Lessons learned from the OAG strike
On April 2, PSAC members at the Office of the Auditor General of Canada voted overwhelmingly to ratify their hard-won collective agreement, concluding a 128-day strike in the midst of a global pandemic.
The new agreement addresses key concerns including a conversion to a 5-step pay grid for all members, fair economic increases, and improvements to leaves around family and caregiving responsibilities. There is also new language for leave for survivors of domestic violence.
Striking in a pandemic
In addition to the 2021 – 2022 strike being the first in the history of the Office of the Auditor General, the 170 members at the OAG undertook the first PSAC general strike in the pandemic.
The vast majority of the workers in the Audit Services Group (ASG) had been working remotely for nearly two years. Face-to-face opportunities to engage members and escalate workplace actions were extremely limited. Many of the traditional engagement and mobilization strategies had to be completely re-imagined for a virtual context.
“The ASGs prior to the strike were part of very different teams in the office yet we form this very large group and the strike brought us together and we were able to collaborate together so well. We never felt like a big ASG community until the strike,” said Marie-Ève Tremblay, a member of the bargaining team.
As talks at the bargaining table lagged, members started using virtual backgrounds and email signature blocks with messages supporting their bargaining team at work. This helped stand in for buttons and lanyards and bracelets, which are not as visible in a virtual work environment.
Prior to launching an online email tool to put pressure on the employer and garnering public support and awareness, members at the OAG were invited to sign a petition letter to the employer regarding their bargaining concerns. This had the added benefit of giving local leaders data on where membership engagement was at and who is missing from the list, which also indicated who they could prioritize for one-on-one conversations.
At lunchtime rallies members were invited to wear the same colour shirt and use virtual backgrounds while the bargaining team discussed updates and answered questions.
At virtual lunchtime rallies members were invited to wear the same colour shirt and use virtual backgrounds while the bargaining team discussed updates and answered questions. As frustration grew with bargaining, members soon felt a need to escalate actions.
The local formed a mobilization committee and created a WhatsApp group chat where members of the committee could share ideas and propose various tactics. This group chat expanded to 50 members (out of nearly 170 members in total) and mobilization plans took off. The mobilization committee also regularly met to discuss strategies and tactics and put together action proposals for the broader membership to give feedback on.
When all you have is digital communication
In absence of a union board or the ability for members to talk during coffee breaks about bargaining, having a full email list was essential for ensuring members were receiving bargaining updates. Local leaders made phone calls to collect and verify the accuracy of member contact information. Email tools such as Mailchimp became critical for managing email sends and the email list. These tools also meant that the union could look at the data on the back end regarding whether people were opening updates. This helped determine which members were the least engaged and who local leaders could reach out to with a phone call.
When members hear about a strike vote for which they didn’t receive an invite to attend, this can lead to anti-union and anti-strike sentiment. Members can feel as though they are powerless and not consulted on taking job action. One way to organize against an anti-union and anti-strike sentiment is to ensure that email lists are accurate so that members do not feel left behind.
Building virtual solidarity
The local also held virtual townhalls where members received bargaining updates and discussed mobilization strategies. In these meetings the Zoom polling feature proved to be effective in order to check the membership’s pulse on various strategies and mobilization plans. Members who voted against an action idea were invited to share their concerns so they could be addressed.
“I think that our members were not feeling heard by the OAG. They didn’t feel like they were listening to them and valuing their opinion, so it was important for me to listen to everyone and hear what they say so that they can feel heard and feel like their opinion does matter in the way the strike is going to unfold,” said Tremblay.
One of the benefits of meeting virtually is that members who might not have felt comfortable speaking in front of the group could post their questions and concerns in the chat. This helped create alternative avenues for participation.
Alex Silas, PSAC-NCR Regional Executive Vice-President shares:
“After one of these bargaining updates, we asked if folks had any questions. There was a long pause. So I changed the question and instead asked how members were feeling. This helped create some space for members to share their frustrations, their concerns, their doubts, their fears. In a virtual environment, we’re not able to get a sense for the mood of the room. It became important to create space for people to share feelings before trying to move towards making decisions. Often when members were sharing feelings you could hear them talking themselves in the direction towards taking action. You would also see members providing emotional support to each other in the chat. These spaces became an important way to build understanding and solidarity amongst the membership.”
After undertaking a successful strike vote, members quickly moved toward a work-to-rule strike on November 26.
Engaging in work-to-rule in the context of already being isolated and working from home required some way of making visible member participation to help overcome fears around being the only one taking action. In absence of the ability to gauge whether people were leaving the office and not doing overtime, the union organized virtual gatherings where members could share how their first few days were going, what the response from the employer was like, and provide support for each other in refusing overtime. It also helped indicate for the union which members were participating and whether those not participating could be invited to join in through targeted outreach and one-on-one conversations.
The local engaged in a combination of work-to-rule, rotating, strategic strikes and one-day general strikes to escalate pressure on the employer and build confidence at the local level.
“With the members it was difficult before Christmas. We just had WhatsApp and there were no regular meetings with the members, so we started to have those in January, every Monday night, and that helped make a difference,” said Caroline Leclerc, President of Local 70153.
But after two and a half months of escalation, nothing seemed to budge at the bargaining table.
“For the members probably the toughest moment was coming to the realization that the employer was putting us in the position where we had to physically withdraw labour. We came to the realization that we have to go further or we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Corey McCormick, a member of the bargaining team.
According to Tremblay, “we had been on strike for two and a half months doing work to rule, but we weren’t really getting anywhere, and making that decision knowing that the office would stop pay, knowing what we were asking members to do for the strike – that weighed a lot on me and made it extremely difficult. But the overwhelming response that we got from members and the solidarity that I felt was overwhelming, it was great—they were ready.”
“If somebody told me last summer that we were going on strike I would have said, no, we’re not going to go that far. But it wasn’t a surprise we did, because the employer went that far in the opposite direction,” said Leclerc.
Virtual general strike
“I think the most difficult part of it all was to navigate a virtual general strike. It was the first one, I don’t think anyone really knew how to navigate that, so there was a lot of ups and downs at the beginning of trying to figure out how the pieces work together and we had to remain flexible,” said Tremblay.
The virtual picket line tracked all media stories and the journalists covering the issue, mapped out allies, collaborated on over 20 projects, created social media content and regularly engaged in tweet storms, provided communications support, made hundreds of calls to MPs and wrote over 500 letters, met with several MPs, filed ATIP requests, created one very cheeky strike cookbook, and built up a lot of resources and capacity in the local.
“The best thing about the strike for me personally is some of the skills I’ve learned along the way, and us as a group learning new skills too, reaching out to MPs, writing letters and doing all these things—a lot of people didn’t have experience with this kind of stuff,” said McCormick.
But it wasn’t enough to only focus on the next big move.
“One of the things that helped the most in virtual environment was the creation of a safe mental health space – I think that immensely helped people, it was quite important for members— I jumped in those rooms and I was floored at how open people were and how much our members were helping others and I think that was crucial because without that avenue I think it would have been tough.”
Hybrid in-person and virtual pickets
While the vast majority of ASGs work in the national capital region, there are a few members of the local who are spread out across the country in Montreal, Edmonton, Moncton, Saskatoon, and Coquitlam. This meant that every in-person picket also required virtual actions and plans for members who could not join the picket line, alongside accommodations around disability, caregiver responsibilities, and health status.
Picketing in a pandemic saw the local side err on the side of caution, ensuring that members were masked up and social distancing where possible, and that attendees were not experiencing symptoms of COVID or identified as a close contact of a confirmed case.
As Omicron ramped up in January and the convoy took over the downtown core in February, “the timelines for us almost never lined up, there was always something, whether it was the pandemic or the convoy downtown and a lockdown of the city,” said McCormick. “There was a lot of planning and then having to take a step back and look at the situations again and then trying to move forward.”
Members on the virtual picket line amplified and supported the physical picket through the livestreams that broadcasted to PSAC-NCR social media channels. Members on the virtual picket line “wanted to help so much but felt that they couldn’t and seeing us and feeling our energy through the livestream and video calls gave them even more strength to continue and keep going on the virtual side,” said Tremblay.
In-person pickets rotated to target different decision-makers and put the focus on their role in causing the strike. The OAG blamed Treasury Board for not providing a mandate that could end the strike, so both the OAG and Treasury Board, including President Mona Fortier’s constituency office in Vanier, became targets for pickets and social media campaigning. Members created hilarious memes on social media pointing out the absurdity of this blame-game situation.
Classic strike stuff
The strike also featured a lot of the usual challenges that union members have faced time and time again. Whether that’s well-timed employer communications laden with suggestions that the union is not being honest with the workers, or the fact that information was getting back to the employer about strategy and plans, these classic strike challenges were also present in addition to having to figure out how to strike in a pandemic.
“Any of the employer communications seemed to further cause confusion and divide people, which is a tactic, but no matter how hard we tried to communicate in multiple ways, it created so much confusion with members because then they began doubting what we were saying,” said McCormick.
The local adapted quickly and set up virtual townhalls in response to employer communications, inviting the bargaining team and the PSAC negotiator to address member concerns and answer any questions. Participation at these emergency virtual townhalls saw over 100 members in attendance on one particular Friday night. Quickly, their confusion would turn to resolve and frustration that the employer was trying to divide the ASG community.
Members also experienced financial losses and the local’s funds have been depleted. One of the hardest parts of the strike for McCormick has been “the financial hardship people are still enduring and the stress that causes in so many different areas in life.”
With a revised mandate from Treasury Board and some unnecessary delays getting back to the bargaining table, the bargaining team found themselves engaged in a marathon of bargaining sessions, at one point amounting to 33.5 hours of bargaining over 3 days.
Members continued picketing outside the OAG to show support for the bargaining team as talks dragged on over the week.
For Tremblay, “showing up to the office and seeing all the members there waiting for us was the best feeling. The way our ASG community came together and showed solidarity and support every day right up until the end—that to me was the best.”
OAG is going to have a hard time next round
One of the key demands of the local sought to address wage parity and while the current deal includes an MOU to continue talks about this issue, it was not resolved in this round of bargaining.
However, the dedication, solidarity, and level of engagement of this local means that in the next round of bargaining, if members can remember key lessons learned this time around, it’s not so much a question of “if” but “when”—and the employer probably already knows this by now.
“The real victory here is the solidarity that’s been built,” said Silas.
“When you look at those two items we did get, the economic increase and pay grid for all of our members, I see that as a huge win for every single member in our community. So overall I think it was a good deal,” said Tremblay.
McCormick is already thinking about the next round of bargaining. “It was a good enough deal to end the strike and to start gathering our thoughts, bringing back our strength and getting ready for the next round.”
During the interview for this piece, McCormick said, “I hope there’s a message in there from us thanking the PSAC and UNE for their support along the way, how great the regional team was because this was not an easy thing to do. The leadership and guidance during these really difficult times was so very appreciated. Having Alex with us on the streets made for such a positive environment for us to be able to do this in such difficult circumstances. Everybody who was involved, we send out our heartfelt thanks.”