Union says government not budging on bargaining position or public service wage offer

Hundreds of workers piled onto Parliament Hill for a rally in the rain Wednesday

By Cindy Tran and Laura Osman in Ottawa

Negotiations between the government and the largest federal public-sector union seemed to reach a stalemate Wednesday as workers remained on strike for the eighth straight day.

Hundreds of public servants piled onto Parliament Hill for a rally in the rain Wednesday, as the government warned the job action was resulting in backlogs for immigration and passport applications, as well as massive Canada Revenue Agency slowdowns at the height of tax season.

Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the government told the bargaining team in an email Tuesday evening that it would not move from its latest offer.

The government has remained firm on its latest offer for a wage increase.

“They’re telling us that we have to move,” Aylward said on the lawn of Parliament Hill Wednesday, as hundreds of public servants stood behind him in the rain.

“That’s not how bargaining works.”

Union members and their supporters shouted “solidarity” and “shame” as Aylward addressed the media. The union described the turnout as “the largest picket line” since the beginning of the strike.

The government’s first offer last year was an 8.2 per cent increase over four years, backdated to 2021. The current offer of a nine per cent increase over three years is also backdated to 2021.

The union initially asked for 13.5 per cent over three years, saying this was needed to keep up with inflation. Aylward said the union has adjusted that ask but will not say what the new wage request is.

Aylward said he wouldn’t accept a nine per cent wage increase over three years, even if the government caved on all of the union’s other demands.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser warned Wednesday morning that as the strike continues, disruptions to important services are getting more and more severe. 

He told reporters on Parliament Hill that citizenship ceremonies have been cancelled and an immigration backlog is growing, with tens of thousands of applications not being processed.

“We’re going to continue to work to identify priority areas where people’s lives may be in danger to ensure we can still maintain those essential functions,” said Fraser. 

Families Minister Karina Gould said the passport application backlog isn’t growing as quickly as the government feared because fewer people have been applying during the strike. 

A week ago, 155,000 public servants walked off the job to call for higher wages, enshrined work-from-home measures and other provisions.

Jennifer Carr, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said she was surprised by how drawn-out negotiations have been so far. 

“The longer the strike, the more hopeful people get that we have the power … to make significant changes,” she said.

Carr’s union is also negotiating a new collective agreement with the federal government, but it has chosen to go the arbitration route instead of calling a strike. 

Still, she said, her union members are just as frustrated and they will stand in solidarity “until they get a fair deal.”

Aylward said the government is stalling the negotiations, but Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said in a written statement Wednesday that she wants to make an agreement quickly — she just wants it to be one Canadians can afford. 

“’We’re still at the table. It’s just that we keep receiving unreasonable and unaffordable offers,” Fortier told reporters on her way into a Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday.

She said repeatedly that she was feeling frustrated with the union’s stance.

Aylward has called for the prime minister to get directly involved in the negotiations, since Fortier won’t budge on the government’s wage offer.

“If the Treasury Board is saying they can’t move on the wages, that means Treasury Board needs a new mandate from the prime minister and the minister of finance,” he said. 

When asked if he would continue to negotiate with Fortier, Aylward only said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to get involved.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed the call for the prime minister to show leadership in the negotiations during an exchange during question period Wednesday.

“I do find it a little odd that I have to explain to a member of the NDP how collective bargaining works, but sometimes it takes time,” Trudeau said in response.

The prime minister gave the union a word of warning earlier in the day, on his way to meet with his caucus.

“The union is certainly very aware of Canadians’ impatience and they have to calibrate that carefully,” he said as he expressed frustration about delayed government services.

Trudeau said his government will respect the collective bargaining process and will stay positive and constructive at the negotiating table. 

Banner image: PSAC workers and supporters protest in downtown Halifax on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2023. 

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