The upper hand

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As I write this, it was recently announced that thousands of federal government workers from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) have reached a tentative deal for a return to work. Pending the final vote, workers will soon have reasonable wage increases and other satisfied demands under their belts. Unions – and strikes in particular – have always been a polarizing topic. My opinion has changed over the years. 

Throughout my teen years and very young adulthood, I was strongly anti-union. I believe this was born from personal experience. Both of my parents worked very hard in jobs that were nonetheless on the lower end of the average pay scale. My dad was a union member for most of my childhood, but never felt that the union did enough to fight for its members. My mom’s work didn’t have a union, and she often wished it did for the sake of better pay and working conditions. 

Growing up, hearing about unions usually meant hearing about public sector strikes. Teachers, postal employees, government office workers, and university professors. It was often my observation that most (but not all) employees in these sectors were making a generous wage with stellar job benefits compared to what most private sector employees such as my parents could expect. The thought that someone sitting in a cushy office job making $90,000 a year and with amazing benefits was going on strike in a fit of self-pity angered me, simply because my dad was inhaling fumes and breaking his back every day as a welder for less than half that much. 

Now, while I still stand by low paid workers and believe they deserve understanding, respect, and change, I have a better understanding of public sector unions and what they fight for. I also know that it is possible to support all workers, not just ones in certain pay grades. My wife is a PSAC member, and I am a CUPE member. We have therefore recently both been on strike within six months of each other. It felt odd to be on strike as a CUPE member, knowing how much I used to want to smack those striking public sector workers a decade ago. What shocked me was the realization that that we really didn’t have a choice. No… seriously. 

When we went on strike as education support workers, it was because our wage grid had fallen so far behind that entry level general labour jobs were paying anywhere from a few dollars less to a few dollars more per hour than what we were making. I know of a factory in our area that is always looking for staff (sound familiar?) and pays about $2 more per hour for starting labourers with no experience than what the average education support worker made pre-strike. In a market where employers can’t fill jobs, and a person can make more in an entry level job than in one requiring specific education, experience, and skills, we run the risk of losing core government services. Before the strike, I knew of many CUPE workers who were going to have no choice but to seek other employment. The strike was disruptive, but it may well have prevented longer term school closures or switches to online learning due to staff shortages. In the current labour market and economy, the strike was essential to keep schools running. Believe it or not, schools still struggle to find staff to this day. 

The PSAC strike was similar. All unions have workers who make good money, and others who make an average or low-end wage. Experience in government workers is essential – years of using the government’s computer programs and systems comes in very handy when processing information in an efficient manner. Good use of tax dollars depends on this. A bad economy is hitting everyone hard, and PSAC members are no different. With wages falling behind inflation, it was only a matter of time before good, experienced workers would have started seeking other employment. After all, it seems like everyone is hiring now, doesn’t it? For the first time in my lifetime, the job seeker has the upper hand. Employers are actually competing for staff. McDonalds and other large chains are paying entry level workers above minimum wage, just a few short years after complaining that minimum wage increases were too hard to bear. The last thing we want is for all of our experienced public servants to seek jobs elsewhere and leave us with a bunch of low paid inexperienced staff who can’t assist us when we need it the most. Just as with the CUPE strike, the PSAC job action was a necessity, especially given that the previous collective agreement expired in June of 2021. 

What angered my wife the most during the PSAC strike was misinformation spread by otherwise trusted media. For example, various media outlets reported that PSAC members continued getting paid during the strike. I can assure you that pay was not earned by striking PSAC members on strike days, except for a union stipend for picketers which members pay into. 

An example to help my point: in North Dundas, the two community pools will only be opening part time this summer due to a shortage of lifeguards. This is another job with wages that have not kept up with inflation, so who can blame these teens for not taking these jobs when they could make more money elsewhere? And it’s the public who suffers. In a recent Council meeting in that same Township, the hours of the Kemptville Wendy’s location were brought up by the Deputy Mayor, who pointed out that the franchise simply can’t get the staff needed to open up at lunch time. And it’s the public who suffers. Unions work for their members to ensure that this same lack of staffing does not extend to our schools, our government services, our mail, etc. I see that now. 

Workers now have the upper hand. Is that such a bad thing? It depends on who you ask. Taking a positive outlook, it may be better to appreciate that the services we depend on will be here to stay. In a society where everyone benefits from government services at least occasionally, maybe that means it’s all of Canada that has the upper hand when experienced workers are compensated fairly. Finally, something worth celebrating. 

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