Source: PSAC/Facebook

On May 1, the largest pan-Canadian public sector strike in 30 years came to an end. After the 155,000 workers organized with the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s (PSAC) spent 12 days on the picket lines, the union’s bargaining team announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the government, which union leaders called “a fair contract for members that exceeds the employer’s original offer.” When the details of the deal were announced, however, members expressed frustration and disappointment, as the wage increases fail to keep up with inflation, and the proposed contract does not protect workers’ ability to work from home. Furthermore, the settlement only ended the strike for 120,000 Treasury Board workers, while 35,000 CRA employees were left to fight for their demands on their own.  

Now, the national executive of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), the largest component union of PSAC representing nearly 36,000 workers, has announced that it is urging its members to vote against ratifying the deal. This is a very progressive development. Not only should CEIU encourage its own members to vote “no”, but this campaign should spread through the rest of PSAC. 

An unfair deal

In the past, it could reliably be expected that a union’s membership would vote according to its bargaining team’s recommendation. This is how the CUPE education workers’ strike ended this past fall; despite widespread anger among members, and bargaining unit president Laura Walton saying outright that the deal “badly sucked”, the rest of the union executive presented the deal as a win, and it ended up being ratified. 

It is clear that under the pressure of inflation and the general crisis of capitalism, workers are no longer willing to take their leaders’ word for it when they say that a bad deal is the best that they can do. Although the PSAC leadership presented the tentative agreement as “fair”, it fell short on all the main issues. As the CEIU statement says:

Whereas our members were under the impression that a three-year agreement was being signed, a four-year term was instead agreed to. Our members were adamant that we would not accept 9% over a three-year term – instead, we are being asked to accept, depending on how you do the math, either a little less or a little more than 3% a year for a FOUR-year term, putting our members even further behind on inflation. Many members are also mistaking the lump sum payment of $2,500 as a signing bonus – this is rather a pensionable one-time lump sum payment that will be taxed.

Many CEIU members were also frustrated to learn that proposed language for telework does not enshrine remote work into our collective agreement – instead, it creates joint union-employer departmental panels that largely rely on the good will of the employer to address issues related to the Treasury Board’s application of the remote work directive.

Moreover, it is not only the CEIU who has been willing to call a spade a spade when it comes to the PSAC deal. The Common Front in Quebec, an alliance of the main public sector unions, is currently negotiating its collective agreement with the provincial government. On May 1 they announced that they would not accept an agreement such as the PSAC one, and spoke for the first time about considering a strike if the CAQ’s wage offer isn’t good enough. The Common Front is demanding, among other things, a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). This is the way forward for all workers.  

Workers cannot accept bad deals presented as wins any longer, because they simply cannot afford to. This will put, and is putting, tremendous pressure on union leaderships to carry the fight further than they have in the past. As the PSAC deal now demonstrates, failure to do so could risk a revolt from the membership. 

To quote the CEIU statement again: 

CEIU members did the work. We showed up and led picket lines and stood in solidarity. This agreement disregards the years of work that CEIU members have put in and especially of the 12 days spent on the picket line. This strike was a historic opportunity to make gains for all working people that we cannot waste. We know that our demands are fair and necessary. We cannot accept this agreement.

Spread the ‘no’ campaign!

The “no” campaign of the CEIU has the potential to set a hugely positive precedent in the labour movement. This is something the union’s national executive members acknowledge in their statement. “CEIU also recognizes the significance of being the largest component at the largest bargaining table on the continent, and the impact this agreement will have on all workers,” the executive members write. “We must do better, not only for ourselves, but for the labour movement. Our members are demanding better, and they are done waiting.”

However, in order to succeed, it is vital that the campaign extend beyond the 36,000 workers it represents. The CEIU must work to spread the campaign through all the components of PSAC.  

Furthermore, dissatisfied workers should not wait for their executives to take a position on the ratification vote. By organizing in rank-and-file committees with like-minded workers, ordinary workers can campaign for a “no” vote, and take union democracy into their own hands. It is only by organizing collectively that rank-and-file workers mobilize and push the struggle forward.

If the “no” vote succeeds, PSAC Treasury Board workers must return to the picket lines to join the 35,000 CRA workers who continue to strike. By accepting the tentative agreement, the PSAC leadership has played into the employer’s divide-and-conquer strategy. So far, this seems to have succeeded—the CRA’s most recent offer to the union is less than what the Treasury Board workers got, even though their initial demand of a 33 per cent wage increase was substantially higher than the 13.5 per cent that the rest of PSAC was asking for. When discussing the offer, PSAC president Chris Aylward said, “We don’t know why the Canada Revenue Agency is playing this game.” It should be obvious that the CRA thinks it can make such an offer because its employees no longer have 120,000 fellow union members to back them up. 

Over the past decades, the traditions of solidarity in the labour movement have been undermined, to the point that it is now commonplace for workers to cross picket lines. PSAC workers have the opportunity to begin to reverse that damage, by going back on strike until the demands of all their members are met.  In doing so, they could send reverberations throughout the labour movement, and a tremendous message to the bosses and their government: that this is an end to business as usual, and workers are through with accepting crumbs.