From Bookkeepers to Lighthouse Keepers: What Striking Federal Workers Actually Do
“The workers on the line right now are just everyday people trying to make a living, they're not rich.”
Canada’s right-wing media pundits have painted over 100,000 striking federal workers as “entitled” and “privileged” “bureaucrats” who deserve strike-breaking legislation.
However, expired collective agreements available through the Government of Canada’s website shows a more complex picture of who these striking workers really are.
Serge Desbiens, a firefighter with the Department of National Defense and a member of PSAC’s bargaining team, says striking workers are “everyday people” from all walks of life across Canada.
“The rhetoric is terrible because information is so easy to get these days,” Desbiens told PressProgress. “The workers on the line right now are just everyday people trying to make a living, they’re not rich.”
“They would just like the government to respect them for what they do and that means paying them properly.”
Federal public sector workers wages, adjusted for inflation, are no better now than in 2007, a recent CCPA report revealed.
PSAC has asked for 4.5% wage increases each year for three years.
Federal public sector workers’ wages no better now than in 2007, new report shows.
“No other industry—none—has seen average inflation adjusted wages pushed back as far as federal public sector workers.”https://t.co/frfP1iI7jx #canlab #cdnpoli #ottnews
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) April 21, 2023
The Treasury Board is the largest PSAC bargaining unit on strike and is made up of four groups: Programs and Administrative Services, Operational Services, Technical Services, and Education and Library Sciences. The second, smaller bargaining unit on strike is the Canada Revenue Agency.
Here’s a glimpse at some of the jobs within the Treasury Board bargaining unit, the largest unit on strike representing 120,000 diverse workers across the country.
Program and Administrative Services
Programs and Administrative Services (PA) is the largest group in the Treasury Board, comprising about 90,000 members. According to PSAC’s internal data shared with PressProgress, 72% of PA workers are women and 61% make under $70,000.
Positions in the PA group include data processors, bookkeepers, office equipment operators, secretaries and court reporters. According to expired collective agreements, several of these positions pay below $40,000, with some as low as $28,000.
The low pay and gendered composition of this PA group stems largely from outdated job classifications that date back to the 1960s, according to the government’s own analysis.
Many employees have had to file grievances to argue they do more complex work than what is written in their outdated job classifications to justify higher pay, Desbiens points out.
“The classification for all our groups are broken,” Desbiens said. “Standards are back in the ‘50s. So the government’s supposed to try to fix that, but they haven’t. They’re very slow at it.”
As a firefighter for 42 years, Desbiens is part of the Operational Services (SV) group and a member of PSAC’s SV bargaining team. Desbiens has been fighting for pay equity with municipal firefighters throughout the last 20 years. While he has made advances with PSAC, DND firefighters still make 20% less than counterparts in municipal fire halls, despite ample research presented to the government showing the disparity.
The SV group also includes workers in General Labour and Trades, Heating, Power and Stationary Plant Operations, Hospital Services, Lightkeepers and Ship’s Crews.
“Everywhere you look in the SV table, most of our members are far behind,” Desbiens said, again noting a joint study PSAC conducted with consulting firm Korn Ferry.
“The data confirms a significant gap between compensation for SV positions and comparable jobs outside the federal public service,” the study states.
Many SV positions, like boiler plant operators, require high levels of specialization and competitive wages, Desbiens added.
“They’re supposed to make a certain wage because they’re responsible for a basically big bomb. That whole plant could blow up if they make a mistake. Our people are paid so much less than on the outside, like way, way less than the outside.”
The Technical Services (TC) group includes workers in Drafting and Illustration, Engineering and Scientific Support, General Technical, Photography, Primary Products Inspection and Technical Inspection.
Again, many of these workers provide highly specialized services that are hard to replace. Desbiens noted one PSAC member who is an aeronautics inspector.
“She hires people that actually do the inspections on planes,” Desbiens explained. “Responsibility-wise, it’s enormous. You have the lives of a lot of people on your hands if you make a mistake at those levels.”
Education and Library Sciences
The Education and Library Sciences (EB) group is one of the smallest groups within the Treasury Board, but is no less important.
“Some of our teachers teach in the Northern Territories, places where the schooling is not provincial like Ontario or in the west. We have our own school boards,” Desbiens said.
“They’re treated so differently than any teachers anywhere else, it’s not even the same recognizable situation.”
Raising Expectations for Workers Across Canada
Adam King, a postdoctoral fellow in politics at York University, says PSAC winning their wage demands will be key to reversing the trend of lagging wages in the federal public sector.
“That’s one of the reasons why this strike is particularly important, to hopefully reverse that trend, and for public sector workers to start to make up for some of the lost wages and the real wage losses that we’ve experienced due to inflation.”
“It’s symbolic in the sense that other workers will see what public sector workers have managed to win and then try to do the same themselves. It emboldens them to make demands as well.”
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