PSAC on Strike: A View from Edmonton
“The cost of groceries, the cost of gasoline — all of that’s going up but our paycheques aren’t."
If you went to the Canada Place building in downtown Edmonton on April 19, you witnessed public sector workers of all ages, races, gender identities and abilities united in their desire to stop inflation’s erosion of their pay as part of one of the largest labour disruptions in Canadian history.
This was one of six locations in Alberta’s capital where the city’s portion of the 155,000 Public Sector Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers across the country gathered for their first day of strike action.
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The bulk of these workers — 120,000 nationwide — work under the aegis of the Treasury Board of Canada. They’ve been without a contract for two years and are asking for a 4.5% wage increase per year retroactive to 2021, when their last contract expired.
The government’s initial offer was 2% per year, hence the “2% is for milk” placards some workers wore around their necks.
In February, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board suggested a compromise of 3% each year, which the government reluctantly endorsed two days ago.
Inflation, as it stands, is at 4.3% after reaching a peak of 8.1% in June 2022. Since negotiations on a new contract began in June 2021, inflation has averaged 5.75%, so a 4.5% increase per year is still a cut.
Canada Revenue Agency workers, who are also represented by PSAC, are asking for a more ambitious 7.5% annual increase, but they represent a fraction of the workers on strike.
None of these workers are the public sector fat cats of the right-wing imagination.
The workers on the picket lines aren’t on any provincial sunshine list. They’re working class — the front-line staff at our Service Canada centres. They’re workers who make our passports, issue unemployment cheques, help our veterans and work at our ports, bases and defence facilities.
These 155,000 workers with the Public Service Alliance of Canada are mostly women making what StatCan would call an average salary of $40,000 to $65,000 per year. They live in federal swing ridings all over the country. They’re “feeling squeezed alongside everyone else,” [said PSAC president Chris Alyward.]
(Disclosure: Hassum is an Orchard founding member.)
Keegan Gibson, a strike captain with the PSAC-affiliated Union of Taxation Employees, said public sector workers, “like a lot of people in Canada, [are] falling further and further behind.”
“We’re all feeling the pinch of rising prices and just trying to have households and live everyday, ordinary lives as Canadians,” he said in an interview from the picket line.
Like every interview I conducted for this piece, Gibson’s was interrupted by periodic honks of support from vehicles passing by.
Caitlin Fortier, who has processed pension and EI payments with Service Canada for almost eight years, told The Orchard that “with inflation what it is, the amount my wages have degraded over the years is extremely stressful.”
“We would not be here if we didn’t need to be,” she added.
Brenda Todd, a team leader for EI payment processors, has worked for the government for 28 years. She last went on strike in 2004 when she worked in Nelson, B.C.
“The cost of groceries, the cost of gasoline — all of that’s going up but our paycheques aren’t,” Todd said. “Our paycheques just aren’t stretching the way they used to.”
A couple blocks away from Canada Place, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) workers picketed outside the Edmonton Parole Office.
The rights of correctional workers provide a bit of a conundrum for progressives who staunchly support workers rights but take a more critical, if not adversarial, view of our carceral system.
However, one can critique the system while agreeing that some of those who work within it deserve a living wage. Although they help uphold the system, these aren’t the people who are actively locking away racialized and impoverished people for minor offences.
Erin Hughes, who helps people who are out on parole develop life skills, was one of the 5% of CSC workers permitted to join the picket line outside the parole office at a time, since corrections is considered essential work. She wore a masquerade mask with feathers in it while waving a flag of streamers in each hand, no doubt to draw attention to the cause.
She noted that whatever deal PSAC can get, its workers will set the bar for provincial employee unions.
“They’re watching us,” she said. “[We’re] setting that Canadian standard to pull everybody up.”
Hughes, a mother of three, was one of the federal employees who was underpaid by the troubled Phoenix payroll system for seven years, which pushed her into massive debt.
If the workers get their 13.5% cumulative raise, those extra funds are going to pay off these debts.
“If you look back at 1914, we could send guys off to the war and we made sure they got their paycheques. We still made sure the women at home didn’t starve. But our federal employees hand out CERB and all of a sudden we can’t even get our paycheques,” Hughes said.
While the Phoenix pay system hasn’t been a major issue in negotiations between the government and PSAC, its failures linger.
As usual with labour disputes, it’s easy for monetary demands to overshadow broader issues of working conditions, which are harder to quantify.
Chief among them is a desire for flexibility regarding remote work. When the pandemic hit in what feels like a lifetime ago, public sector workers dutifully took their work home in the name of public health.
Now Treasury Board president Mona Fortier says federal public servants must work at least two or three days a week at the workplace, regardless of whether the work can be done adequately from home.
The government said allowing employees to work from home “would limit its ability to effectively manage employees within the public service." In other words, it’s about control.
“We’d like the terms of our work to be subject to negotiation, not dictation,” Gibson said.
He said this ask is especially important for workers who were hired during the pandemic. “People were hired into that reality and now they’re told that the reality they agreed to when they signed on as new employees is changing,” said Gibson.
Nicole Akhenak is a parole officer and president of her PSAC-affiliated Union of Safety and Justice Employees local.
She said she wasn’t thrilled about having to invite people convicted of serious crimes into her home, or visit them in the privacy of their homes, during the pandemic.
“I supervise lifers; they’ve committed murder. I supervise sex offenders. I supervise violent offenders. I supervise drug dealers and drug users. I put myself at risk,” Akhenak said from the parole office picket line.
But, she emphasized, workers ought to be consulted on the extent to which they can work from home. “Some of us really enjoyed it and embraced it,” Akhenak added. Their preferences ought to be taken into account during negotiations.
Correctional Service Canada, her employer, started taking attendance for its workers, like they’re in grade school, in the days leading up to the strike.
“I signed off on values and ethics. I’ve been a federal employee for 19 years and now you want me to take attendance,” Akhenak said. “It’s a little bit insulting.”
Closely related to remote work, another key non-monetary concern for the striking public servants is work-life balance, especially for those who spend hours every day commuting from the suburbs.
Workers are also seeking enhanced diversity and inclusion measures in the workplace, such as enhanced education and more support for workers facing harassment or discrimination.
Fortier, the pension and EI processor, said she’s fortunate to have a supportive direct supervisor, who’s also a PSAC member, but noted that often isn’t the case.
“Most of the support I’ve seen is from my fellow workers and us taking care of each other, but I’ve been hearing a lot from people that if they do have a problem and they try to go through human resources … they hit a wall,” she said.
PSAC is also asking for Indigenous employees to get up to five paid days off to engage in traditional practices like hunting, fishing and harvesting, and a $1,500 annual bonus for workers fluent in an Indigenous language.
The federal Liberals have sent mixed messages toward organized labour.
On the one hand, the 2023 budget promises the introduction of anti-scab legislation by the year’s end and companies wanting to qualify for the full amount of green energy subsidies outlined in the budget will have to pay union-level wages.
Yet they’ve forced striking workers back to work twice during their tenure in power — an implicit threat looming over this labour dispute.
“They support us when it’s convenient for their messaging purposes, but when it comes time to pull out the cheque book, they’re a little hesitant for some reason,” Fortier said.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said PSAC needs to return to the negotiations “right now.”
“The reality is Canadians have every right and expectation to see the services that they expect delivered," he added.
Hughes, back at the parole centre, said Trudeau’s advocacy for public sector workers’ wage restraint provides a sharp contrast with the $165,000 vacation to Jamaica he was recently revealed to have taken during the winter.
“I’d like to see border services not let him in, but that’s just me,” she said.
Among the sea of public sector workers at Canada Place were supporters who aren’t on strike themselves but came to show their solidarity.
Brian Gregg, a local busker, came by with his guitar to play some music for the striking workers and add “some energy” into their picketing.
The Orchard spoke to him before he busted into a slide guitar rendition of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” — one of the most instantly recognizable songs out there.
“We have a mean economy and it’s based on cheap labour and low taxes. I don’t like it. We need a caring economy, where we have reasonable wages for people so they can live comfortably enough to enjoy their lives,” said Gregg.
Chantal Dorais, a library assistant at the Capilano library, is a member of Civic Service Union (CSU) 52, which represents library administrative staff and city workers who have been without a contract since 2020.
She said she was returning the favour after federal employees showed up to rallies for CSU 52 last year, noting their common cause of wages that keep pace with inflation and work-life balance.
“We all need a little solidarity these days,” Dorais said, adding that she expects to see more labour disruption in the coming years.
“Given how connected everyone is these days, you can see the dominoes falling and everyone’s getting on board. As workers, the only power we have is our labour.”
Gibson, the strike captain, said he was heartened by the outside show of support.
“There’s always some trepidation when you’re going to come and put yourself out here like this, but the support has been overwhelming and it’s been fantastic. It just shows that the issues that we’re here to represent resonates with people,” he said. “We’ve all been through the same three years.”
Edited by Scott Schmidt