Cory Morgan: Canadians Have Little Appetite for Another Public Service Union Strike

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Commentary

In April 2023, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) went on strike. Government services came to a near standstill as over 100,000 federal employees hit the picket lines. The strike ended with a generous settlement, with pay increases imposed retroactively to 2022 and cumulatively totalling 14.5 percent in 2024.

The labour peace with Canada’s federal workers was short-lived, however. PSAC president Chris Aylward recently promised a “summer of discontent,“ saying “the Trudeau Liberal government better prepare itself.”

What happened to cause such rage among one of Canada’s largest unions? What terrible demand has been made of federal workers to bring about a potential summer of strife and labour action?

The government is asking federal workers to come in to the office to work for three days a week.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both the public and private sectors created work-from-home models for employees so work could continue while under restrictions. Although most private sector companies have returned to business as usual, many public employees are only coming into the office two days a week. Some companies have kept their remote-work programs for employees, but only when it could be demonstrated that productivity can be maintained.

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The problem with the case being made by PSAC against having workers return to their offices is there is little indication that employees have been working productively or efficiently at all. They are going to have a difficult time garnering sympathy from the public with their labour action when they have already been serving citizens rather poorly for years.

The size of Canada’s federal public service has grown by over 40 percent in the last 10 years. That’s orders of magnitude above and beyond the nation’s population growth. Despite the addition of so many employees, measurable outcomes from federal services don’t show any signs of better efficiency or productivity.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is one of the largest branches of the federal bureaucracy, employing nearly 60,000 people. With online tax filing tools and modern databases, one would think efficiency would improve in dealing with the CRA. Instead, waiting for hours on hold to make a simple phone inquiry is standard practice. An audit from 2017 found that once a person got through to a CRA agent, they had a 30 percent chance of getting bad advice. Nothing appears to have improved since then and Canada’s Auditor General has been tasked yet again to look into the issue.

If a person tries to email or write to the CRA rather than phoning, they had better be patient. The average time for a response is 53 days! Unresolved issues with the CRA can lead to interest or late penalties being applied to taxes owed, and it puts citizens in a very difficult position.

The CRA has roughly one employee for every 678 Canadians. By comparison, the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has one employee for every 4,300 Americans. While there are doubtless many inefficiencies within the IRS, how is it that it manages to function with a fraction of the equivalent employees of the CRA?

Government services in other departments don’t fare much better than the CRA. A report from Canada’s Auditor General in March 2023 on the immigration department was scathing. Applications for permanent residency are hopelessly backed up, with sponsored refugees waiting 30 months on average for a decision on their applications, leaving tens of thousands of them in residency limbo. The same report also found that delivery of government OAS, EI, and CPP could be at risk because of outdated technology. Her report said only 38 percent of the government’s roughly 7,500 information technology systems were “healthy.” Even simple passport renewals can take months.

Canada’s standard of living has been in decline for years as the GDP per capita continues to fall. While employment in the public sector continues to grow, private-sector employment has been stagnant. The Bank of Canada has warned that the country’s decline in productivity is an economic emergency.  As the public sector continues to grow, the private sector struggles further to fund it, leading to an economic imbalance and lowered national productivity. It’s a downward spiral.

Canada needs to be seeking ways to reduce the size of the civil service and improve the efficiency of the workers it retains.

Rather than threatening a summer of disruptive labour action over having to go to the office three days a week, public service unions would be better served to seek efficiencies and prove to taxpayers that workers are indeed doing a good job and are worth retaining in any capacity, much less working from home.

Citizens are tired and struggling in today’s economy. They have little appetite for being put over the barrel by public service unions while taxes continue to rise.

Service disruptions purposely caused by public service employees could backfire if they push Canadians too far. The federal government will eventually have to get spending in check and if there isn’t much public support for the civil service, emboldened politicians may opt for some big cuts.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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