A deadlock in negotiations between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the federal government led to the union taking strike action starting on Monday, April 17th, affecting 54 people from the Statistics Canada office in Sturgeon Falls. Those striking are public sector workers under the Treasury Board, including Senior Interviewers (Supervisors) and project manager positions. The strike has now entered its second week, and for most of those 54 local workers, actually attending a picket line wasn’t so simple until now.
When the strike began, many of workers were deemed essential based on the nature of their job and were given a designation code, code 1 being the most essential and code 3, the least essential. According to an online FAQ put out by the PSAC, “Employees designated as essential are not able to participate fully during a strike because the removal of their essential duties could endanger the safety or security of the public. Some examples include certain functions performed by border services officers, firefighters, and members who process pay for Canadians.” At the local Statistics Canada office, 45 of the 54 striking workers were deemed essential, so many never saw a picket line until Tuesday, April 25th.
A source within the Statistics Canada office shared a message from their employer sent on the eve of the strike, which states: “As mentioned below from Central Region’s Director if a strike is called this evening, you are deemed an essential staff on LFS or CPI. You will be expected to work tomorrow on your previously scheduled shift for the duration of LFS and or CPI collection.” The LFS (Labour Force Survey) is a mandatory survey that is used to collect important labour market data. However, it’s not clear that fits the description of safety or security to the public outlined in the description of services deemed essential. The source says that everyone was called in to work on LFS, regardless of their essential worker code, adding that while they were working in a limited capacity, they were also taking a 25% reduction in their pay.
With the LFS collection now finished, the local workers are now picketing in North Bay in front of the Service Canada and CRA building, at 107 Shirreff Ave. They are joined by other North Bay and Nipissing area workers from various components of the PSAC. Ken Bovair, president of Local 635 Union of National Defense Employees, was designated as the media relations person for the strikers who are in North Bay.
On the 3rd day of the strike, Bovair mentioned also being concerned about the calling-in of essential workers. “There are some concerns within the union that we see it as an attempt to strike-bust by abusing the call-in, because those circumstances that they’re allowed to be called-in on are somewhat specific. It’s not just to [say] ‘oh they’re essential, so we called them in,’” he stated, adding that even within his union there were some questions about the circumstances in which their workers being deemed essential.
He went on to explain that there is a priority to call in Code 1 workers first, and that Code 2 and 3 workers should only be called to work if there is an emergency requiring all staff, or to replace someone who is missing. Bovair admitted that the essential worker agreements are drawn up at a higher level, and that he is not privy to the specific circumstances for Statistics Canada’s employees being called in as essential. However, he did say it’s hard for him to believe that at the time they were into a “3-day emergency.”
Statistics Canada did respond to the question of why so many people from the local office were held back from striking. In a statement they said: “As the majority of administrative, supervisory and management employees reporting into the Sturgeon Falls office are involved in data collection activities for the Labour Force survey, their duties must continue during labour disruptions in order to ensure that the program can continue. These essential employees supervise a team of 300+ interviewers in an operational environment covering multiple shifts over a 10-day period. To clarify the essential designation, employees under a code 1 can be called in to work on a full-time basis, while employees working under a code 3 can be called in to work only as required on the essential programs. Given the LFS spans over a 10-day period, employees that are both under a code 1 and 3 were scheduled and called to work to ensure the successful delivery of the program.” They also clarify that “employees designated as essential are done so through a formal process […] negotiated with PSAC. Those positions are not unilaterally determined by the employer.”
To help put it into perspective, Bovair explained that of the 45 members of his local, only 10 were deemed essential. “I’m in a management position up on the base, and I was not even deemed code 3,” he added, and brought up that CRA employees are also on strike and are not being deemed essential during such a crucial time as the tax season. A document from the Treasury Board does state that the CRA has approximately 1,400 workers deemed essential, but that is still a small portion of their 39,000 total workers in a strike position. For the rest of the approximately 120,000 workers in this strike, the same document states that 46,000 were deemed essential. “The idea of a strike is that we’re trying to show the type of work that public servants do, and the impact when we walk off the job. So, I appreciate that their survey is important, but so is dealing in a fair manner in collective bargaining with your employees,” Bovair said.
The main sticking point in negotiations is the wage increase sought by PSAC and that offered by the federal government. “Treasury Board’s insulting wage offer — averaging 2.06% per year from 2021–25 — is completely out of touch with the soaring cost of living across Canada and asks workers to take a big pay cut when they need a raise most,” reads their online FAQ on the strike. On April 24th, Hon. Mona Fortier, P.C., M.P. and President of the Treasury Board, issued an open letter to public servants and Canadians. The letter touched on the wage issue, as well as other important issues which had all been part of the last offer proposed earlier this month. “We proposed an increase of 9% over three years, which would provide the average employee with an extra $6,250. This offer matches the recommendations of the third-party Public Interest Commission (PIC), which were endorsed by the PSAC’s nominee on the Commission. This is higher than our original offer and it compares well with similar agreements being established across Canada, including some recently signed by employees represented by the PSAC in other jurisdictions. What’s more, we also agreed to a signing bonus for every member,” reads the letter.
The most recent offer from the government came following recommendations from a Public Interest Commission which was established in January and was “mandated by the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board to assist the parties in coming to an agreement,” reads a document provided by the Treasury Board. The PIC delivered its recommendations in February.
However, according to Ken Bovair, the offer that followed those recommendations was made far too late. “We came back to the bargaining table in early-April, but they were still proposing somewhere around 2% per year at that point. It was not until just around the time the strike vote wrapped up, and the deadline was given, that we started to hear they were prepared to offer what the PIC had recommended,” he explains. The strike vote had begun in February and didn’t end until April 11th, and Bovair asserts that the government had all that time to come back with a reasonable offer, in-line with PIC recommendations. “My take is that had they bargained in good faith after the PIC, we could have avoided this whole thing. The union may not have gotten totally what we were asking for, but had they started the bargaining based on that 3% per year over 3 years, then we quite possibly wouldn’t be in this situation,” he says, calling the government’s delaying of that offer “bad faith bargaining.”
Our Statistics Canada source is not pleased that it’s taking strike action to secure a wage increase. They mention that it is frustrating to see MPs get pay raises all while hearing local community members call the “public service entitled for asking 13%,” referring to the 4.5% per year increase the PSAC is demanding for 2021, 2022 and 2023 (13.5% cumulative). However, according to information documents, the Treasury Board argues their proposal of a 9% cumulative increase is in-line with other agreements reached in 2021 with other bargaining units, with actual inflation rates from previous years, and with the Bank of Canada projection that rate will fall to only 3% by mid-2023.