As a food service worker at CFB Esquimalt, Wendy Keeping is no stranger to 14-hour shifts while being on the clock for weekends and every statutory holiday to keep the military fed.
After never being in a union over her 63 years, she said joining other Vancouver Island workers on the picket lines Wednesday was the right thing to do as about one-third of Canada’s federal public servants were striking nationwide.
Strike actions were expected at more than 250 locations across Canada after the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) couldn’t reach an agreement by an April 18 deadline.
CFB Esquimalt’s Keeping may have to move away from Victoria as pay has fallen below the local living wage level.
“We have had no cost-of-living raise whatsoever in one of the most expensive cities to live in, in Canada – it’s a struggle,” Keeping said. “We have to be out here, we don’t have a choice.”
Wage increases are a top item in the negotiations, with the union pushing for annual raises of 4.5 per cent over the next three years – which PSAC said is necessary to keep pace with inflation and the cost of living. The Treasury Board says it offered the union a nine per cent raise over three years on April 16, on the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission.
Meanwhile, more than 200 federal public workers gathered by the entrance to CFB Comox Wednesday (April 19).
Camille Soper, president of UNDE 21007 noted employees striking include Department of National Defence employees such as cooks, cleaners, administrative clerks, tradespeople, vehicle maintainers and civilian aircraft maintainers. Other federal department employees were also present on the picket line from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency.
Soper said the strike has brought staffing down a bit in some departments, and the public will see some services reduced.
“We’re just asking the public to be patient – there will be delays but it’s not (a full) shutdown.”
Workers on the picket line will be present in front of the base between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.
“We’re trying to be as least disruptive as we can … we want the public to support us … but we also want to make a statement to say that we’re here because we’re not getting offered fair wages,” noted Soper.
A similar cluster of clerks, pipefitters, plumbers, carpenters, firefighters and more who make up some of the around 1,400 civilian CFB Esquimalt employees were posted at a picket line outside the base on Wednesday morning. It takes all of those members to keep the fleet going and ensure the base’s armed forces personnel are ready for duty, said Ian Wiggs.
“Everyone that’s needed to run a base, we’re here,” the site’s strike captain said.
Negotiations have been going on for two years after collective agreements expired in 2021, with household expenses shooting up in the years since.
“A number of our members are feeling the pinch and they’re having a rough time,” Wiggs said. “With proper negotiations and the Treasury Board sitting at the table and helping out, we can get our families back up and running.”
Claudette Bath had to max out credit lines amid the recent cost-of-living increases and as pay levels for some naval base members were capped below $22 an hour.
“It’s really hard to make ends meet,” the administration worker said. “There are a lot of expectations put on us and for the money we bring home, it’s pretty depressing.”
Remote work is another element PSAC members want in a new collective agreement and for those striking outside the federal building on Government Street, they were able to hit more targets while working from home.
The downtown office processes applications for programs like the Canada Pension Plan, old age security and disability benefits – a workload that’s been increasing in recent years as baby boomers retire in droves. The public servants hope for inflation-matching wages as strikers said they’re pressured to get through more items every day and are often working through breaks to help more clients.
“The goal is to receive a fair wage increase that allows people to live and buy groceries and gas and not lose their houses,” Jenn Kennedy said as she assisted other members at the downtown strike.
The strike comes on the heels of next month’s tax filing deadline and could also result in slowdowns at the border and disruptions to employment insurance, immigration and passport applications.
With files from the Canadian Press