered her sympathy for families facing this disruption, saying she feels “terrible” for those who may miss out on planned trips.

“I’m very hopeful that bargaining will continue because unfortunately, as legislated and as outlined with the union, if someone has a family vacation planned, it’s not considered to be an essential service,” she said.

Initial negotiations on a new collective agreement began in June 2021. The union declared an impasse in May 2022 and both parties filed labour complaints.

Mediated contract negotiations began in early April of this year and continued through the weekend in what the described as the government’s last chance to reach a deal.

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