The longer the strike lasts, the more the union must bend

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Most Canadians who have not had a double-digit wage hike generally support the government’s approach of holding the line on increases.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 1, 2023.

OTTAWA—Modern technology blunts the effect of any government strike. With most Canadians’ finances now governed by direct deposit, the pain of a work disruption doesn’t hit them too hard.

The strike may help some by providing a little more time to pay taxes as any snail-mail cheques are not likely to be cashed for some time.

So how does a union make its point? Unfortunately, it does involve an attempt to disrupt normal government activities.

That includes slowing traffic at international borders and disrupting train travel at the Crown corporation Via Rail.

But those escalating actions may simply anger those whose travel plans have been disrupted. That anger is translated into news clips which focus on Canadians complaining about the strike.

The union’s attempt to secure public support is further eroded.

Almost two weeks into the strike, the public has been relatively untouched by its effects.

The same cannot be said for those who need specific services, like passport renewals.

The pressure right now is on the strikers’ pocketbooks, whose $75 daily picket line pay will not cover a mortgage payment.

As those employees are on the lower end of the public service payment scale, they are the most likely to be living from paycheque to paycheque. Their level of financial stress must be growing daily.

Meanwhile, negotiations have ground to a halt with PSAC president Chris Aylward denouncing the minister and demanding that the prime minister get involved directly.

That is not likely to happen anytime soon, as Treasury Board President Mona Fortier and her team have thus far been winning the battle of public opinion.

Even the New Democratic MPs have been relatively silent on the strike taking place outside the walls of Parliament.

They are under pressure to side with the workers, but most are relatively unengaged.

The opposition did pile in on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for travelling to New York for a United Nations gathering last week.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh attacked Trudeau’s absence during the largest strike in the history of the Canadian government. But the applause Singh received from colleagues for his attack has not been replicated in ridings across the country.

With the Liberal-NDP supply-and-confidence agreement still in place, the New Democrats are not speaking too loudly in favour of strikers outside of Question Period.

Those workers walking the picket line in the nation’s capital are having trouble enlisting public support.

One striker lamented to a local reporter that “people hate us.”

That reaction hurts because if there is any community where people should be siding with the workers, it is in the city of Ottawa.

It’s hard to drum-up support on the issues dividing the government and union, particularly when it comes to the question of who decides where to work.

The majority of Canadians work where their employment dictates. In some cases it is a no-brainer. Hospital and continuing care workers cannot work from home.

The same holds true for those in the lowest paid jobs in the service industry. From donut shops, to hotel and restaurant workers, they do not have the option to do their work from home.

The private sector is watching the work issue closely because any move to transfer workplace decisions to employees in the public sector could have a ripple effect.

So, it is pretty hard for the union to drum up public support for their request that work-from-home be part of the negotiation.

The government has taken the position that the location of a workplace is the sole discretion of the employer, and not an element for negotiation in a collective agreement.

So, the difference boils down to money.

The government has offered a nine per cent salary hike spread over three years, while the union has been seeking 13.5 per cent over three years.

That is an area where there could be some wiggle room, but on the money front, the Liberals are already facing criticism from the Conservatives for being too generous with tax dollars.

Most Canadians who have not experienced a double-digit wage hike generally support the government’s approach of holding the line on increases.

Pierre Poilievre’s narrative that Canada is broken could be buttressed by a lengthy strike.

If the Conservative leader can prove that the Liberals can’t govern, that will definitely help his electoral momentum.

But if the public is not supportive of the strikers, pressure to settle is definitely one-sided.

The longer the strike lasts, the more the union must bend.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.