JOHNSON – How PSAC played the inflation card to get what it wanted

(Image: Mel Rothenburger)


AS OF MAY 4, it appears that the Federal Government and the union bargaining for 150,000 employees have come to two separate agreements. The deal with 30,000 PSAC Union of Taxation Employees (UTE) that work for CRA and are the people that do our taxes for us, have followed an announcement that the rest of the 120,000 PSAC workers reached a deal on Monday.

David Johnson.

It looks like a 12.6% over 4 year deal, with a onetime payout of $2,500 for everyone involved.
Included is language on the remote work issue, but even if it does not spell out remote work as any kind of hard right, it does open the door to future discussions regarding it by agreeing to undertake a review of the directive on virtual work arrangements, and to create a panel to advise the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner regarding employee concerns.

The CRA employees are a step further ahead by gaining the understanding that remote work will be assessed individually and will be subject to grievances.

This deal lasts until October 2025 and needs to be ratified by members. The union is recommending ratification.

Despite the strike, CRA said the tax filing deadline had not changed, meaning returns should have been filed and any balance owed should have been paid by May 1.

When asked about any service backlog once the strike ends, the CRA stated they have “already taken measures to resume its normal operations and to fully restore affected services.”

That’s the news of the day, and I am left perusing just how the strike went and the attendant behaviour that we saw from strikers, the union and the Federal Government / negotiating employer group.

What became ever so abundantly clear is the perception that the whole exercise was a massive media programming PR event that was carefully orchestrated so that almost every day a story came from both sides designed to garner the support of Canadians and the media. Nothing to do with agreeing on anything, just getting a clear message out.

This was all about messaging at the highest level, and it seems that the PSAC union won this theatrical endeavour, hands down.

The thing is, to get the larger world to hear your labour/pay cheque plight, you have to use messaging that everyone will understand and intuitively feel. The goal must be to pull on heartstrings across the country, so that you end up with as many Canadians as possible behind you. This requires carefully orchestrated and preplanned messaging.

I paid attention to not just union leaders but to the opposite sides’ employer negotiators and government, as well as our PM and various Minister comments on the strike.

Throughout, a few things became quite clear.

At the end of the day, union negotiators (or at least their curators of messaging) are little more than extremely highly skilled messengers of rhetorical hyperbole, almost as well-heeled in the art as the politicians on the other side.

They know when and how to time and nurture their message to media and onward to Canadians’ ears, understand when to stop, when to change gears and when to add a new line to their oratory.
But the interesting part of this story is actually far, far larger than just this one labour dispute, involving this one union, in this one country.

Within the last year a number of large unions around the world have pulled the plug on accepting what historically would be ‘reasonable’ offers and contracts, and have begun to push for far more because in the last year one more thing happened and added itself to the mix… inflation.

Yes, bills are higher, food is more expensive and basics are more costly, everybody in the western world is feeling this pinch, some countries far more aggressively than others. Canada has been actually quite lucky economically in comparison to most, but that doesn’t change anything when you’re talking worker contracts.

Inflation is the key word for 2023, and labour realized that this is a pretty useful rhetorical tool to jam into their toolbox. And used it … they have.

In the UK, their health system (NHS) has seen almost every labour group pile on and launch strike action. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Ambulance services, doctors who operate under the British Medical Association and others. All these groups, plus midwives and Junior doctors walked out in January, and they were also joined by dentists.

Interestingly, if you watched coverage of the NHS strike, you see a lot of personal stories of single mom nurses with kids struggling to pay the bills due to increased costs of living because of inflation.

One reporter even stated how he was given a specific list of workers to get in touch with and follow, and when he did, he noticed that they were very well prepared, and were well versed with the same line of messaging between them all, sometimes and oddly … word for word.

Here’s the thing, unions everywhere have realized that the present inflation situation is a perfect time to push very, very hard for far more than they normally would when negotiating for contracts. They also know that inflation will not last forever, so the clock is ticking to gouge as much as they can while they have this tool to use.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada leaders seem to be taking some cues from this and other recent labour strikes around the world like the UK.

That’s not to say that PSAC or NHS workers don’t need a healthy increase … but it does show that unions leaders are not idiots and can plainly see that they need to take advantage of the situation.

Inflation and cost of living is numero-uno on their messaging list, as it’s one that is understandable by everyone; members and public, and is almost impossible for government and employers to argue.

Yes, inflation does make shopping and living in this economy tough, but Federal employees are only as affected as anyone else working full time, some would say they are actually better off when compared to many, many people working in this economy.

Let’s look at some actual stats.

The Canadian median annual wage is just over $51,000 (before income tax) … and that’s median or average. That means there are a LOT of people working in the economy that earn some or much less than that.

Anyone … working at McDonalds or such like lower scale jobs, or receiving disability or Canada Pension etc … have an argument for very real and serious economic woes. Many people at this wage or benefit rate are actually at the foodbanks, and that’s because of inflation.

Are families living under these federal employment wages feeling forced to consider a cheaper cell phone provider for example, or are they fighting with the decision to either pay rent or buy food instead?

If you listen to PSAC leaders, they will tell you that ‘some’ of these workers are lining up at foodbanks or going to bed hungry.

Keep in mind that these representatives only need to hear from one person in the country covered by their mandate that needed a foodbank, and they can use the term ‘some’. Exaggerating the very real needs of the very few as rhetoric for the many, is a media friendly trick and those well versed in such, use it well.

Inflation seems to be the new buzzword in labour negotiations.

One other thing has become noticeable.

PSAC’s original offer was 13.5% over 3 years, but that wasn’t exactly accurate. It did not include original asks that included very costly benefit improvements that when added all together actually equaled up to 14% per year, or up to 45% compounded over 3 years. None of that’s really surprising; unions always ‘shoot for the moon’, knowing their ask is completely unaffordable.

At the same time early on, the federal government moved up to 9% … and appeared to be unwilling to budge. That’s an interesting number, that has gotten attention across the labour and employer market across the country.

Less than 10% over 3 years.

The question that some pundits were talking about was whether the union could get a 10% over 3 year deal … or into double digit territory? Can the federal government hold fast and not allow this numerical barbell to be reached? A double-digit increase would be pretty tumultuous. Not a lot of individual labour contracts signed in Canada in recent memory has provided 10% or more over 3 years.

This achievement seems to have been in the PSAC’s headlights. If they were able to pull off, it will send shockwaves through the union/labour market across the country. Imagine the next provincial workers’ unions, nurses, teachers and pretty much anyone entering into contract negotiations saying “the PSAC got 10+%”.

A situation that union and employer groups across the country were carefully watching, but at the end of the day it seems a big whoosh of air was released with this deal: 12% over 4 years. The federal government will be seen as not ‘caving’ to this threshold, by stretching the contract to 4 years instead of three … and it’s still a win for the PSAC as they received a pretty good contract for their members.

All the other unions watching can’t say that the 10% over 3 years barrier has been breached, and employers around the country breathed a sigh of relief.

At time of writing, the UK strike has been settled by many of their union groups, and some are holding out for more. The one liner seems to be about 14% over 2 years for some or 5% for the single year for others. Those are huge numbers in comparison to Canadian negotiations.

At the end of the day, this year’s blip of inflation has turned into a divining rod for labour negotiations. Time will tell regarding how much prices will lower after the inflation rate drops back down … as it always does.

But … one makes hay while the sun shines.

David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on JOHNSON – How PSAC played the inflation card to get what it wanted

  1. They got much more than they should’ve in my (self-employed) opinion. And their “messaging” was unconvincing in my (self-employed) opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: