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Public-service strike: Union 'fed up' with pace of talks but Ottawa blames union

OTTAWA — Talks between the federal government and the union representing 155,000 striking public servants appeared mired in communication issues on Saturday as both sides accused the other of obstructing negotiations and being too slow to respond to
Chris Aylward, PSAC National President, speaks to reporters at a news conference on the status of negotiations with Treasury Board, as workers from Canada's largest federal public-service union are on strike across the country, in Ottawa, on Saturday, April 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — Talks between the federal government and  the union representing 155,000 striking public servants appeared mired in communication issues on Saturday as both sides accused the other of obstructing negotiations and being too slow to respond to key developments.

The head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada held a news conference to blast Ottawa's Treasury Board for its failure to respond to a revised contract offer and called on the prime minister to help hasten the pace of contract talks.

But the office of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier fired back an hour later, saying efforts to meet with the union went unanswered on Friday, and a Saturday afternoon meeting was cancelled nine minutes after being arranged.

The union's president, Chris Aylward, said he was still waiting for a response to new proposals tabled on Thursday evening. Fortier's office acknowledged the new offer but challenged Aylward's timeline.

It said the union was "unreachable at the common issues table" all day on Friday. It reached out again through a mediator on Saturday with plans to put forward a revised offer of its own at 1 p.m., but accused the union of thwarting those plans. 

"The union took three hours to respond to the request, initially accepting the meeting at 12:31pm and then at 12:40pm advised they were no longer available at that time," the board's statement read. "While our negotiators and our offer waited, Mr. Aylward chose instead to go on television to complain he had not received it."

For his part, Aylward focused most of his criticisms on Fortier during Saturday's bargaining update.

"This screams of the incompetence of Mona Fortier . . . and her team," Aylward told reporters outside an Ottawa hotel. "The prime minister has done nothing to move these negotiations along. Our members are fed up."

Fortier's office also accused the union of inflexibility, a trait it said was evident in Thursday's offer, but noted both sides returned to the table after the news conference. 

Aylward said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should take a role in the negotiations and exert his influence to ensure the talks progress more quickly.

Trudeau said last week the government believes in collective bargaining, adding there have been advances at the bargaining table. He acknowledged the importance of supporting those working in the public service, given the rising cost of inflation.

More than 100,000 union members walked off the job Wednesday as contract talks broke down after months of negotiations.

On Saturday, Aylward offered encouragement to union members on the picket lines.

"Stay strong," he said. "We are not going to let them wear us down or wear us out. We will stay here until we get the fair deal that our members deserve." 

The union has said almost a third of all federal public servants are involved in the job action.

Salaries have been top of mind at the table, with the union pushing for annual raises of 4.5 per cent over the next three years. Treasury Board said it has offered the union a nine per cent raise over three years on the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission.

Aylward said the union will strike for as long as it takes, but a limited strike fund suggests that may be difficult to accomplish.

According to its most recent available financial statements, the union had about $43 million at the end of 2021. It is offering $75 per day in base strike pay to workers who show up to the picket line.

Aylward said he's not concerned about money running out, saying the union has other sources of funding but declining to elaborate.

On Thursday, the federal labour board issued a decision saying there was "significant concern" about the recent strike vote because of a low turnout and irregularities. The board found the union failed to properly alert members that it had shortened the voting period by eight days, moving the deadline from April 19 to April 11. 

Only about 35 per cent of members of the bargaining unit, or 38,207 people, cast a ballot — and 80 per cent of them were in favour of a strike mandate. 

The labour board decided against overturning the vote, finding it was unlikely there would have been a different result even if the union had been more forthcoming with its members. 

Aylward has said it was regrettable that union members say they didn't get a fair chance to participate, noting strike votes were publicized by email, social media, digital ads and word of mouth. 

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is the largest federal public service union, representing more than 230,000 workers across the country.

The strike affects about 155,000 union members, including 35,000 with the Canada Revenue Agency. It has caused widespread disruptions to a variety of government services and threatens to bring the personal tax filing season to a halt.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2023.

— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press

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