Striking diplomats rally, tweet as contract dispute drags on

Canada's foreign service officers rallied in Ottawa today and are taking to Twitter to raise awareness about their job action and refusal to process visa applications, a day before a labour board hearing into their union's complaint the government is bargaining in bad faith.

Striking foreign service officers take to Twitter to make their case

Diplomats rallied outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa last month. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's striking foreign service officers are holding a rally in downtown Ottawa today and are taking to Twitter around the world to raise awareness about their jobs and their contract dispute with the government.

The officers' union, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, organized the demonstration outside the citizenship and immigration department. The lunchtime demonstration was held a day ahead of a hearing at the public service labour relations board that was triggered by a bad-faith bargaining complaint from the union.

In addition to Tuesday's rally, foreign service officers posted abroad are participating in a 24-hour Twitter campaign to "illustrate the importance of the foreign service in safeguarding Canada's national security, building its economy, shaping its future diversity and workforce, and protecting and promoting the values that Canadians hold dear," according to the union.

They wrote examples of activities they do in their day-to-day jobs. One in Warsaw wrote: "facilitated shipment of humanitarian goods from Canada to neighbouring country" and "preparing to launch the anti-homophobia clip we did with a local NGO."

Another one in Rome described a conference call to organize a Canadian aerospace sector business delegation and an officer in Beirut wrote that 35 refugee visas were approved.

Not all foreign service officers are on a full strike. The union began rotating strikes at embassies and staggered withdrawals of certain services in the spring. As the dispute dragged on into the summer, it launched a full withdrawal of visa services at 15 key processing centres but those considered "essential staff" are still processing visas for refugees claimants.

Tim Edwards, president of PAFSO, said Tuesday that in the fall more job action will be undertaken by more foreign service members, including trade and political officers.

Contract negotiations between PAFSO and Treasury Board president Tony Clement's department have been stalled for weeks as both sides refuse to give in to each other's demands. The union argues that foreign service officers who work as lawyers or policy analysts, for example, get paid less than non-foreign service officers who do the same work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The government argues that PAFSO members are well-paid and receive many added benefits that other government employees don't get.

Film festival worried

The ongoing strike has slowed down the processing of visas abroad and while Citizenship and Immigration has taken measures to keep up with the demand, the tourism and education sectors have raised concerns about the impact of the strike. Canada requires visas for tourists and foreign students from a number of countries including Mexico, China and India.

PAFSO said the job action will end when the government agrees to arbitration.

Organizers of the Montreal World Film Festival say they know of people abroad who are having trouble getting visas because of the strike. "The MWFF's administration feels that it is damaging both to the reputation of the Canadian cinema in general and to the festival in particular, should the visitors be denied entry to one of Canada’s premier cultural events," a news release said.

Alan Franey, CEO and director of the Vancouver International Film Festival, said in an interview that his festival left some people off the guest list this year in order to avoid any visa headaches. Normally industry guests from China, Mexico and Thailand, for example, would be flown to Vancouver for the event.

"We knew there would be problems, so we didn't invite a certain number of guests that we otherwise would have," said Franey. "We saved ourselves and our guests the grief."

The festival begins Sept. 26 and Franey said he hopes the dispute is resolved soon and there may be enough time to get visas for more guests.

Shawn Dearn, director of communications for the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, said his sector has also been adapting to the visa slowdown and working closely with Citizenship and Immigration.

"We were expecting there to be a massive backlog and what we're hearing right now is that they've been able to limit a lot of the challenges that have been expected by prioritizing those student visa requests," he said.

Dearn said students who apply online are better off than those who apply in person and that the education sector is still concerned about Canada's reputation taking a hit.

The NDP urged the government to get back to the bargaining table "or risk losing billions in economic benefits that international students bring." It said in a press release that the Conservatives are responsible for the conflict and should resolve it quickly. The Liberals are also pushing the government to sit back down with the union and "repair the damage they have done to Canada's reputation."

Dozens of foreign service officers picketed over the lunch hour in Ottawa.

"Today's picket and Twitter campaign will show that our members are unified and determined in the pursuit of pay equity. We are fiercely proud of the work we do on behalf of all Canadians and will not be bullied into submission by our employer," PAFSO president Tim Edwards said in a news release.

Union seeking 'hefty' raise

PAFSO proposed earlier in the summer that the two sides settle the contract dispute with binding arbitration. The government wanted to impose conditions on the arbitration and when the union didn't accept them the idea of arbitration also ground to a halt.

The union says the conditions were unreasonable and would have predetermined the outcome of the arbitration and that they were a "clear violation" of the government's duty to bargain in good faith, as set out in the Public Service Labour Relations Act. PAFSO filed its complaint with the labour board on July 31.

"We feel that at this point we have done everything in our power, we've made every reasonable effort to find a solution to this labour dispute and that the government has not," Edwards said in an interview with CBC News.

"The responsibility for the current situation now falls squarely with the government. We've provided a face-saving and responsible way out by offering binding arbitration."

A spokeswoman for Clement said Tuesday that PAFSO is asking for a "hefty wage hike that is neither fair nor reasonable for taxpayers."

"Our government will consider all options in finding a resolution to this strike. We remain open to a resolution that respects the interests of both taxpayers and foreign service union members," Andrea Mandel-Campbell said in an emailed response.

"In the past month we have reached tentative agreements with three other unions. In all cases the bargaining agents were willing to reach fair and reasonable settlements."

PAFSO, however, said it would cost the government about $4 million over a three-year contract to settle the wage dispute — far less than the conflict is costing the Canadian economy, it argues.

The union is going to the labour board to ask that the two sides be forced into arbitration. The hearing is expected to last most of the day and a decision could be issued within days.