“I think a strike, simply, would be a nail in the coffin of the Liberal government”
As the possibility of a public service strike looms, experts say the movement could have political impacts, especially if Canadians see major disruptions in federal services.
Within the next few weeks, a strike-vote period will be complete for 155,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) members.
In January, PSAC announced strike votes for workers in the core public service, performing jobs in program and administrative services; operational services; technical services; and education and library science, as well as Canada Revenue Agency workers, represented by the Union of Taxation Employees (UTE).
The decision to move to strike votes was made after talks with the government broke down. The union has called for higher wages for workers, better work-life balance and more flexibility with telework and remote work.
With final votes to be cast on April 11, PSAC would, if the vote passes, be able to launch a strike within 60 days, with a requirement to provide the government with 72 hours’ notice.
PSAC National President Chris Aylward said that while the union’s goal is not to go on strike but to come to an agreement with the feds, if they do choose to strike, there would be big disruptions to services done by workers.
Ahead of the vote, a series of agreements were signed with the federal government determining that over 100,000 PSAC members and 37,000 taxation union members would be allowed to strike, with the others deemed essential workers. Those who remain on the job would have the opportunity to support strike efforts during non-working hours.
“If it comes to that and we withdraw our services, there will be a fairly large labour disruption in the country that I don’t think this government really needs at this time,” Aylward said about a strike.
“We would certainly be setting up strategic picket lines where it’s going to hurt the government the most, and if that means airports and border crossings, then unfortunately, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute for independent research, said a disruption of services would likely have impacts on public opinion, especially given the challenges people have faced in terms of immigration backlogs and accessing passport offices throughout the pandemic.
“Those things are still very fresh in the minds of Canadians,” Kurl said, adding that people will be affected if they face disruptions with other services such as taxes, border crossings and pensions. “Any disruption of front-line service has the potential to really further annoy them.”
Pierre Martel, a part-time professor with the University of Ottawa’s political studies program, said the longer government services are disrupted, the less patient the public would become.
“The longer the strike, the more immediate and forceful the impact is felt by the public in terms of access to services,” Martel said, noting that some services might be able to continue with the help of technology and essential workers during a strike. “I think that that may force many people in the population to think that the government’s term is near and that there is a need for change.”
Martel said the impact of a strike could go even deeper than affecting the public’s trust, as it could also affect the alliance between the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party.
“It’s going to put the NDP in a very difficult position,” Martel said. “I don’t think they are ready nor willing to go on the electoral campaign again but they may not have any choice, having to respect their core values and walk away and break the deal that they have with the Liberals.”
Martel said he believes the opposition would be happy to return to an election, adding that they would likely blame the government for letting the situation get to the point where unionized workers felt compelled to strike.
“I think a strike, simply, would be a nail in the coffin of the Liberal government,” he said.
Martel said that, in the worst-case scenario, the government could challenge the union and invoke special legislation to force a back-to-work order.
“I think the (federal budget) is going to set the tone, whether there is light at the end of the tunnel in this bargaining process,” Martel said. “The issue hopefully should be resolved before Parliament adjourns in the summer. If not, I think we’re in for a new electoral campaign in the fall.”
Matthew McKenna, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, said the government office recognizes that there is currently a “process unfolding” and is monitoring the situation.
“We have been working with the unions to ensure that a strike, should it occur, would not compromise EC’s ability to prepare for and deliver the next general election, whenever it may be called,” McKenna said.
PSAC is set to resume negotiations with the government during the first two weeks of April.
“If there is a strike, it’s going to happen fairly quickly after we go back to the table,” Aylward said.
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