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Bargaining by the bushel: Waves of public service workers in negotiations with government

Treasury Board, the listed employer for most civil servants, said 27 of its 29 collective agreements with unions had expired as of Jan. 31, and another deal with RCMP regular members and reservists was to lapse at the end of March.

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The federal public service is swimming in labour uncertainty, with a veritable laundry list of bargaining units at different points in the process of negotiating new collective agreements with the government and federal agencies.

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Treasury Board, the listed employer for most civil servants, said 27 of its 29 collective agreements with unions had expired as of Jan. 31, and another deal with RCMP regular members and reservists was to lapse at the end of March.

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The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal public service union, has scheduled strike votes starting later this month for four of its bargaining units representing more than 120,000 employees. Meanwhile, the Canada Revenue Agency is already staring down a strike vote for 35,000 employees represented by PSAC and its affiliate, the Union of Taxation Employees.

With issues ranging from wages to return-to-office rules to more nuanced factors particular to individual bargaining units, here’s a status update on negotiations.

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PSAC/UTE and Canada Revenue Agency

PSAC and its Union of Taxation Employees affiliate started a strike vote for the 35,000 CRA workers on Jan. 31, with balloting scheduled to end on April 7. PSAC says those workers have been without a contract for more than a year, and the union declared an impasse in negotiations in September.

Talks broke down over wages and remote work, PSAC said Jan. 10.

During the strike-vote process, PSAC-UTE and Canada Revenue Agency were scheduled for Jan. 27 and Feb. 20 Public Interest Commission hearings with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board. Its non-binding recommendations are expected this spring, PSAC’s release added, with PSAC-UTE then in a legal strike position if members vote in favour of a strike mandate.

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UTE said previously it had asked CRA for three years of wage increases totalling 20.5 per cent, in addition to a one-time wage adjustment of nine per cent to account for a long-standing wage imbalance with Canada Border Services Agency employees administering the Excise Act.

Earlier in January, CRA lodged a complaint with the federal labour relations board, alleging bad-faith bargaining by UTE. It asked the board to order the union back to the bargaining table before it could authorize a strike.

PSAC and Treasury Board

PSAC also scheduled a strike vote between Feb. 22 and April 19 for the 120,000 workers in its Programs and Administrative Services, Operational Services, Technical Services and Education and Library Science bargaining groups.

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In these cases, PSAC posted on Jan. 23, negotiations broke down over wages and other key issues. The union had declared an impasse in May 2022 after receiving what it said was the government’s offer of 2.06 per cent annual wage increases.

A statement said the union was seeking a contract that “protects workers from the rising cost of living, offers better work-life balance, protection from harassment, racism and discrimination in the workplace and ends the contracting out of public-service jobs.”

Mediation in September failed to bridge the divide, leading to Public Interest Commission hearings and a report, after which those PSAC workers would also be in a legal strike position if they approved the strike mandate by mid-April.

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A Public Interest Commission report issued Jan. 26 for the Operational Services group said the three commission members accepted “as generally accurate” the Treasury Board estimate that union wage and non-wage proposals would produce a combined 47 per cent increase for the 10,400 employees over the length of the agreement.

The report said the commissioners did not see “any meaningful path forward where our recommendations on individual issues in dispute would, at this point, realistically assist the parties. There are too many issues. There has not, in our opinion, been any true negotiations.”

Even so, “we recommend that the parties returned to the bargaining table with fewer and more focused proposals that would allow them to enter into meaningful bargaining with a view to renewing or revising the existing collective agreement,” it concluded.

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Other PSAC negotiations

A PSAC spokesperson said Jan. 31 that negotiations had also begun for its Parks Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and border services units.

The latest round of bargaining for the border services unit ended Feb. 2, matching a PSAC mobilization effort that had members wearing bargaining-related stickers and union-affiliation garments in support of negotiators. A day later, PSAC posted online that it was in the process of setting additional bargaining dates with Treasury Board and Canadian Border Services Agency.

According to the post, telework remained one of the points of discord, including Treasury Board’s hybrid work policy.

During the last round of bargaining, a work-to-rule action on Aug. 6, 2021, caused significant delays at Canada-United States border crossings, but it was followed by a contract renewal. However, the deal that included retroactive pay increases totalling 8.077 per cent back to 2017 extended only until June 20, 2022.

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Meanwhile, PSAC announced on Feb. 1 a new tentative agreement for its nearly 250 members at NAV Canada, the not-for-profit corporation that manages Canadian civilian airspace and the North Atlantic oceanic airspace under Canadian control.

Full agreement details were to be released to members before a ratification vote, the union posted online, but among the listed highlights were: three per cent salary increases in each of the three years of the deal, fully retroactive; a new on-the-job instruction premium of $8.25 per hour; double-time for overtime after working 50 hours at time and a half; language protecting members’ ability to telework; improvements to bereavement leave, lieu days and other contract articles.

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There were no concessions, the posting added, and the bargaining team was unanimously recommending ratification by members.

PIPSC also busy with negotiations

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada says 18 units have expired collective agreements with Treasury Board and other agencies, including an Information Technology (IT) Group whose deal lapsed in December 2021.

As of Feb. 2, the IT unit bargaining team and management had held eight bargaining sessions, a compilation from a PIPSC spokesperson showed.

The document showed seven other units had either commenced negotiations or at least exchanged initial proposals, including workers at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

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Two units were still developing bargaining proposals, while there were no updates for another eight others, including three each for employees of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the National Research Council.

PIPSC, which says it has more than 70,000 members in 41 groups with 27 different employers in seven jurisdictions, uses a “Central Table bargaining committee” to negotiate non-salary contract language common to several groups and employers. The central committee has representatives from a half-dozen core public-administration groups and three more from separate employers.

Common language agreed to with Treasury Board is referred to individual groups for inclusion in their tentative agreements.

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Treasury Board Toteboard

As of Jan. 31, a review of the status of negotiations posted on the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat website showed talks had not commenced for the Law Practitioners group, represented by the Association of Justice Counsel.

Initial proposals had been exchanged with three groups, while notice to commence bargaining had been received from unions for nine others. Negotiations had been held for eight groups and four more were awaiting Public Interest Commission reports, while applications for arbitration had been filed by unions for two groups: Economics and Social Science Services and Ships Officers.

Arbitration award for financial monitor’s staff

Also on Jan. 31, an arbitration panel issued an award ending a years-long dispute involving 28 PSAC members working in secretarial and clerical positions and as facilities co-ordinators with the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions.

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The board awarded workers four annual increases of between 1.5 per cent and 2.8 per cent starting April 1, 2018, plus a fifth-year interim increase of 1.5 per cent along with a “me-too” increase based on another unit’s negotiating outcome, retroactive to April 1, 2022.

The previous collective agreement expired March 31, 2018, the decision noted. The parties met in bargaining in September and October 2021 and February, March and May 2022. Agreement was reached on most issues, but seven outstanding issues remained, including wages and term. An impasse was declared on May 17, 2022, and the union filed for arbitration last June.

The new collective agreement will expire on March 31 of this year.

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