Picket line in Montreal. Picket line in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Federal workers in Canada are striking back against austerity and gaining wide solidarity, but action needs to be escalated to win, argues John Clarke

On 19 April, a strike by more than 155,000 federal public-sector workers, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), got underway. On the eve of the strike, PSAC announced that: ‘Picket lines will be set up in more than 250 locations across the country.’ I live in the eastern suburbs of Toronto and, as I write this, I can hear the chants coming from a huge PSAC picket line a few hundred yards from my home. This ‘is the largest strike by a single union in Canada’s history’, and it is also the most decisive action that federal workers have taken since 1991.

Like many groups of workers who are moving into struggle at this time, federal workers in Canada are dealing with the results of long-standing attacks on their wages and working conditions, but these have been greatly compounded by the present cost-of-living crisis. These workers saw 25,000 of their jobs eliminated between 2010 and 2015, as public services were subjected to austerity measures. Their payroll system was privatised and its massively inefficient delivery has led to a situation where ‘over 100,000 workers have been impacted by payroll errors’.

When the pandemic struck, the Trudeau government was forced to provide improvised services, including emergency social-benefits programmes, and federal workers had to put these measures into effect. This imposed yet more pressure on a reduced workforce and further undermined working conditions. Then, on top of this, came the onset of the inflationary wave.

The real wages of federal workers have fallen dramatically over the past two years and all wage gains since 2007 have been wiped out. ‘No other industry – none – has seen average inflation-adjusted wages pushed back as far as federal public sector workers.’

PSAC is ‘demanding a 13.5 percent wage increase over three years, which is actually below inflation. The federal government has offered 8.2 percent over three years, revised up to nine percent. This is well below inflation for the life of the contract (2021 – 2023).’ Since so many workers were shifted to remote work, PSAC is also calling for clear rules with regard to telework. If these extremely modest demands aren’t met, federal workers will face enormous hardship.

Mood of solidarity

In the face of intransigence and delaying tactics on the part of the government, a major confrontation became inevitable. With a sweeping strike mandate from the union membership, an enormously important struggle is now underway across the country. In community after community, rallies are being held to bolster PSAC picket lines and demonstrate broader working-class solidarity. A statement by Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, stated: ‘Your struggle is the struggle of Canada’s entire working class … The erosion of purchasing power is felt every day and workers are completely within their rights to demand decent wages that will enable them to live a good life.’

Opinion surveys aren’t usually conducted in such a way as to capture a mood of working-class solidarity, but even the polling firms are showing very solid support for the strike. The Angus Reid Institute sampled opinion on the key demands the union has taken to the bargaining table and found majority or very high levels of public support on all of them. I’m very far from suggesting that workers need favourable opinion polls in order to take up struggles, but these findings do reflect a changing mood and a widespread desire to fight back.

It is certainly true that federal workers are taking action in the context of rising working-class militancy. Federal government figures show that strike activity is on a major upswing. ‘Person days lost’ to strikes in 2021 were at 1,323,637, but this almost doubled in 2022 to 2,155,612. As encouraging as this is, however, an attempt by the Trudeau Liberals to crush this strike is a very real threat.

One of the reasons why federal-government workers in Canada have sustained the losses they have, is that they have faced the full force of the use of state power to weaken unions in Canada. From the 1970s on, the attack on workers’ rights featured the use of strikebreaking legislation to impose concessionary contracts on public-sector workers. ‘In the first 15 years after 1950, there were only six instances of back-to-work legislation in total; there were 51 such instances in the following decade and a half, with half of these from 1975 to 1979 alone.’

As this attack got underway in the 70s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau boasted that: ‘We’ll put a few union leaders in jail for three years and others will get the message.’ The use of such ‘back-to-work’ legislation has been a weapon that federal governments have used to undermine public-sector union struggles. The frequent adoption of special laws that turn strikes that would normally be perfectly legal into unlawful acts, has been described as ‘permanent exceptionalism’, and it has shaped the role of the Canadian state in containing trade unions during the neoliberal decades.

Need to escalate

In the face of back-to-work legislation, there have been some examples of defiance but, for the most part, unions have accepted these measures and sought redress through the courts, with very limited success. As the PSAC strike unfolds, in the context of an emerging working-class upsurge, the threat of such legislation and the possibility of defeating it are posed sharply.

At the end of last year, the Ontario government sought to impose a concessionary collective agreement on 50,000 education workers by passing legislation to render their impending strike illegal. The workers defied this and walked out, while their union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), formed an alliance with other unions who stood ready to strike in solidarity. For a short time, a general strike seemed entirely possible.

The government was forced into a panicked retreat and offered to repeal the legislation if the union would agree to take down their picket lines and go back to the bargaining table. Very regrettably, this was accepted and the resulting settlement was very poor, but the prospect of defiant action loomed large and a glimpse of what was possible emerged.

It is not impossible that the Trudeau Liberals will make some concessions, but the driving down of wages and working conditions for public-sector workers is an ongoing strategic priority for federal governments, and resort to strikebreaking legislation is highly likely. If the government does try to crush the strike, however, given the huge grievances the federal workers have, the strength of the present strike and the level of support for it that exists, it is not impossible that a situation like last year’s Ontario education workers’ struggle could arise.

That such a massive strike is underway in Canada at the moment poses some of the same issues that are playing out in Britain and France. Levels of working-class resistance are increasing but employers and the state are proving to be very intransigent in the face of this.

The limited strike and the large-scale ‘day of action’ aren’t proving to be sufficient to obtain victories, and more effective methods of struggle have to be taken up. For this to happen, longstanding ‘rituals of class compromise’ that have contained and compartmentalised working-class resistance have to give way to forms of action that are unlimited, generalised and defiant. With all its enormous power and potential, the PSAC strike in Canada points to this pressing need to take the struggle to that decisive level.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

Tagged under: