‘It’s Been a Rough Couple of Years’: Striking Federal Workers Speak Out from Picket Lines Across Canada
‘We are here to remind the public that what we get, they will reap the benefit of it. I guarantee it.’
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on April 21, 2023 to include a translated picket line report and photos from Montreal, Quebec.
Thousands of federal workers across Canada hit the picket lines today, participating in one of the biggest strikes in Canadian history. PressProgress partnered with Quebec news outlet Pivot to send reporters to picket lines across Canada to talk directly to workers about what this strike means to them.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) strike began at 12:01 AM, Wednesday April 19. PSAC has been bargaining with the federal government for two years over wage increases, remote work flexibility, shift premiums, and more. The two bargaining units on strike, the Treasury Board and the Canada Revenue Agency, include 155,000 workers across over a dozen departments across the country.
Over 100,000 federal government workers are now on strike – one of the largest strikes in Canadian history.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) April 19, 2023
PSAC released a list of 250 picket line locations across Canada, including government buildings and MP’s offices.
Here’s what striking federal workers across Canada have to say:
Thousands of workers picketed throughout Ottawa Wednesday morning. Around noon, PSAC President Chris Aylward addressed a crowd outside the Treasury Board building at 90 Elgin Street.
“Everybody thinks federal public sector workers are making six figures. The majority of PSAC members make between $40,000 and $65,000 a year. Again, a salary that can’t suffer another rollback,” Aylward said.
“This government is on record saying we have a world class public service. Well if that’s true and you believe that and we believe that, then come to the bargaining table and show us that.”
“Standing up in the House of Commons and making comments about the great work of the federal public service is no good for our members. Our members can’t bring that to the bank. We need a fair and decent wage offer no different than any other worker in this country.”
Dan, a striking worker with the Canada Revenue Agency who requested anonymity, is hopeful the public will support the strike and oppose any back-to-work legislation.
“I’m not going to lie, in the days leading up and the weeks leading up to it, I was pretty nervous,” Dan told PressProgress. “For most of us, it’s a first. There hasn’t been a PSAC strike since 1991 and the last UTE one was in 2004. But once they announced it, I was excited.”
I feel like this is one of the most important bargaining tools that we have. I think the public will see what’s happening. I hope that we have some popular support going forward. During the CUPE strike, the massive opposition in general to back-to-work legislation was quite encouraging, I hope that we can have the same effect.”
Joffrey Parent works in the communication department at the Translation Bureau and is also the chief union representative for this section. He explains that with inflation, his colleagues’ purchasing power decreases with each new collective agreement.
“The government offers us very little. We also want to add working conditions in addition to salary conditions: we are talking about making the working environment more inclusive, doing training against harassment and discrimination,” he says.
“I am confident that we can make significant gains,” he adds.
Francis Snyder, president of the Union of Taxation Employees (UTE) Local 1008 in Montreal, is particularly moved by the strike, because his mother was also a public servant and he feels it is necessary “to fight for our rights”.
“I got up at half past four this morning and yesterday morning, but when I see the amount of people there, I’m happy and I tell myself that we’re doing it for something important”, he says.
“Even though I’m a public servant, you still have to shop around for specials, because you have to save money. With a better raise, we could put some money aside. We’re thinking about retirement, but we also want to take holidays.”
Francis Snyder is asking Canadians to take the time to complain to their MPs to get the convention moving so that everything can get back to normal.
Photos, text and English translation by Oona Barrett, Pivot.
Tannis Dorward is the vice president of CEIU local 50772 and picket captain for the Service Canada building at 280 Broadway in Winnipeg.
“I’m feeling kind of moved,” Dorward told PressProgress. “We ended up getting over 200 people here at one point, it’s been super invigorating. I think people feel really supported”
Dorward felt connected to Winnipeg’s labour history on the picket line. Across the road from the strike, there is a mural celebrating the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike on the side of the Union Centre building.
“You could see the massive mural on that side, so we piled all up on the boulevard there with that in the background and took this beautiful shot that turned out really lovely,” Dorward said.
“It’s been exciting to be together like this. We never want a strike, we also don’t want to be in a situation where we’re constantly fighting just to have a collective agreement.”
Striking PSAC worker Rob McGregor played tuba with a brass band for hundreds of workers on the picket line at the Service Canada building. This is McGregor’s first time on the picket line.
“I do want to retire eventually and putting money away in savings is essential to be able to do that. I can’t really do that if I’m spending almost every penny I earn on groceries and home repair, because that stuff is just crazy expensive now.”
“That’s what they’re fighting against and that’s what we’re fighting for is to have at least a living wage where you can afford the basic necessities of life, where you can give your kids a better future than you had. That’s it, that’s all it is. All they have to do is sign a piece of paper to let us do that.”
Brenda Spenard, who is a supervisor within Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), was one of several hundred workers that showed up to the picket line outside Calgary’s Harry Hayes building.
“We’ve just had enough at this point,” Spenard told PressProgress. “If we take what the government is asking us to take, then we actually are getting a pay cut, based on the rate of inflation.”
“People are finding it difficult. We’re having difficulty at the gas pumps, most of us are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Dave Sward, a worker in the Treasury Board bargaining unit, says decades of inflation have left him and others worse off now than in the past, and quality of life is deteriorating.
“The cost of living increase has been difficult,” Sward told PressProgress. “We have to make choices within the family unit to look for sales, look for deals, not buy the same products, and find savings at the grocery store. Difficult choices. There’s been a continual inability to do the things you did in the past.”
Langley, British Columbia
Heather Adair, who works for IRCC in BC, says this strike has been a long time coming.
“I’m really happy to be out here because I kind of wanted to go on strike a long time ago,” Adair told PressProgress. “It’s been a rough couple of years working for the government starting with the Phoenix debacle and a lot of pain that came with that.”
Adair has also struggled with work life balance, being forced to commute for three hours a day to Vancouver when she could easily work from home and spend that extra time with her family.
“Not only are they dipping into my pocket, they’re really affecting my work life balance,” Adair said. “A big reason why I joined the government was work life balance, my family is important.”
Paige Humber, who works for the Parole Board of Canada, hopes that public, private and non-unionized workers across the country can understand their struggles are connected.
“What people need to remember is the people that have stat holidays and maternity leave and all those things in the private sector got that because the union fought for it and won it,” Humber told PressProgress.
“So we are here to remind the public that what we get, they will reap the benefit of it. I guarantee it.”
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