No sooner had 155,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers hit the bricks than the question arose: When will this strike ever be over?
This was Friday, only the third day of the strike, and impatience was already stomping its big feet for a deal to be negotiated or for the Trudeau government to step in and legislate the strikers back to work.
Ottawa, particularly, feels the heat, which will draw sympathy from exactly nowhere in the country.
Ottawa, after all, is where our tax dollars go to be abused.
The nation’s capital region, where tens of thousands of the strikers actually live and work in the 20-plus federal departments represented by PSAC, is still trying to recover from the Covid pandemic, where the sudden embracement of remote work left city-core coffee houses in the lurch, diners decimated, and bars and taverns searching for new clientele.
Empty patios are not pretty pictures.
Previous strikes have been relatively short-lived. But with federal workers making up about 5% of local wages, when their income drops, so will their spending.
“Strikes that are short usually have very little repercussion on the economy, but because the public service is such a large part of the Ottawa-Gatineau economy, even a week-long strike would start to have some repercussions,” said Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.
“Restaurants and food services, for instance, will probably be the first to feel it,” he said.
That drop in spending is something local businesses that have relied on federal workers for years are wary about.
“There is a worrying concern if this (strike) does last long,” said Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas.
Some downtown businesses are seeing a slight uptick in customers, depending on their proximity to picket lines.
“People are on the lines,” she said. “Popping in to get coffee and some refreshments is always good and it does help serve those local businesses who have been struggling for a while.”
What has hurt businesses the most, though, she said, is remote work.
Groulx wants to see a clear plan for a balanced workforce throughout the city in case another strike or pandemic occurs.
“Having a more diverse downtown means that businesses won’t suffer no matter what the decision is,” she said.
There are other worries beyond the short-term effects on businesses and the economy from a drop in spending, she said.
Since non-essential Canada Revenue Agency employees are among those who have walked off the job, she worries there could be delays for small businesses or startups in getting rebates or tax credits they rely on for cash flow.
Locally, the conference board’s Antunes said even a week-long strike could eat a tenth of a percent into the region’s economic growth. And as that growth is expected to hover around 1.3% for the year, it could be wiped out within a few months.
Nationally, he doesn’t believe there will be as much of an economic effect from the strike.
However, in a note sent earlier this week by Derek Holt, vice president and head of capital markets economics at Scotiabank, he suggested the national gross domestic product could drop 0.2% if the strike lasts one month.
Yet while productivity may have declined and service deteriorated, writes the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne, compensation for federal employees has marched steadily upward.
A 2017 study by the C.D. Howe Institute, writes Coyne, found that average total compensation in the federal public service, including wages, pensions and other benefits, grew by nearly 5% annually between 2005-06 and 2015-16 – that is, under the Harper Conservatives.
Overall, the study found average compensation in the federal public service, at $64 an hour, exceeded that of comparable private-sector service jobs by 40% to 60%. Again, that’s after 10 years of the Harper Conservatives.
It is difficult to roust empathy.