Canadian media is out of step with public on PSAC strike
Despite the anti-labour press onslaught, more Canadians than not support most of the public servants' demands.
It’s quite remarkable that despite the corporate media onslaught of the past week against striking federal civil servants, the Canadian public appears to be broadly on board with their union’s demands.
According to an April 21 Angus Reid poll, taken in the two days after 120,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers walked off the job, about two-thirds of Canadians support the union’s ask for premium overtime pay. It’s shocking that unionized public servants don’t already have this.
Fifty-five percent support federal workers’ right to continue working from home. Although not a majority, a strong plurality of 48% support the bulk of workers receiving a 4.5% annual raise.
A slight plurality of 44% support more paid family leave, compared to 43% who don’t.
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The only demand that doesn’t have at least a plurality support is a bonus for people who speak an Indigenous language, with 37% in favour and 48% opposed. Given the pervasiveness of anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, this isn’t entirely surprising, but it’s worth noting this particular issue has received scant media attention.
I’m someone who tends to wince when journalists turn a poll into a news story on its own, but it’s worth noting when public opinion surveys contradict larger media narratives.
Recent headlines, published in the National Post, Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, Toronto Star and The Canadian Press, call the strike’s legitimacy into question, citing “irregularities” and a weak 35% turnout.
This came as the result of a complaint to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board from disgruntled PSAC member David Paterson, who wanted the vote’s results to be annulled because the union moved the end of voting to April 11 from April 19, which he suggested was a form of voter suppression.
The board agreed this date change raised “significant concerns,” but reasonably concluded that the 85%“support for the strike was high enough that even if there were no irregularities, it is very likely that the outcome would still have been in favour of a strike.”
You had to read 12 paragraphs in the National Post, where the story broke, before learning the complaint was dismissed; eight in the CBC; 12 in CP. The Globe didn’t mention its dismissal at all. To their credit, the Star and CTV had the result in their leads, and the Star included that important context in its headline.
Torontonians have put up with much worse in their municipal elections.
The 2022 Toronto municipal election, with far more eligible voters, had an even lower turnout than the PSAC strike vote at 29%.
In the midst of the campaign for the city’s 2018 civic election, Ontario Premier Doug Ford intervened at the last minute to cut the number of council seats in half — arguably a far more brazen form of interference than reducing the voting period by a week.
If you suggested either of those results ought to be overturned, you would simply not be taken seriously, which is not to say Ford’s intervention or voter apathy aren’t significant issues.
"Increasing voter turnout is an issue that all unions, organizations and governments — big or small — grapple with," said PSAC president Chris Alyward.
On the strike’s first day, Ottawa Citizen reporter Bruce Deachman fed this narrative pitting union leadership against its members by attending the city’s most sparsely attended pickets.
“People hate us,“ one picketer said, citing negative comments on social media.
These three words were, of course, catnip for the overwhelmingly right-wing Canadian punditry.
That’s exactly how Lorne Gunter’s Edmonton Sun column on the topic kicks off, headlined “Dear federal workers: Here’s why you’re so despised.”
He writes, citing the aforementioned Ottawa Citizen piece, that the striking public servants “seemed genuinely surprised that other working Canadians not only didn’t sympathize with their outrageous demands, but were downright hostile.”
Nowhere in the Citizen piece do workers express any mystification about why they’re hated; they simply internalized it as fact, no doubt thanks in part to the commentary of guys like Gunter.
“It’s a mark of just what an unreal world civil servants occupy that they believe themselves to be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. And more than that, they believe the rest of us agree with them,” Gunter writes immediately after suggesting public sector workers know they’re disliked, because one guy on a picket line said so.
He complains that these “poor, precious dears” on strike didn’t receive any layoffs during the pandemic — a common theme is this genre.
It’s unfair, however, to compare Gunter’s job to that of a public servant or the people who put the newspaper together. Unlike Gunter, they do actual work.
Citing the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an astroturf lobbying group beloved by the Sun, Gunter writes that 90% of full-time federal public servants received a raise during the pandemic.
Of course they did, because it was in their union contract for 2020, which was agreed upon well before the pandemic hit.
Gunter then pivots to talking about how federal executives received an average of $17,000 in bonuses during the same time frame. By lumping in federal bosses and workers together, Gunter obscures the fact that PSAC is striking against their bosses, not on their behalf.
Gunter criticizes the “ridiculously (obscenely?) [sic] large pay raises” PSAC is requesting, claiming they’re on strike for “up to 10% more a year for the next three years.” Gunter’s writing is so clumsy that I can’t tell whether the parenthetical “obscenely” is a note to the editor that was accidentally left in the piece, or a sad attempt at rhetorical flourish.
Regardless, his cherry-picking the highest monetary demand of all the bargaining units obscures crucial context.
Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) workers, who represent less than a quarter of the workers on strike, initially asked for an average annual wage increase of 6.8%, as well as an immediate one-time 9% increase to close the pay gap with Canada Border Services Agency workers who do the same work and used to be paid the same for it.
On April 19, however, the CRA said the union was asking for a average annual increase of 7.5%, without the one-time pay bump. Gunter, whose column was penned on April 22, used an outdated bargaining position to portray the union as obstinate.
And they’re not asking for the next three years; it’s the previous two years, during which they’ve been without a contract, and this year.
Gunter can’t even get basic facts right about the labour action he reflexively opposes. Par the course.
At the Globe and Mail, Andrew Coyne wrote an anti-union polemic masked by a deceptively neutral-sounding headline, “The federal public servants’ strike is backing Ottawa into a corner.”
Citing Wikipedia, Coyne complains that while in 1991, there was one public servant for every 129 citizens, there’s now one for every 116 citizens, arguing the size of government has gotten out of control.
But there’s a good reason he begins in 1991 and not, say, 1975, when there was one public servant for every 85 citizens, according to the same source he cites. We can go back to 1970 when the public sector was smaller, but even then there was one public servant per 108 Canadians.
He correctly notes that public sector workers are able to push for better wages because “governments face softer budget constraints than private-sector employers” and the “size and militancy of public-sector unions.” Of course, Coyne thinks these are bad things.
He adds that while 75% of public sector workers are unionized, just 14% of private sector workers are. From this, he somehow infers that the labour movement, “far from the struggling industrial working class of old, has increasingly come to represent white-collar civil servants, who make considerably more, on average, than the people who pay their wages.”
Not once does Coyne note the average wage of the striking public sector workers — somewhere in the realm of $40,000 to $65,000 a year, on the lower end of the average private sector salary of $58,800 from 2021, the same year PSAC’s contracts expired.
They’re not exactly living the high life, nor are private sector workers, which is precisely the problem. Their wages have all been eroded by inflation.
“Of course, inflation is as much a consequence of wage hikes as the cause,” Coyne writes. He doesn’t explain why beyond a parenthetical reference to “monetary policy.” That’s the thing with inflation — it’s mystical, which makes it such a convenient tool to justify decreasing wages in practice.
Coyne admits to the fear that PSAC getting what it wants “would act as a baseline for other labour negotiations, public and private.”
He calls the Liberals’ impending anti-scab legislation “a particularly egregious measure: the principle recognized in human-rights law is that you have the right to withdraw your own labour, not someone else’s.”
For Coyne, collective solidarity is an entirely foreign concept. At least we know which side of the picket line he’d be on.
National Post comment editor Carson Jerema has a sticky habit of making a bold claim, providing evidence to the contrary and then concluding with the same claim, evidence be damned. That’s how you worm up the ranks of Postmedia punditry to make the big bucks after being an Edmonton Journal editor.
Reading his recent headline, “Strike shows Liberals have ceded control of government to union bosses,” you could be forgiven for wondering why the workers are on strike.
For Jerema, this question is “puzzling,” which he acknowledges in the column’s first paragraph, since it entirely undermines his predetermined narrative.
Citing an imaginary “average Canadian,” he says PSAC’s demands “surely appear to be somewhere on the spectrum between profligate and unnecessary.”
Thus the union’s request for an annual 4.5% wage increase over three years to prevent their wages being further eroded by inflation becomes a 13.5% “wage hike.”
Jerema’s only response to a proposed premium for anyone expected to work in the evening, which if you recall two-thirds of Canadians support, is a parenthetical “seriously?”
He cites the union’s ask for unconscious bias training, and other diversity and inclusion initiatives as “obviously political activities.” Obvious, because his readership has been primed to think that not being harassed or discriminated against in the workplace is outright Bolshevism.
“Canadians did not vote to put the unions in charge, and yet that is what has happened … Ottawa appears intent on turning everyone into a public sector worker,” he writes, arguing the federal public service has grown at double the rate of the private sector since the Liberals came to power.
Not once does the thought occur to him that perhaps the private sector ought to do a better job attracting workers through offering better wages, benefits and working conditions.
The notion that federal public servants participate in the broader economy is a “delusion,” according to Jerema, which “requires significant mental gymnastics.”
Those who make this argument “believe that government employees spending money at private businesses is a good thing, but actually working at those businesses is not.” I don’t know a single person who thinks this. Maybe Jerema and I hang out with different groups of trade unionists. Or maybe he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ll let the reader decide what’s more likely.
Jerema wraps up by complaining that PSAC’s agenda “need never be voted on in Parliament or debated during an election campaign.”
Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, whose ass Jerema’s mouth is constantly affixed to, might suggest otherwise.
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