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Nearly two years after their collective agreement expired, employees represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) recently concluded one of the largest strikes in Canadian history, mobilizing more than 123,000 workers from almost every federal organization. North Star takes a look back at a conflict that's dominated the news in recent weeks.
The strike put forward workers' major concern about the exploding cost of living. With inflation exceeding 13% since the end of their collective agreement, the increase initially proposed by the employer of 2.25% per year would have been insufficient to maintain their purchasing power. Samir, a striker met on a picket line in late April, expressed his discontent to North Star by pointing out that "we're not asking to increase our salary... We're just asking to keep up with inflation. That's it."
"I know the government isn't going to take care of inflation because they don't recognize the reason," says Samir. "Look at the statistics for the profits by the government or by food manufacturers or oil and gas companies... its in hundreds of percents. THAT'S what's the cause of inflation. They use the covid situation to raise prices."
Short of widespread policies that would help the public weather inflation, in the May 1st tentative agreement, the strikers managed to secure a pay-scale increase that would start to "close the gap on inflation," as stated in PSAC's declaration. The new pay-scale will see many PSAC workers making a 12.6% increase over the 3 years of it's duration, which, depending on the source, would almost match the inflation of the last 3 years.
Beyond wage demands, workers questioned the government's financial priorities. They pointed to the increasing spending on consultants and contractors, while full-time and experienced employees were being neglected. Tom, a striking PSAC member, exclaimed, “You’re gonna spend here, there, everywhere, but when it comes to our collective agreement, suddenly the money dries up? And I don’t think when it comes to [MP’s] pay raises that it takes this long…”
Thus, one of the concessions won by PSAC in the tentative agreement puts a stop to the growing trend of contracting out work to the lowest bidding private-sector contractors or consultants. Public servants will now be protected from lay-offs if they are able to do the same work as a contractor who was hired at the time of the lay-off.
Another issue receiving the attention of strikers has been remote work, now considered by many to be an integral part of office life. Remote work proved to be extremely contentious as the government demanded a return to in-person work within a short time frame. According to Asif, a striking worker interviewed by North Star on a picket line, the union was not opposed to returning at least partially to the office. "What the union wants is to have this in the collective agreement and to know why."
Many workers shared this view and question the need to work in the office when they can be just as productive from home. Similarly, they emphasized that they had put a lot of effort into adapting to this new situation, and that a full return to the office would greatly reincrease their expenses, which are already too high with inflation.
Words of encouragement and solidarity for all those watching were shared by all PSAC strikers interviewed while they were still on strike. Assan sympathized with the non-union workers and urged them to look at this struggle as an example of what organized labor can accomplish: "We are qualified workers, if they can treat us like this then I can only imagine how they treat other workers.. So [you] should get into a union. [This isn't] a perfect world... if you're not stronger, to protest, then somebody is going to suppress you."