A third of Canada‘s public servants set up pickets at hundreds of sites across the country Wednesday demanding cost-of-living raises and telework flexibility in one of the largest strikes in the nation’s history.
After months of negotiating with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) said it had failed to reach a deal by the deadline it had set for late Tuesday.
More than 155,000 public servants went on strike, hitting picket lines at more than 250 locations across the country, according to PSAC.
Canada last saw a strike of this size in 1991.
In Ottawa, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, whose small leftist faction usually backs Trudeau’s Liberals but not in this case, marched with picketers outside parliament and Trudeau’s office.
Crystal Warner, picketing in Montreal, called the government’s wage offers “offensive.” “They’re not keeping in line with even inflation,” she lamented.
All around her, picketers blew whistles and waved flags, as one of their leaders, Francis Snyder, told AFP that they’re “ready to stay as long as it takes.”
Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board that overseas government workers, told reporters in Ottawa the two sides “are still at the table negotiating and hopefully we’ll make some progress today.”
“I’m convinced we can,” she added.
The union’s president Chris Aylward, however, said Tuesday evening that they were “still a ways apart.”
Among government employees’ demands is a 13.5 percent wage increase over three years, or 4.5 percent annually to keep up with inflation. The government has countered by offering a nine percent bump spread over three years.
Canada’s inflation rate slowed to 4.3 percent year-on-year in March after peaking at 8.1 percent last June.
The union also wants more flexibility over telecommuting.
After pandemic restrictions were rolled back, public servants who had worked remotely were expected to return to their offices several days a week by March 31.
Warner said that many had become accustomed to telework and with so many new hires recently, there isn’t enough space in government offices now to put them all.
Noting that the federal government is the largest employer in the country and that its labour decisions often ripple through the economy, she added: “We are out here fighting not just for our own members, but for workers everywhere in Canada.”
Fellow picketer Pierre, who declined to give his last name, said: “The public service is part of the collective wealth and it must not be allowed to deteriorate, in the same way as bridges are not allowed to deteriorate.”
“You have to support infrastructure if you want a functioning society,” he said.
The labour dispute is expected to slow or entirely shut down some federal services, including the processing of immigration and passport applications, PSAC said in a statement.
With more than 35,000 striking workers employed by the Canada Revenue Agency, tax season could be brought to a standstill.
Urging both side to come to a negotiated agreement, Trudeau said that “Canadians have a right and deserve to get the services that they need from the federal government.”
He expressed support for the process and workers’ right to strike, but warned that “Canadians will lose patience if it drags on.”