Front-line workers in the public sector don’t want to be treated as “second class” and are threatening to strike if they don’t get pay increases in line with professional and high-ranking federal workers.
“They are creating a class division within the public sector. (Our members) are insulted they are not being recognized for the work they are doing,” said Nycole Turmel, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), who represents the workers.
Some 90,000 public servants will be in a legal strike position by the end of August and are willing to walk if steps aren’t taken to address the disparity in wages. In a recent strike vote, 63 per cent voted in favour of strike action. That is a higher percentage of workers compared to those who chose to walk in a similar strike in 1991 over wage freezes and privatization.
Turmel said the push to attract and retain workers in high-demand professions like “knowledge workers” and what the government is willing to do to achieve that, has stratified the public sector and left front-line workers in the cold.
“We’ve had enough of the Treasury Board’s double standard of offering the front-line workers a two per cent increase while giving the senior executives 8.7 per cent,” said Turmel.
Talks started last year between PSAC, which represents the employees, and the government but hit major roadblocks over the issue of money. The two sides are now in conciliation and the union expects its members to be in a legal strike position by late August.
Turmel said front-line workers, mainly blue- and pink-collar workers and trades people — secretaries, clerks, technicians, plumbers — get annual raises of two per cent while higher-ranking workers and professionals are offered special incentives and richer pay packages.
Government executives recently received an 8.7-per-cent raise and the federal government paid $19 million in performance pay wages and bonuses last year to 95 per cent of its 3,330 executives. Federal economists and social scientists have reached one of the richest tentative deals in terms of wages, which could be between 10.4 per cent and 20 per cent over three years.
Professional workers, like policy analysts and IT workers, were offered annual pay increases of 2.5 per cent but, as Turmel points out, that was topped up with lump sum terminable allowances. The Treasury Board has also increased salary caps for some positions.
Members of PSAC, who make up 70 per cent of the public service, make an average annual salary of $32,000 putting them among the lowest paid in the government.
“We are saying that if they deserve an increase and all these bonuses that we deserve an increase as well,” said Turmel.
PSAC is asking for annual pay increases of five per cent across the board over the next three years.
Attracting more people into political life has also prompted a recommendation for increasing pay for elected officials and other political executives. New legislation calls for a 20-per-cent pay increase for MPs and senators and a 40-per-cent pay hike for the Prime Minister. The increases will bring the MPs pay package to $131,400 and the PM’s to nearly $263,000.
“If senior executives and MPs are promoting the fact they are working hard, then that means that the people who we represent, the front-line workers, are working just as hard because they are the ones behind these people,” said Turmel.
A PSAC strike could cripple the government and threaten services.
“The population is starting to see and react. The population is paying for the inefficiency. They see a difference in the public sector.”
Compared to the private sector, government employees do make more money. According to a recent report from the Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc., government wages on average are nine per cent higher than those in private sector. But the report also showed that wages in the public sector are lower for upper-level jobs compared to the private sector, making it difficult to recruit people into those management roles.
"The spread between the top and the bottom of the pay scale is less in government than in the private sector, likely a result of political, public and collective bargaining pressures," write the co-authors of Pay Differences between the Government and Private Sectors: Labour Force Survey and Census Estimates.