After the Public Service Alliance of Canada initiated only the third strike in its history this week, I found that many of its members were reluctant to speak with me about why they were walking picket lines. Not because they disagreed with the labor action, but more because of how they believed other Canadians perceive government workers.
To paraphrase them, the strikers were concerned that there’s little public support for the union’s 155,000 members, and a general public perception that they have great salaries, pensions and benefits.
Like most stereotypes, that one doesn’t really hold up for the majority of government workers. But regardless of whether Canadians support the walkout, the country is stuck with it.
When I wrote this on Friday, the union members had been out for three days, and the country had not collapsed. That’s partly because about 44,000 union members are declared essential workers and must stay on the job. But it’s also linked to the structure of Canada. Most of the government services most Canadians rely on regularly — health care, education, highways — are the responsibility of provincial governments.
While the current strike may be fraught for people who need a new passport for a trip in the near future, they make up a sliver of the country’s population. And while most of the country will be affected by the slowdown in the processing of mail-in tax returns, that is more a minor irritation than a crisis.
I’ve learned from covering numerous private- and public-sector strikes that what the two sides say publicly about their labor disputes and what’s happening in negotiations or mediation are quite often very different. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet contradicted each other about the status of negotiations during the first day of the strike.
But it is clear from the union members I spoke with that two big issues loom over everything else: wage increases to make up for inflation, and the government’s return-to-office program.
Since March 31, federal public servants have been required to show up at their workplaces two or three days of each week. Like workers in similar situations in the private sector, many of them have struggled to find suitable child care arrangements, while others have no desire to go back to commuting. And some strikers told me that they saw little sense in being in an office again. That was particularly true of those who said that the people they work with directly are in other cities. So for them, returning to the office has meant little more than holding their online meetings from a different desk.
The federal government, of course, isn’t the only employer struggling to get people back into offices. Emma Goldberg, my colleague who covers the future of work, recently wrote about a niche group of consultants that some employers are using to lure employees back to their desks.
Emma’s article, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine, is well worth reading in its entirety. But one thing stood out for me about the advice offered by these “R.T.O. whisperers.” As Emma writes, “You shouldn’t forcibly change people’s schedules — but sometimes you can change their minds.”
As his members walked out, Chris Aylward, the president of the federal workers’ union, portrayed the strike as a fight for all Canadians who have been hit by recent inflation, which, in turn, prompted interest rate increases.
Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet, however, have countered that recent price increases, particularly for food, are now easing. That’s an assessment shared by, among others, the authors of the Bank of Canada’s monthly monetary policy report. Statistics Canada reported that last month, inflation sat at 4.3 percent. But the Bank of Canada report anticipates that the rate will fall to 3 percent by the middle of the year and reach 2 percent by the end of 2023 — the bank’s target rate.
The government said this week that it was offering a cumulative wage increase of 9 percent that would be spread over three years. For most of its members, the union wants raises that would total 13.5 percent over the same period. And the branch of the union that includes workers at the Canada Revenue Agency is seeking a 22.5 percent increase over three years.
“What both the government and the union are trying to do is look forward and guess where inflation is going,” David Green, a professor of labor economics at the Vancouver School of Economics of the University of British Columbia, told me in an email. The government’s offer, which is about 3 percent a year, he said, “is near where a lot of guesses are about inflation in the next few years, but would probably be lower than inflation in the first year of the contract.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.