Canada’s Federal Workers Strike Over R.T.O. and Pay
OTTAWA — Canadians faced a variety of delays and disruptions on Wednesday after the largest union of federal government workers went on strike over a variety of contract issues, including wages and remote work.
Nearly 111,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, who work largely in administrative, clerical and maintenance roles, took to picket lines at about 250 locations across the country.
The union also includes another roughly 44,000 members who are considered essential workers, like firefighters and prison guards, and are not legally allowed to strike.
The walkout was expected to create backlogs at border crossings with the United States, slow cargo entering Canada and cause delays in the issuing of visas and the handling unemployment insurance, as well as prolong the processing of passport applications, pension payments and military veterans’ benefits.
The walkout was also expected to disrupt the processing of income tax returns that are due May 1 and may hinder the issuing of refunds.
Several cabinet ministers warned that large application backlogs may develop in their departments if the strike continued for an extended period.
The effort by union members to press for greater work-from-home flexibility reflects a broader global debate over employment practices that were upended by the pandemic. Even as the pandemic recedes, the issue of how many days workers should be in the office has raised tensions between employers and employees in the public and private sectors.
In the United States, federal agencies have been asked to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work” and provide timelines for their return-to-office plans, according to an April 13 memo from the White House to department and agency heads. It stopped short of imposing a deadline.
In Canada, the pandemic had already put many services under strain, particularly the issuing of passports.
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But the strikers do not include members of the military, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and many other essential federal government operations. And many programs that affect Canadians on a regular basis, like health care and education, are the responsibility of the country’s provinces.
Some striking workers have complained that their wages have not kept up with an increase in prices triggered by the pandemic, higher interest rates and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This government is on record of saying we have a world class public service,” Chris Aylward, the president of the federal workers union, said in animated remarks from a picket line on Parliament Hill, as protesters cheered behind him. “That’s no good for our members. Our members can’t bring that to the bank.”
The government said the union had to soften its demands to resolve the disagreements between the two sides.
Mona Fortier, the cabinet minister who heads the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, the department that handles labor negotiations, said the goal was to reach an agreement that was “fair and competitive, but we cannot do that unless the union is prepared to compromise.”
“We cannot write a blank check,” she added.
The government is currently offering a cumulative wage increase of 9 percent that would be spread over three years. For most of its members, the union is seeking raises that would total 13.5 percent over the same period. A branch of the union that includes workers at the Canada Revenue Agency, the tax collector, is seeking a 22.5 percent increase over three years.
One of the most contentious issues is the future of remote work. Public servants had been working remotely since start of the pandemic in 2020, but as of March 31 they have been required to be in their offices or other workplaces two to three days a week.
The union wants all of its members to have the option of permanently working from home.
On a picket line at the entrance to a large government office complex in Ottawa, the capital, Alexander Saikhov, who works at the tax agency, carried a sign that read, “Telework is a RIGHT, not a PRIVILEGE.”
“We’ve proven that we can work from home as effectively and efficiently as from the office,” Mr. Saikhov said. “What it comes down to in the end is fewer greenhouse gas emissions, it’s less commuting time, it’s better quality of life for workers.”
Mr. Saikhov said he goes into the office three days a week, but that most of the group he works with is spread throughout the province of Ontario and is still working remotely.
Nearby, Wendy Baker, an art conservator for the Department of Canadian Heritage, said she was striking to support lower paid members of her union struggling to make ends meet, as well as those who have built child care and other domestic plans around working from home. Ms. Baker said the nature of her laboratory-based job does not make working from home feasible.
“I’m supporting my colleagues who do have real grievances,” she said. “I would be happy to see this settled as quickly as possible because nobody wants to be on strike.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday “that Canadians will not be too patient if it goes on too long,” but declined to discuss specific issues dividing the two sides outside of the bargaining table.
Mr. Trudeau can order the union back to work through legislation, but may not have the support in Parliament to pass such a motion. The leader of one of the parties that Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government usually works with to pass laws has already rejected supporting any legislation to end the strike.
The walkout in Canada follows a wave of public sector labor unrest in Britain this year that was also fueled by inflation’s effects on wages and by general discontent over employment conditions.
Vjosa Isai contributed reporting from Toronto.