Hundreds of workers at cybersecurity agency vote to strike

Hundreds of cybersecurity workers at Canada's foreign signals intelligence agency have voted to strike, a move that comes amid growing conerns about cyber attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Strike vote comes as concerns mount about cyber attacks during pandemic

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), one of Canada's key intelligence agencies, employs about 2,900 people and is responsible for foreign intelligence and cybersecurity. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Hundreds of workers at Canada's foreign signals intelligence agency have voted to strike — a move that comes as the threat of state-sponsored cyber attacks related to the pandemic appears to be rising.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada represents 2,400 employees working in cryptography, applied mathematics, advanced language analysis and cybersecurity at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). PSAC announced the results of the vote Wednesday.

"They perform vital work protecting Canada from foreign cyber and attacks, foreign hacking attempts," Alex Silas, PSAC's regional executive vice-president for the National Capital Region, told CBC News.

"For example, things that we saw this past July, there was an attempt to hack Canadian COVID-19 research. These are the workers that stopped that."

CSE, one of Canada's key intelligence agencies, employs about 2,900 people and is responsible for foreign intelligence and cybersecurity.

The vote comes nearly two years after talks stalled on a collective agreement. At issue is a change to the market allowance —  a wage supplement negotiated to close pay gaps with workers doing similar work in the private sector. It's a benefit often used to attract employees into highly technical jobs in the public service.

"CSE management is refusing to apply a wage increase to the portion of workers' salaries that is made up of market allowances," said Silas.

"To give you an idea, for some of these workers [that] represents as much as 10 per cent of their annual income. So it's a significant financial loss."

The vote does not mean workers are heading for the picket lines.

"We are now ramping up preparations and coordinating with our members to determine the precise actions that will be taken and their timing. But we emphasize that strike action can still be avoided if CSE management comes back to the table and steps away from its concession or agrees to arbitration," said PSAC spokesperson Alroy Fonseca.

CSE says services will continue

Christopher Williams, director general of CSE public affairs and communications services, said CSE's executive management team continues to work toward a resolution with the union.

"However, we can tell you that essential service agreements are in place to ensure that all areas of CSE have the people at work necessary to continue to provide for the safety and security of the public in the event of a strike," he said in an email to CBC News.

CSE has been sounding the alarm about the threat of cyber attacks on research facilities and the health care sector during the pandemic. It was one of the intelligence agencies that stated a hacker group backed by Russia "almost certainly" tried to steal COVID-19-related vaccine research in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.

Late last year, CSE warned that state-sponsored actors are "very likely" trying to shore up their cyber capabilities to attack Canada's critical infrastructure — such as the electricity supply — to intimidate or to prepare for future online assaults.

While the lights will remain on, the union says the agency will lose workers if it doesn't offer competitive salaries.

"What does it say about how we prioritize national security?" said Silas. "If CSE as an employer, as management, doesn't recognize the need to pay these workers a fair market rate, how are we going to attract and retain the talent needed for the important work of keeping Canadians safe from cyber attacks?"


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