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Public servants with PSAC vote in favour of strike action

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Members of Canada's largest public sector union have voted in favour of a strike mandate affecting more than 120,000 public servants.

The vote puts Public Service Alliance of Canada members a step closer to what could be one of the largest strikes in Canadian history. A strike would create service disruptions in a number of areas across the country.

"PSAC members are feeling squeezed along with everyone else," national president Chris Aylward told a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

"Our members have been without a contract since 2021. Today, an overwhelming majority of our members have told us they can't wait any longer, and they are prepared to strike to secure a fair deal that won't see them fall behind."

Strike votes in several bargaining units were held from Feb. 22 until Tuesday. PSAC officials did not provide the exact result but said members voted "overwhelmingly" in favour of striking.

Last week, 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers voted in favour of strike action. That means more than 155,000 public servants from five large bargaining groups could be in a legal strike position by the end of this week.

"Our members don't take the decision to strike lightly. They know that a strike will be difficult for them and for the Canadians who depend on the services they provide. But they're exercising their bargaining power because they just can't wait any longer. … They're sending a message to the government that they won't be taken for granted," Aylward said.

Negotiations between PSAC and Treasury Board resumed earlier this month with a mediator after they broke off about a year ago. The two sides are at the bargaining table this week and are scheduled to be there until Friday.

Asked about negotiations on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it's important they remain at the bargaining table.

"On the collective bargaining that's going on right now, it's really important that that happens at the collective bargaining table. That's where the best and the right deals get done. And that's why we're going to continue to engage in a constructive way at the bargaining table.”

Trudeau added that federal public servants stepped up to deliver CERB and other programs during the "extraordinarily difficult" past few years.

"We recognize the incredible work that federal public servants have done," he said.

In a statement, Treasury Board Secretariat said the government is "committed to reaching collective agreements that are both fair to employees and reasonable for Canadian taxpayers."

"It remains our goal to reach an agreement at the bargaining table as soon as possible," the statement said. "Over the past week we made significant headway, addressing many union demands."

Aylward did not specify when strike action could begin, only saying PSAC would see what happens this week at the bargaining table.

Wages are the main issue of contention between the government and the union, with PSAC asking for a 13.5 per cent raise over three years and Treasury Board offering 8.25 per cent over four years.

"When the federal government, Canada's largest employer by far, suppresses wages for its workers, what they're really doing is pushing down wages for all workers across all sectors," Aylward said.

A report by an impartial Public Interest Commission recommended a nine per cent raise over three years, but Aylward said that wasn't sufficient.

"Is it a path forward? Yes it is. Is it going to settle this round of bargaining? No it will not."

Treasury Board Secretariat's statement said there are "many areas" where both parties could reach a compromise "including wage increases."

"If the PSAC shares our commitment to bargain in good faith, we can reach agreements quickly at the bargaining table."

SERVICE DISRUPTIONS

The 120,000 employees affected by the strike votes announced Wednesday are part of four different bargaining groups within PSAC. They comprise a wide range of jobs across the country. The four groups are the EB (Education and Library), PA (Program and Administrative), SV (Operational Services) and TC (Technical Services) bargaining units.

Aylward said if a strike happens, Canadians would see service disruptions including delays with employment insurance and immigration applications. There would also be delays at borders and airports and grain exports would be halted, he said.

The prime minister suggested Wednesday the government is looking at how to deliver services in the event of a strike.

"Obviously, we're looking very closely to ensure that we continue to deliver the important services that Canadians rely on the federal government for," Trudeau said.

"However, we also believe in collective bargaining. And that is where the discussions at the table with the public service unions continue to happen in robust ways."

The 120,000 employees in those four groups are in a legal strike position as of Wednesday. The 35,000 CRA workers will be in a legal strike position by Friday, just as tax season reaches its busiest period.

PSAC and the federal government have signed several agreements in recent weeks outlining which employees would be considered "essential" and thus not allowed to strike.

An essential service means "there are reasonable grounds to believe that the safety and security of the public would be at risk if a work stoppage interrupted the duties of the public servants offering the service," according to the Treasury Board website.

The government is directing people looking for information about the potential impacts of a strike to this website.

REMOTE WORK

Along with wages, the issue of remote work is a big one for many public servants. The federal government has ordered public servants to return to the office for at least two days a week.

However, unions have said the implementation has been chaotic and inconsistent, and want language in collective bargaining agreements to ensure the rules are applied consistently across the country.

Aylward said such language shouldn't come at the expense of a wage increase, though.

"We will not compromise on our wage demands to get remote work," he said.

Treasury Board has said the location of work is up to the employer and it's not a bargaining issue.

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