Making Sense of One of the Largest Strikes in Canadian History

Early on the morning of May 1, 2023, the leadership of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) announced a tentative agreement with the Treasury Board of Canada, ending one of the largest strikes in Canadian history, which began on April 19. This was only the third time that federal workers have staged a nationwide strike (once in 1991, then again in 2004).

The tentative agreement covered 120,000 of the 155,000 workers who went on strike, leaving 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers still out on strike. The issues at stake were issues that affect a wide swath of Canadians far beyond the federal public sector: eroding wages, control over working conditions, subcontracting, family leave, and more.

It took two years of negotiating and nearly two weeks out on strike to get the federal government to come to a tentative agreement. As I write this, details are hard to come by, but the highlights provided suggest that the Treasury Board did move somewhat from what until a few days ago it was insisting was its “final offer.” 

The announced wage increases of 12.6 percent over four years fall short of inflation, and are considerably less than PSAC’s initial proposal of 13.6 percent over three years. The tentative agreement sweetens the compensation package with a lump sum payment of $2,500, which can be applied towards workers pension credits, but is no substitute for a wage increase.

On a more positive note, PSAC has won limited ability to negotiate over remote work, after years of management insisting that it retains unilateral authority over that issue. However, these policies remain outside the collective bargaining agreement with limited enforcement capacity. Still, this could set the stage for more expanded bargaining over remote work in the future. It also appears that PSAC has made important progress on job security and shift premiums, limits on subcontracting, and accommodations for Indigenous workers. 

While recognizing the apparent gains in the tentative agreement, it is concerning that PSAC leadership decided to end the strike without first giving members a chance to read and discuss the tentative agreement. This is important to ensure that members have a meaningful say in a contract that will govern their work lives for the next two years. It is also unclear where this tentative agreement leaves the 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers also on strike, who now risk being more isolated and in a weaker bargaining position. 

Those concerns notwithstanding, it is clear that the improvements won after such a protracted negotiation process would not have been possible without workers exercising their right to strike. Additionally, the Treasury Board’s unwillingness to do more to address federal workers’ issues risks undermining the work that the Trudeau government has done over the past several years to burnish its pro-labour reputation.

Over the eleven days of the strike, I was called on to provide commentary on the strike and its implications in various media outlets. I include below in reverse chronological order links to the extended interviews for which there is audio and video available.

  • April 29, 2023 interview with ICI RDI (in French/en français):
  • April 26, 2023 interview with Kristy Cameron of Ottawa Now, CFRA 580 (segment from 17:15 to 23:40)
  • April 24, 2023 interview with Patricia Boal of Ottawa at Work, CFRA 580 (segment from 19:36 to 29:43)
  • April 21, 2023 interview with CTV News Top Three Tonight 
  • April 21, 2023 interview with Mike Farwell on Mike Farwell Show, CityNews 570 (segment begins at 20:20)
  • April 20, 2023 interview with Kristy Cameron of Ottawa Now, CFRA 580 (segment from 14:00 to 23:14)
  • April 19, 2023 interview with Yvette Brend of CBC News

I’ll provide an update when more details on the contract language are available. In the meantime, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the most important thing about the tentative agreement is what PSAC members themselves think about it.

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