The new villain? Workers fighting for better wages. Don’t fall for it

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday October 5, 2022. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

The reaction was swift, brutal — and entirely predictable. When news broke that some federal public sector workers started collective bargaining negotiations asking for a 33 per cent wage increase (over three years), commentary was as unsympathetic as you might expect.

They’re lazy. They’re greedy. They’re going to cost us all.

This is an important chapter in the history of workers’ struggles for decent work, a moment of fighting not only inflation but long-standing systemic inequalities.

It has the potential to pit unionized worker against non-unionized worker, and private sector worker against public sector worker. Or it has the potential to pave the path toward decent work, through fairness and equity.

This example of collective bargaining has echoes of it all. Let’s dive in.

The Public Service Alliance represents 230,000 federal public sector workers. About 35,000 people work in towns across Canada for the Canada Revenue Agency, as call centre employees and workers who process tax returns. They are also the people who pivoted, virtually overnight, to roll out historic pandemic relief, processing the more than 27 million CERB applications that kept Canadians afloat.

A subgroup of these workers has fallen behind their colleagues doing the same work elsewhere in the public service. Their union representatives are making two reasonable but unrelated asks of the federal government: to catch up with inflation over the next three years, and to achieve wage parity for those earning less than other federal employees doing the same jobs.

The entry-level wage for these workers is roughly $20 an hour, or $41,500 a year, before taxes. Most of these people (59 per cent) are women and about a third are people of colour.