7. 15. 2023

Skipping the Strike Vote, But Going to the Picket Lines

Brian McDougall

In April, 155,000 federal public servants, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), conducted the largest strike by a single union in Canadian history. Whether the two-week strike was a victory, and what it means for the rest of the labour movement, is a matter of debate.

Aspects of the PSAC strike appear profoundly contradictory. The five new contracts that resulted from the strike failed to win the key improvements that had been sought: wage levels to offset inflation and a contractual right to remote work. And yet, when the ratification vote was completed six weeks after the strike, all five contracts were accepted by large margins, ranging from 87% to 97%. Also puzzling, PSAC members in the four bargaining units negotiating with the Treasury Board participated in very small numbers during the initial strike vote (35%), but turned out in very large numbers (more than 80%) for the picket lines. 

Sorting through these apparent contradictions is critical if labour activists and socialists are to draw appropriate conclusions from the strike. 


Wages and remote work

When negotiations began in June 2021, PSAC demanded a three-year contract (to June 2024) with annual wage increases of 4.5%. The inflation rate at that time was 3.0%. However, a year into the talks, the inflation rate had more than doubled. Despite that development, the contract PSAC members accepted is a four-year deal (to June 2025) giving them a 12.6% wage increase (compounded). As such, it barely exceeds the 10% rise in the cost of living during the past two years. The employer sweetened the deal a bit with a signing bonus of $2500, but unless inflation remains very low for the next two years, PSAC members will experience a real wage cut of unknown magnitude.

The other key issue in negotiations was remote work. For the past three years, federal public servants, operational and technical workers excepted, had worked from home. In December 2022, the Trudeau government announced a return-to-work policy requiring staff to be in the office two or three days per week. Fully implemented by April, the new policy intensified those workers’ demands for contractual language covering the right to work remotely. Three years of working from home, with improved work-life balance and reduced work-related costs (transportation, clothing, lunches) – which helped to offset inflation – made winning the right to remote work a top priority for many PSAC members. The government’s refusal to negotiate the issue provoked considerable anger and resentment among public servants.

Instead of contract-based rights, the new agreement gives a PSAC member whose request to work remotely has been denied by their manager a non-grievable process of appeal to higher levels of management. While PSAC will be consulted, the final decision remains securely in the hands of the employer.

In short, the strike does not appear to have been a victory. A contract that will lower the real wages of public servants, increase their work-related costs, and leave management’s power over remote work intact can hardly be called a success.


Opposition to the contracts

Despite the strong ratification votes, it is clear many PSAC members were angered by the outcome. When the strike ended, there was hot debate and frequent denunciations of the deal on the Reddit page many federal public servants use to discuss such issues. The national executive of the 36,000 member Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), one of the component unions in PSAC, even went so far as to condemn the new contract. Pointing to many of their members’ opposition to the deal, the CEIU executive initially called for a vote against a contract that would erode wages and give workers only a right to appeal to “the good will of the employer” in disputes over remote work.

Sadly, the CEIU leadership’s intervention ended there. They made no attempt to build a campaign of opposition, nor did they suggest a new strike strategy to win a better deal. Rank-and-file opponents of the contract were left without union leadership assistance.

As in the past, PSAC directed its members to return to work prior to releasing all the details about the proposed agreement and before giving members a chance to vote on it. In fact, PSAC leaders waited 24 days to initiate a three-week ratification vote, counting on 46 days spent away from the picket lines to deflate support for resuming the strike.  

Thus, the high level of apparent support for the new contracts is misleading. A portion of the acceptance vote was likely a sigh of resignation, one shaped by PSAC’s recent history.


Loss of militant memory, and a union’s damaged credibility

Three decades of neoliberal governments, which have frequently made use of back-to-work legislation, and two strikes aborted by PSAC leadership, in 2001 and 2004, eliminated the workplace organizations PSAC members had built from the bottom up during the union’s 1980 clerks’ strike and 1991 general strike. The generation of militants created back then is long gone. Retirements, mass layoffs (45,000 in 1995-97 and 26,000 in 2010-15), the computerization of much office work, and the Trudeau government’s recent hiring spree (35,000 jobs) means the federal government’s workforce has been recomposed since the last big strike.

Most of PSAC’s current members had not experienced a prolonged PSAC strike prior to 2023. There have been hardly any occasions for prospective militants to step forward, prove themselves in a strike, assume leadership, and rebuild workplace organization. Unlike previous generations of new entrants into the union, the current one has not often had the opportunity to learn from strike-tested workmates (shop stewards, local leaders). The disappearance of living memory about what it takes to wage a successful strike, while fighting both the government and conservative union leaders, is a serious problem for public service militants.

Another problem is how, in recent years, the union’s credibility has been profoundly damaged by displays of powerlessness in the face of outrageous violations of the collective agreement by the employer. In 2016, for example, the Trudeau government adopted Phoenix, a new electronic pay system. Since then, every two weeks, thousands of public servants have found themselves overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all – producing an avalanche of workers’ claims for corrective action. In March 2023, there were still 411,000 files open. 

For seven years, Phoenix has driven down the morale of public servants, their financial problems and insecurity ignored by their employer. As PSAC President Chris Aylward explained, “Every paycheque is a reminder that this government is unable to pay its workers correctly or on time. In fact, since Phoenix was launched in 2016, there hasn’t been a single pay period without significant errors. Not one.” 

What Aylward did not admit was that Phoenix also destroyed the credibility of his union. If an employer is permitted to violate the contract, every two weeks, for many years, without a proportionate union response (periodic rotating strikes, for example), it undermines the very principle of trade unionism. Nobody needs a union for the privilege of being violated by their employer every two weeks.

PSAC’s response to Phoenix – public statements, legal proceedings, and occasional protest rallies – demonstrated the union’s irrelevance to most members. In July 2020, PSAC “settled” its Phoenix complaint by accepting $2500 payments for each member, to compensate for Phoenix-related suffering and hardship. Meanwhile, the broken pay system continued (and continues) to victimize people. 

Despite their pre-strike anger towards the employer, PSAC members had little faith in their union. That partially explains the very low turnout for the strike vote. Although 65% of the 120,000 Treasury Board employees did not participate in the strike vote, most of them joined the picket lines. In other words, they gave PSAC the benefit of the doubt.


The 2023 strike

A question remains about whether PSAC’s conduct of the recent strike somehow restored its credibility, despite the contractual outcome. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe PSAC members are now more likely to view their union as a serious means for addressing problems with the employer. 

Although handed the best opportunity to make serious gains in decades – a Liberal minority government, dependent upon NDP support, with a diminished opportunity to use back-to-work legislation – the PSAC leadership felt little pressure from below. Listening to the PSAC president promise, at the start of the strike, that the union would “try to have the least impact on Canadians as possible,” you might even wonder whether the leadership intentionally shied away from a more robust strike strategy, nervous about the potential for radicalization that’s always present when large numbers of workers experience their collective power.

Unlike most PSAC members, Aylward remembers the 1991 general strike. He was a PSAC communications officer at the time, one of the union staff responsible for justifying PSAC President Daryl Bean’s decision to suspend the strike after 12 days, supposedly to encourage the Mulroney government to negotiate without preconditions. Bean’s decision was intended to cool down a surprisingly militant membership. The lesson was not lost on Aylward: there is always the threat of losing control over members during a strike. 

Aylward’s conservative strike strategy this spring was particularly evident in Ottawa-Gatineau. Instead of directing the 30-40,000 Ottawa-Gatineau strikers to picket every major workplace, with the goal of inflicting maximum disruption, PSAC picketed only nine sites, half of them with no disruptive value. When major workplaces were targeted, like Place du Portage in Gatineau, picketers usually made no attempt to close the building.

Thus, the kind of militant, often illegal picketing characteristic of the 1991 strike was not replicated. Back then, PSAC’s picketing was so effective that merchants inside the gigantic Place du Portage complex sought injunctions to limit it. In 2023, picket captains at the Portage complex met only once during the strike. They were told strike strategy was being determined at national headquarters and that they should focus on keeping picketers off the street for safety reasons. One Gatineau picket captain described the picketing as “toothless” compared to management’s extensive planning for how to cope with anticipated union efforts to bar entry to his workplace. In his view, the 2023 strike “gave the employer every reason to discount the union’s ability to wage an ‘impactful’ strike.”

The outstanding features of the 1991 strike in Ottawa-Gatineau – the occupation of a cabinet minister’s office, invasions of Treasury Board headquarters by strikers, pickets so strong that large police contingents were required to open buildings, Parliament Hill demonstrations so menacing the RCMP riot squad was brought in – had no counterpart in 2023. If there was one really notable positive innovation during this spring’s strike, it came not from PSAC but from members of the normally conservative Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE). In Ottawa-Gatineau, dozens of members from the recently formed CAPE Solidarity Caucus (CSC) joined the PSAC picket lines. When, days after PSAC’s strike ended, CAPE announced its tentative acceptance of the same contract, the CSC took an unprecedented step. All too familiar with CAPE’s traditional strategy – refuse to strike, wait for PSAC to make contract gains, and then appeal to an arbitrator for parity with PSAC – CSC members decided to campaign inside their union for CAPE’s entire strike fund to be donated to PSAC if the latter resumed its strike.   

PSAC’s picket lines in the rest of the country were more effective than those in Ottawa-Gatineau, especially after PSAC’s decision on the strike’s fifth day to escalate towards some disruption. Outside Ottawa-Gatineau, where PSAC picket lines were smaller and perhaps more controllable by the union leadership, PSAC targeted airports, bridges, ports, and border crossings – albeit to slow normal activity rather than shut things down completely as in 1991. Back then, major airports had to pause operations, grain shipments ceased, and canals and parks closed. Picketing effectiveness at border crossings forced General Motors to slow production due to a shortage of parts. Even prison guards, supposed upholders of the state’s order, began refusing to cross picket lines.


Glimmers of possibility

Even though many PSAC members did not view their union as the solution to their workplace issues before this year’s strike, large numbers joined the picket lines when the union appeared serious about confronting the government. (Strike pay was not the motivating factor, since many PSAC members could have made more by scabbing from the safety of their homes.) That is an important reminder that despite a history of defeats and three years of pandemic isolation, the potential for workers to re-engage in collective struggle has not been extinguished. 

What pushed PSAC members to the picket lines, after so many ignored the strike vote, was not an overnight conversion to the value of PSAC. Rather, driven by the whip of inflation and anger against an abusive employer, tens of thousands of federal public servants conditionally followed their union onto the picket lines to see if the union route could work. The broad discontent over the contract results suggests PSAC failed to convince many members of the value of their union. 

In past PSAC strikes in the national capital, the need to organize effective pickets at dozens of locations required local activists from the same government building to self-organize, problem-solve, and recruit new people into the work of winning the strike. That was how the grassroots organization of the union was periodically rebuilt. Unfortunately, the 2023 pickets in the national capital never even brought PSAC members from the same building together. It will take more and better strike experience, with some clear-cut victories, to rebuild PSAC from the bottom-up, creating the local-level self-organization needed to win future strikes.

PSAC lefties should use the next three years to find each other, network, and prepare for a future strike. Other dissidents can be located through PSAC’s Regional Councils, and at the 2023 conventions of the component unions. Once linked, activists need to discuss future circumvention of PSAC’s limited picket line tactics and reflect on the strategic implications of fighting both the union and the employer at the same time. Since there are few recent Canadian examples of rank-and-file workers acting independently of union officials, PSAC activists need to study the best moments from the history of their own union (the 1980 and 1991 strikes, for example). Discussing the lessons of recent labour experience found in left union publications (Rank and File and Labor Notes, among others) will also assist when caucusing and developing ideas for future action.

The PSAC strike does not signal the end of the long neoliberal downturn in levels of working-class militancy and confidence. However, it reminds us of the complex, contradictory experience and consciousness of rank-and-file union members, workers who are so alienated from their union that they act in seemingly contradictory ways: skipping the strike vote, but going to the picket lines; complaining about the inadequate settlement, but begrudgingly voting for it as the only option on offer. Radicals who want to build towards stronger rank-and-file organization – and win better contracts for federal public service workers – must grapple with this contradictory evidence to chart a path forward.

Brian McDougall is a former federal public service union activist, now Adjunct Professor of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, and owner of Peoples’ History Walking Tours in Ottawa. A lifelong socialist, he is delighted to have a growing audience for tours about the history of public service strikes in Ottawa-Gatineau.