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Labour board flags 'irregularities,' low turnout in public service strike vote

OTTAWA — The federal labour board has found low turnout and irregularities of "significant concern" with the strike vote that led more than 100,000 public servants to walk off the job this week.
A flag flies as Public Service Alliance of Canada members walk the picket line outside government buildings, Friday, April 21, 2023 in Gatineau, Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The federal labour board has found low turnout and irregularities of "significant concern" with the strike vote that led more than 100,000 public servants to walk off the job this week.

The board found in a decision released Thursday that the Public Service Alliance of Canada failed to properly let members know it had shortened the voting period by eight days, moving the deadline from April 19 to April 11.

Only about 35 per cent of members of the bargaining unit, or 38,207 people, actually cast a ballot — and 80 per cent of them were in favour of a strike mandate. 

Members of the union received notice of a strike vote via email on Jan. 23, and voting began on Feb. 22.

But the decision shows the union did not have the correct email addresses for 15,000 members. Those people received a letter in the mail instead, which was sent before the union moved up the April deadline.

Union president Chris Aylward had not previously revealed how many members were in favour of the strike mandate, except to say that it was an "overwhelming majority."

The labour board decision arose from a complaint by a public servant who asked the board to overturn the result of the vote after he was unable to cast his ballot. 

In a written statement Friday, Aylward said it's regrettable that members of the union say they didn't get a fair chance to participate. 

He said the complaint has not deterred him and the support for the strike can be seen in "real time" with thousands of public servants at picket lines throughout the country.

"Increasing voter turnout is an issue that all unions, organizations and governments — big or small — grapple with," said Aylward. 

"PSAC gave ample opportunity for members to exercise their right to vote, holding nearly 100 strike vote sessions." 

He added that the union advertised the vote by email, social media, digital ads and by word of mouth. 

The labour board decided against overturning the vote, finding it was unlikely there would have been a different result even if the union had been more forthcoming with its members. 

"The support for the strike was high enough that even if there were no irregularities, it is very likely that the outcome would still have been favour of a strike," the decision said. 

"The irregularities are of significant concern, and with different numbers, they could have resulted in the invalidation of the strike vote." 

In particular, the board said that reducing the voting time by eight days without adequately notifying members of the change was a significant issue, and the union fell short of its legislatively mandated responsibilities.

The board ruled that the union was allowed to change the date of the vote. However, it expressed "great concern" that the union did not make a "discernible effort" to announce the date change. 

The union did mention the new date on social media and in e-news updates, but the board found that those notices didn't adequately draw readers' attention to the deadline.

"Bargaining unit members might have wanted to wait until the end of the voting period before casting their vote, so as to have the most current information when making their decision."

As the third day of the strike came to a close, Mona Fortier, the president of the Treasury Board, said in a tweet this afternoon that negotiations between the union and the federal government would continue into the weekend.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2023.

Laura Osman and Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press

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