February 20, 2023 - No. 6
Federal Public Service Workers Hold Strike Vote
Public Service Workers Fight to Humanize the Work Environment, Respect and Dignity
Action outside Treasury Board President Mona Fortier's Ottawa office, October
Workers' Forum: How many federal public servants are involved in renewing their collective agreements, and what work are they doing?
Yvon Barrière: There are about 120,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) members across Canada, including 22,000 in Quebec, who are currently involved in renewing their collective agreements. These are Treasury Board employees. There are people from Service Canada, Immigration Canada, Transport Canada, the Coast Guard, the Correctional Service, and Veterans Affairs, amongst others. All the collective agreements of these federal employees have expired, most of them in June 2021 and others more recently. This summer we may find ourselves with 165,000 employees whose collective agreements have expired. At present, we've gone public for 120,000. Strike votes are to be held from February 22 to April 19.
WF: In its press releases, PSAC mentions many stumbling blocks in the negotiations and a serious lack of respect on the government's part towards public servants. Can you tell us more?
YB: The first thing is that the government is proposing that we lower our members' purchasing power which is totally unacceptable. We recall that at the beginning of the pandemic, every Monday morning both Mr. Duclos, who at the time was at the Treasury Board, and Mr. Trudeau thanked public servants for having contributed to the programs that the government had put in place. However, what the government is currently offering us for a 4-year contract is a 2.06 per cent increase per year, while we know that 2022 ended with an inflation rate of 6.3 per cent and that we are heading towards four or five per cent this year.
The second thing that stands out is the issue of remote work. Since the beginning of the pandemic all civil servants have been put on remote work. Our members responded very well regarding the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) and other government programs. They have done an outstanding job. There are departments that, in hindsight, have said that our people work better from home. We want to establish win-win scenarios, things that departments would like and that our members would like, through negotiation.
We are asking for the inclusion of a remote work clause in the collective agreement to establish the parameters on remote work, because when it's policy, it's done unilaterally. One of the parameters is the inclusion of a right to disconnect, as the employer makes demands on our members at all hours of the day.
In December, Ms. Mona Fortier, the President of the Treasury Board, unilaterally adopted a plan whereby she called public servants back into the office two or three days without any consultation, in a very arbitrary manner. All this at a time when we are negotiating a clause in the agreement dealing with remote work. To unilaterally change our members' terms and conditions of employment during negotiations is a blatant violation of the right to collective bargaining and shows a complete lack of respect for our members.
There are other issues that stand out. For example, our people who answer the phone are given between eight and ten seconds between calls. We asked that this be increased to 20 seconds so that people have time to get up, stretch and relax because conversations on issues such as immigration or taxes are stressful. They refused, saying that this would cost them an additional $3 million per week to add the ten seconds between calls. It's a horrible argument.
Also, when you work in the public sector, you're given a fourth week of vacation in your tenth year. We said that we wanted the number of years reduced and they said this would cost $30 million a year. The problem is that the majority of civil servants are not replaced [when they are on vacation]. When they come back, they simply have more work.
There's the issue of job security, of contracting out and privatization. We want to help our members get permanent positions through an improved fair and transparent process. We have seen federal agencies contract out to the United States to answer the phone at Revenue Canada! We managed to have that practice removed but the problem of contracting out remains.
Also, we asked that there be mandatory training for the entire public sector on systemic racism, for employees and for managers, and this was refused. They said no. They didn't deny that the problem exists but they said training is not necessary. We need to get rid of bias and discrimination in all hiring and promotion processes affecting people of immigrant, racialized and Indigenous backgrounds. Too often a non-advertised staffing process is used to hire favoured candidates without competition. I've witnessed this firsthand myself, when working as a program officer at the correctional level, of women for example with a master's degree who were never given interim positions and never made it in the competitive process.
WF: Do you want to add something in conclusion?
YB: For a long time it has been said that federal civil servants are fat cats, but their average wage is $58,000. As for administrative assistants, in terms of salary, they're behind the private sector by eight to ten per cent. For our tradesmen and women, our electricians, plumbers, air conditioning and heating workers, the average is 14.8 per cent lower than in the private sector. This also includes seafarers, such as those in the Coast Guard, where in the private sector there are big companies that pay on average 15 per cent more. We have retention issues, boats that can't move due to a lack of personnel.
On top of that, public employees are still being paid through the Phoenix payroll system, which is a nightmare for federal employees. Over the last year, we have had 40,000 new problem cases with Phoenix. The government is not paying its employees well, in terms of wages, and it is paying them badly because of the Phoenix system.
Our members have done an exceptional job during the pandemic but the government is not showing them the respect they deserve.
We expect a very strong strike vote because people don't want their purchasing power to be lowered and they want a negotiated remote work clause.
1. In June 2011, the Harper government asked IBM to design a new payroll system for the federal public service, the Phoenix system. By the time Justin Trudeau came to power, it was very clear that the Phoenix system was inadequate. Despite PSAC and other unions sounding the alarm, the Trudeau government launched the pay system in 2016.
Since then, more than 200,000 federal public sector workers – and their families – have suffered the consequences. Some have not been paid properly, have been underpaid or overpaid, others received nothing for months. The result: debt, losses, bankruptcy, loss of housing, even homelessness in some cases.
The nightmare for federal employees continues. Families
continue to bear the heavy burden of countless pay problems. Because of
Phoenix, many workers have suffered from not being able to provide for
their loved ones.
(Translated from original French by Workers' Forum.)
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