Wages that don’t keep up with inflation. Creeping privatization that threatens job security. And managers who force workers back to the office, despite their having worked effectively at home over the pandemic.
These issues—over which federal workers are now on strike—will sound familiar to all Canadians.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada’s (PSAC) strike that began on Wednesday is one of the largest in Canadian history. More than 155,000 of the union’s members—including food inspectors, firefighters, custodians, clerics, cooks, hospital workers, and frontline administrators—have walked off the job.
This is the first time in more than three decades that PSAC members have been pushed to strike at the national level. This diverse coalition of workers—and those in solidarity with them—are now standing tall at picket lines across the country to demand better from an unreasonable boss: Canada’s federal government.
At a time when cost of living is skyrocketing and public services—like hospital care in Ontario—are being handed over to private companies, PSAC’s fight has meaning and urgency for the entire country.
Negotiating not to fall behind
Of the issues uniting these workers to fight back against their employer, the foremost is wages.
Despite an affordability crisis, the federal government is offering PSAC members an average wage increase of just two per cent per year—an effective wage cut given the current rate of inflation is at 4.3 per cent.
“Everybody thinks federal public sector workers are making six figures,” PSAC president Chris Aylward told a picket line in Ottawa on Wednesday. “The majority of PSAC members make between $40,000 and $65,000 a year. When this government represses wages of its own employees, what it’s doing is repressing wages for all workers right across the country.”
Another issue uniting members is pushing back against contracting out and privatization in the federal public service. These practices decrease job security for public servants and cast a shadow over government decision-making. Controversy has erupted over the cozy relationship between the Liberal government and McKinsey—the world’s most secretive and powerful consultancy firm, which has advised opioid manufacturers, tobacco and oil companies, and authoritarian regimes across the globe. McKinsey, which frequently advocates for downsizing workforces and privatizing the public sector, has received almost $120 million in contracts from Canada’s federal government since 2015.
McKinsey is not the only government-caused controversy impacting federal workers. They have also had to deal with ongoing frustrations related to the government’s notorious Phoenix pay system. The system—provided by IBM and originally introduced by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government—has underpaid, overpaid, or not paid more than half of the federal public service workforce. It’s created stress, anxiety, and uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of federal workers stuck in limbo. Members want to be able to move on from this nightmare but the federal government continues to drag its feet fixing the mess.
The union is also calling for mandatory training to address systemic racism, discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The federal government has rejected this proposal. Despite an internal government survey that found more than half of respondents weren’t satisfied with how complaints about racism were resolved, the government still says that the current resources available to employees are enough.
This response is emblematic of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which too often strikes an anti-racist pose without any intention of doing real work to address systematic racism.
The struggle for greater autonomy
Lastly, securing the right to remote work is a key issue for many striking members. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of thousands of public servants were directed to shift their entire work life to their homes. This often required purchasing office equipment, dedicating part of their home to work, and sometimes even moving out of the city core so they had space to work. These workers proved that they could work effectively from home and continued to deliver much-needed federal programs to Canadians over the course of the pandemic.
Despite this, the government has unilaterally imposed a return-to-work policy requiring workers to come into the office two to three days a week. They have justified the policy by saying that “working together in person supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging.” This mushy appeal to the importance of “team spirit” is a cover for their real reason: they want more control over their employees.
As economist Adam D.K. King has noted, remote work is a site of struggle in the fight for control over workers’ autonomy. The strength of an employer’s grip in the workplace is commensurate with their workers’ lack of freedom: any gain in autonomy for the worker is a loss of power for the boss. In this way, PSAC members’ fight to secure the right to remote work connects with the broader labour movement’s struggle to win more autonomy for workers.
Back-to-work legislation looms
It’s unclear how heavy-handed the federal government’s next moves will be. Liberals claim to respect workers yet they have repeatedly used back-to-work legislation to undermine their ability to go on strike. In 2018, faced with the supposed “emergency” of a Canadian Union of Postal Workers strike, they legislated them back to work. The Liberals did the same thing when the port workers of Montreal went on strike in 2021—despite the fact that in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that workers had a constitutional right to strike.
Over the last 70 years, federal and provincial governments have used this legislative tool to end over 147 labour conflicts, the most recent being Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s attempt to force the province’s education workers back to their jobs.
As the leader of a minority government, Trudeau would need the support of either the New Democrats or Conservatives to pass back-to-work legislation. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has said unequivocally that he will not support the Liberals if they table such legislation. Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has kept quiet so far but he has a well-known history of attacking workers’ rights.
When it comes to workers asserting their rights, more unites the Liberals and Conservatives than divides them. Trudeau’s desire to force public servants back to work without a fair deal may be enough that he will partner with Poilievre—a man who has built his brand by insulting Trudeau. Similarly, Poilievre’s animosity toward workers may be so strong that he would help Trudeau pass this legislation.
Public servants part of a broader fight
Wages have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living not only for federal public servants, but for workers everywhere. In contract negotiations spanning the country, workers have had to fight employers tooth and nail for every cent they deserve. Even the Ontario education workers—who led a historic mass mobilization to overturn anti-worker legislation this fall—still only managed to win a 3.6-per-cent wage increase per year. This increase is more than any other public sector union has been able to negotiate with the Ontario government and it still falls below inflation.
Privatization continues to spread across the public sector, from the program administrator who’s replaced by a McKinsey consultant to the nurse who’s pressured to leave their hospital for a private surgery clinic. The expansion of for-profit businesses into every area of our lives only worsens working conditions and social outcomes for the working class.
And bosses everywhere—from the federal government to Elon Musk—order their employees back to the office in an attempt to decrease worker autonomy. For the employers of the world, the fact that their employees are producing what’s asked of them is not enough, they also require control. Control over where their employees work, when they work and what they wear to work.
‘Enough is enough’
While the politicians scheme behind the scenes, it’s crucial that striking PSAC members know that public support is behind them as they continue to fight for a contract at the negotiating table. The recent strike by the Ontario education workers showed how decisive this public support can be in forcing the government’s hand.
As the Industrial Workers of the World rightly asserted more than 100 years ago: an injury to one is an injury to all. This sentiment has never been more relevant than it is today. In the United Kingdom, workers have come together through the Enough is Enough campaign, which has in turn energized the launch of Ontario’s own version of this campaign. In France, unions have organized massive general strikes over the raising of the pension age.
PSAC members are joining this international chorus of workers. They are on the picket lines fighting for fair wages and worker autonomy, and against racism, discrimination, and privatization in the workplace. As the strike continues, it is incumbent on people to support the struggle in whatever way they can—whether that means posting a selfie, calling a Member of Parliament or joining a picket line.
PSAC members’ issues are workers’ issues, and a win for them could be a win for the entire working class.
Parts of this article originally appeared in Spring Magazine.