This article was originally published in Press Progess on April 19th, 2023. It is reprinted here with permission.

One of the largest strikes in Canadian history kicked off Wednesday morning.

Federal workers within two bargaining units, the Canada Revenue Agency and the Treasury Board, who are members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and spread across 20 departments, began a legal strike at 12:01 AM on Wednesday, April 19.

The two PSAC bargaining units make up 155,000 federal workers across Canada. Over 100,000 workers will participate in the strike, while 47,000 workers deemed “essential” will remain on the job.

PSAC has released a list of 250 picket line locations across Canada, including government buildings and MP’s offices.

PSAC President Chris Aylward has said the strikes are meant to be “strategic” and target specific locations to minimize the impact to the public while keeping pressure on the government. This means not all 100,000 workers may be on strike at once.

“We’ve been in bargaining for almost two years,” Aylward said in a Tuesday night press conference. “Our issues at the bargaining table still have not been addressed by this employer.”

“We do not have a tentative agreement. We are still here at the table. We will remain at the table, we will remain for as long as it takes during the strike. And we will remain on strike until the government addresses our key issues at the bargaining table.”

“The members are pumped,” Aylward added. “Our members are prepared to fight for a good, decent, fair collective agreement.”

Withholding labour through a strike is one of the most powerful bargaining chips workers hold to force their employers to improve wages and working conditions when other options have failed.

Why are Public Service Alliance of Canada members striking?

The 100,000 public servants are fighting for higher wages, remote work policies, policies to address systemic racism, shift premiums and job security. PSAC has not had a contract since June 2021 – nearly two years ago. Bargaining reached an impasse in May 2022.

PSAC has asked for wage increases of 4.5% each year for 2021, 2022 and 2023. The Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board’s Public Interest Commission released a report in February 2023 with non-binding recommendations for a 1.5% wage increase for 2021, 4.5% for 2022 and 3% for 2023. The federal government’s most recent offer matched the report recommendations. PSAC says the government’s offer averages to only 2% raises a year for 2021-25 – and called it “completely out of touch with the soaring cost of living across Canada.”

Industrial relations experts say PSAC’s wage demands are “not surprising” considering rising inflation over the last several years. While the inflation rate appears to be cooling, grocery prices have increased at double the rate of inflation and have yet to fall.

35,000 CRA workers obtained a strike mandate on April 7 followed by another 120,000 Treasury Board workers who obtained a strike mandate on April 12.

How will the strike impact you?

The strike could impact services spread across more than a dozen government departments.

“Certainly, some services will be shut down, some services will be delayed,” PSAC national president Aylward explained Monday.

“There will certainly be delays in applications around passport, immigration applications, Employment insurance applications – there will certainly be a slow down there. Our imports and exports may be affected as well, so that will obviously impact the economy.”

The CRA has said tax return deadlines will not be extended during the strike. Online access to CRA services will remain available, although there may be delays for the call centre and processing income tax returns. The federal government released a list of possible full or partial disruptions by department.

What are political leaders saying?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that “both parties are working extremely diligently and (with) a lot of intensity to resolve this for Canadians.”

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has called for the government to negotiate a fair contract with PSAC to avoid a strike. Singh also said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brought up the possibility of using back-to-work legislation to break the strike, which Singh opposed. Singh’s opposition would force Trudeau and his minority Liberal government to ask Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre to help pass back-to-work legislation.

The federal Conservatives previously used back-to-work legislation to break the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ strike in 2011 which was later found unconstitutional. Poilievre is notoriously anti-union and has previously boasted that he was the first federal politician to champion right-to-work laws which undermine union strength.

Poilievre made no public statements about the strike on Tuesday night.

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Emily Leedham is PressProgress’ Prairies Reporter. Her reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, big money and corporate influence, and systemic racism.