07 June 2013

How did we get here?

In mid-March 2013, the 1,350 members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers – the union which represents Canada’s non-executive diplomats – voted 82% in favour of job action to bolster our position at the bargaining table. Nearly 75% of members cast a ballot. This followed a year and a half of contract talks plagued by impasse and delay: by the time negotiations broke off in January 2013, the Treasury Board’s pay position had not moved one inch since the launch of negotiations in August 2011.

For any federal public service union, such a turnout and mandate would be remarkable. Under current fiscal and political circumstances – and given our group’s vocation to analyze key players and motivations in any negotiation, assess levers and options, and pursue an achievable course of action – this mandate is nothing short of overwhelming.

What has happened so far?

The Foreign Service entered into a legal strike position on April 2 and we initiated job action measures the same day starting with “electronic information pickets” – automatic e-mail replies informing contacts of the breakdown in contract negotiations and expressing regret for any service delay. Work-to-rule followed a week later, with FS officers refusing to do overtime, check their BlackBerries outside business hours, fill in for their bosses, or perform any tasks outside their job descriptions.

Treasury Board’s continuing failure to return to the table led to a significant escalation on May 13, when members began targeted walkouts in select missions abroad and at headquarters in Ottawa for the first time in our association’s 46-year history. New service withdrawals of escalating scope and intensity are foreseen in the weeks ahead barring a commitment from our employer to engage in a genuine discussion on our reasonable and long-festering demands.

What are the key issues?

There is only one key issue: equal pay for equal work. Foreign Service officers are subjected to a series of unfair and demoralizing wage gaps at all four levels of our pay scale compared to other federal professionals performing similar or identical work. These include economists, commerce officers, policy analysts, and lawyers. Often these employees work right next to us in neighbouring cubicles – not only in Ottawa but increasingly abroad as well. As of June 2013, gaps will range from a minimum of $3,000 at the FS-03 level all the way up to $14,000 per year for FS-02s. We were prevented from addressing them in the last round of bargaining in 2009 when the Government circumvented collective bargaining and imposed wages through legislation.

The FS group is simply looking to catch up to what these workers have been granted in their own contract negotiations with Treasury Board. While some of these gaps are recent, others have persisted for eight years and long predate not only current fiscal circumstances but even the current Government. The result is that, over the last few years, diplomats are cumulatively out of pocket thousands – and in some cases, tens of thousands – of dollars compared to their professional colleagues.

At the same time, these other workers don’t face the same personal or career challenges that we do. Our families must regularly move homes, our children must constantly change schools, our spouses must quit their jobs, we risk our safety and health in hazardous environments, and we miss countless birthdays and other special moments with friends and family while living for months or years at a time in war zones and disaster areas.

What is the solution?

Foreign Service officers recognize that in these tough economic times, everyone must do their part. Diplomats are no exception. But we have done our part. We have accepted the Government’s two key demands: wage increases of 1.5% per year (well below average national wage growth and inflation) and the elimination of severance pay on retirement and resignation (in effect a 2% annual pay cut).

In exchange, we have simply asked that the maximum pay at each level of the FS group be lifted one increment in the third and final year of the contract – except at the FS-02 level, where the gap is so large that it would require three additional increments, one in each year of the contract. The total bill for these adjustments would be less than 2.5% of the total FS payroll in the third and most expensive year.

Anything to add?

In launching job action, we are not trying to embarrass the Government or undermine the Cabinet ministers we serve. Challenging our employer in such a public way goes against our very nature as diplomats and dedicated professionals.

Our goal is simple: to have Treasury Board recognize the real value of the high-quality work we perform, often under difficult circumstances, in delivering on the Government’s international priorities. Ultimately, we want them to agree that basic fairness – a fundamental Canadian value that our members promote abroad every day – dictates that we be paid at least the same as those performing the same work.

After eight years of seeing the can kicked down the road by our employer, the Foreign Service has declared resoundingly that the time has come to insist on a fair deal. Canada’s face and frontline abroad deserves nothing less.

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers – May 2013

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