Canada is on the verge of the largest strike of federal government employees in a generation, potentially starting this Wednesday.

On Monday, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) president Chris Aylward announced that a deal must be reached by April 18 at 8pm. If there is no deal, the union will call for the 155,000 workers that it represents to go on an all-out strike. Previously, PSAC membership voted overwhelmingly for a strike mandate. 

This would be the largest strike of federal employees since 1991. With such a development on the horizon, the labour movement needs to be on full alert and prepare to come out in active solidarity with their fellow workers! 

Wages and work-from-home

At a time when the working class is struggling more than ever to make ends meet, suffering under the weight of inflation, the government is unashamedly offering a pathetic increase of only 2.06 per cent on average over four years. This means that workers would be taking a huge pay cut in real wages. 

In his press conference, Aylward stated: “Workers in this country deserve a fair and decent wage increase whether they’re unionized non-unionized public sector or private sector. We didn’t cause inflation, we shouldn’t have to pay for it!” This is absolutely correct.

However, PSAC’s demands are only a small improvement on the government’s offer. PSAC is only asking for a 4.5 per cent raise per year over three years. As Aylward himself said, for the duration of the three-year contract (retroactive to 2021), inflation has been 13.8 per cent, which means that what the union leadership is asking for is already under inflation. 

It should be noted that a significant chunk of PSAC workers—the 35,000 Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) employees—are asking for what amounts to a 33 per cent increase over the course of three years. We commend this as it would keep workers above the inflation rate and improve their living conditions. The rank-and-file of PSAC should push its leadership to align the wage demands of all 155,000 workers to the bold demands of the CRA workers.

The capitalist press will argue that even the 4.5 per cent demand is too high. Indeed, since the strike vote was taken, the union leadership has been asked many times if their wage demands are not excessive, and risk further driving inflation. This patent absurdity echoes the nonsense argument promoted by the Bank of Canada that inflation is caused by a “wage-price spiral”. We should not buy into this. 

Workers have faced years, not of raises, but wage stagnation and cuts. The capitalists and their government are trying to blame the workers for a problem they caused, with inflationary policies that pumped billions of dollars into corporate coffers during the pandemic. Companies have seen record profits during the pandemic—but why are the mouthpieces of capitalism not pointing to this as a source of inflation? 

The problem is not that increased wages drive inflation, but that, having accumulated record levels of debt, the ruling class needs to make the workers pay for the current crisis. While the Liberals have no problem committing billions of dollars to new military spending, they have promised their Bay Street friends that they will be “fiscally responsible” and not “compensate” workers for inflation. We should not be asking whether or not the government can afford to pay the workers—we should be asking whether the workers can afford not to fight. 

Another issue is the government’s unpopular return-to-work plan on a hybrid basis. After having shifted to work-from-home for three years now, and having proven that working from home does not impact productivity, workers feel that there is nothing to be gained from going back to in-person work, and that a return to office would be nothing but an extra burden. The union is also asking for higher overtime rates, more vacation and family leave, wage adjustments and special allowances. The main issue on the minds of workers remains inflation, and the ridiculous offer of the government puts the two sides on a collision course, opening the prospect of a major class battle.

Lessons of 1991 PSAC Strike

When asked by a journalist “how aggressive are we talking? I’m not expecting something like 1991 on Wednesday”, Chris Aylward answered: “No, because what you’ll see on Wednesday if this occurs, if this government forces a strike, will be much bigger than 1991.”

This is a great response, one that will certainly help mobilize and enthuse workers to fight. But what happened in 1991?

The Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative government was offering PSAC an abysmal three-year contract that was promising wage freezes during the first year and a wage increase of three per cent the following two years. Meanwhile, the inflation rate at the time was 6.1 per cent. As the negotiations broke down due to the government’s unwillingness to present a decent offer, 110,000 PSAC members went on strike. Mulroney accused union leaders of believing in “big government spending and uncontrolled debt.” He even said he would not be “bamboozled by a bunch of self-centered, boggy-brained public servants.”

Against the “special interests” of the union, he said he was “here to defend the interests of the country.” By that, he meant the interests of the ruling class of the country, which demanded austerity for the workers.

Eventually, the government took away the right to strike from PSAC with back-to-work legislation, enforcing its contract on the workers. When faced with the democratic right to strike being violated, the union leadership told their workers to go back to work and obey this unjust law. This was a big mistake and as we have explained elsewhere, back-to-work legislation is a cancer in the movement and if we do not stand up to it, it spreads. And this is exactly what has happened since then. The 1991 strike therefore ended up being a demoralizing defeat for the workers. But it did not have to end that way. And it does not have to go down the same road this time around. 

Back-to-work legislation can be defeated

Trudeau is not as brazen as Mulroney and instead attempts to put up a worker-friendly image. But if the strike takes place and the union sticks to its guns, there is a good chance that Justin Trudeau could legislate PSAC back to work. Only five years ago, he did it to Canada Post workers. There is no fundamental difference between a Liberal or a Conservative government when it comes to defending the interests of the ruling class and undermining workers’ rights.

The Trudeau government going ahead with such back-to-work legislation, after showering PSAC employees with praise as front-line workers during the pandemic, would further expose them as enemies of working class people.

To his credit, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said they support the PSAC workers “100 percent.” Chris Aylward expressed his confidence that they will continue to do so. This raises the question of what the NDP will do when their Liberal friends move to crush the workers.

As we have explained previously, the NDP should not have been propping up the Liberals in the first place. If Trudeau introduces back-to-work legislation, the NDP must reply with a no-confidence motion. This would either bring down the government, or force the Conservatives or the Bloc Québécois to discredit themselves and support the Liberals crushing the workers. If the NDP continues supporting the Liberals in the event of back-to-work legislation, it would demonstrate even more the bankruptcy of the class-collaborationist approach the party leadership has taken.  

With that being said, 2023 does not have to go the same route that 1991 did. Just last fall, the CUPE education workers in Ontario showed us that it is entirely possible to successfully defeat back-to-work legislation. They were the first in a generation to take a stand and show what can be done through carrying out an illegal strike and threatening a general strike.

If the education workers did it with one third the number of employees on strike and in one province only, there is no reason why PSAC can’t do the same thing on a larger scale from coast to coast. The entire labour movement needs to be ready to support a movement in defense of the right to strike, and be on a war footing to come out in the streets in support of the PSAC workers.

Solidarity with the PSAC workers!

Strike until victory!