Federal workers’ possible strike would affect courts, immigration processing, other services

By Cristin Schmitz

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 18, 2023 @ 9:11 AM

Law360 Canada (April 17, 2023, 3:39 PM EDT) -- The Supreme Court of Canada and other federal courts headquartered in Ottawa, as well lawyers and notaries working for federal government, are bracing for the fallout if employees represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) walk out April 19, in the absence of a settlement with Ottawa in the meantime.

On April 17, the country’s largest public-sector union announced that 155,000 PSAC members — 120,000 working for Treasury Board and 35,000 working at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) — will begin strike action on April 19, if a deal with Treasury Board cannot be reached by April 18 at 9 p.m. EDT.

“We’ve made some progress at each of our four bargaining tables over the past two weeks, but we’re still too far apart on several key issues, including wages that keep up with the cost of living, job security and remote work language,” Chris Aylward, PSAC's national president, said in a statement.

“We’re committed to remaining at the table until a fair deal is reached for all our members – both for our 35,000 CRA members who resume negotiations today, and our 120,000 Treasury Board members still at the table.”

PSAC said its members have been without a contract since negotiations with the federal government began in June 2021, and last week “voted overwhelmingly” in favour of taking strike action.

“With so many federal public service workers potentially on strike as of April 19, Canadians can expect to see slowdowns or a complete shutdown of services nationwide, including a complete halt of the tax season, disruptions to employment insurance, immigration and passport applications; interruptions to supply chains and international trade at ports, harbours, and airports; and slowdowns at the border with administrative staff on strike,” the union said in its press release.

The Association of Justice Counsel (AJC), representing about 3,100 lawyers, notaries and prosecutors who are members of the federal government’s law group, will not be on strike. However, the AJC sent a note to its members April 17 suggesting lawyers and notaries could show “your support for colleagues who are on strike” in several ways.

Law360 Canada asked the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as the Courts Administration Service (CAS) — the registry for the Federal Court, Federal Court of Appeal, Tax Court of Canada and Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada — what impact a strike would have on their operations.

Stéphanie Bachand, the Supreme Court’s executive legal officer and chief of staff to Chief Justice Richard Wagner, said fewer than 50 of the court’s approximately 200 employees are eligible to strike.

Should there be a strike, “the appeal hearings in April and May will proceed, as scheduled, with essential staff and managers providing services,” Bachand said by email. “The judgment process will not be impacted. Our e-filing portal will remain accessible. Filing of documents will therefore not be affected.”

Bachand added that if a strike action should affect the timeliness of reviewing filings or responding to phone calls or correspondence, the court will post a message on its website or on its e-filing portal access page, as necessary.

CAS communications manager Kristina Jelinic told Law360 Canada by email PSAC does not represent lawyers or law clerks at the four courts the registry serves. “Should there be a strike, parties can expect some delays and disruptions,” she advised. “Please monitor each court’s respective website for any further updates.” The CAS had approximately 755 full-time employees in 2022, according to the registry’s website.

On April 14, the Federal Court posted a brief notice on its website, titled “Potential Labour Conflict,” which states that its registry “will remain open throughout the dispute. However, the public may experience disruptions or delays in response times. Essential CAS personnel will continue to work throughout the conflict to maintain core services. The Court will continue to give priority to all urgent matters. The Court will attentively monitor the situation as it evolves.”

The Federal Court added “parties are encouraged to regularly check its website for updates and information regarding Court operations.”

The day before, the Federal Court of Appeal issued a notice stating that “a strike may have an impact on court operations. All matters scheduled to be heard at the Federal Court of Appeal will proceed unless parties are advised otherwise. There may be a delay in phone and email response time, and in processing documents submitted for filing. Parties and litigants are encouraged to visit the Court’s website regularly for the most up-to-date information.”

The Tax Court of Canada posted a notice advising “that some employees of the CAS who provide administrative services to the Tax Court of Canada are currently in a legal strike position. Service delays and disruptions could ensue as a result. All matters scheduled to be heard will proceed unless parties are advised otherwise.”

The union for federal lawyers and notaries told its members “while the AJC encourages you to be supportive of your striking colleagues, it is important to remember that the AJC is not currently in a strike position, and you must abide by the terms and conditions of the LP (law practitioner) Collective Agreement, and report to work as scheduled.”

The AJC advised “if a picket line blocks access to your office building, call your supervisor or another management representative to request safe passage through the picket line, or to request that you be permitted to work remotely during the strike.”

“If your management team asks you to perform the work of a colleague on strike, we encourage you to raise concerns that the work is outside of your job description and/or bargaining unit work, preferably in writing,” the union said. “You may also inquire about whether any essential services agreement concluded with the striking bargaining agent may assist the Employer in assigning essential work. If a manager insists that you perform newly assigned work, you should comply in conformity with the ‘work now, grieve later principle.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

When asked by reporters April 17 whether the Liberal government would introduce back-to-work legislation if employees walk out April 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government’s focus is on: “the bargaining table.”

The Treasury Board issued a release April 17 stating “we are making every effort to avoid a labour disruption.”

The Treasury Board said that on April 2, the government and PSAC started two weeks of mediated negotiations for the four bargaining units poised to strike: technical services; operational services including nearly 10,000 employees responsible for the operation of federal buildings and services; about 98,000 program and administrative services employees responsible for program administration, information services, communications, secretarial services, office equipment, administrative services, welfare programs, clerical functions and data processing; and 1,140 education and library science members responsible for education, education support and library services.

“After what both the government and the PSAC describe as many days of productive discussion and progress on many issues, we are disappointed to hear that, should an agreement not be reached, the PSAC will begin strike action on Wed., April 19,” Treasury Board said. “The government remains committed to reaching agreements at the table that are fair to employees and reasonable for taxpayers. ... There is still time to reach agreement before strike action begins.”

The Treasury Board said it tabled a wage offer April 16 of nine per cent over three years “that mirrors the recommendations of the third-party Public Interest Commission. This is a fair and competitive offer.”

However, the government added that PSAC “has made it clear that if other demands, like enshrining telework in collective agreements, are not met, this is a dealbreaker. These demands, as currently drafted, would severely impact the government’s ability to deliver services to Canadians and would limit its ability to effectively manage employees within the public service. We have reasonable counter-proposals that fairly address the concerns of public servants, and we call on the PSAC to work with us towards compromise solutions.”

The Treasury Board said that in the event of strike action, some government services will be delayed or unavailable. Information on service impacts can be found on Canada.ca/labour-disruptions,

PSAC said its members, “like all workers, deserve fair wages and decent working conditions. Despite some progress at the bargaining table, our members are frustrated that while negotiations drag on, they continue to fall behind. We’ve already been at the table for nearly two years, and these workers can’t wait any longer. That’s why we’re setting a clock on this round of bargaining.”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for Law360 Canada,please contact Cristin Schmitz at cristin.schmitz@lexisnexis.ca or call 613-820-2794.