The 2013 PAFSO strike: successes and lessons learned

In 2013, the members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, for the first time ever, had to resort to strike action to successfully renew their collective agreement with the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Rolling up its sleeves to develop and implement an effective mobilization structure, PAFSO quickly turned to its members and asked them to play a more active role in the process. Within a few weeks, the union had a network of 150 union stewards tasked with keeping members informed of the progress of negotiations and upcoming job action measures.

PAFSO represents 1,350 Canadian Foreign Service Officers. The Association’s main demand at the bargaining table was to close the wage gap between FS group members and members of the EC group (represented by CAPE) as well as PIPSC members of equivalent classification. The government was steadfast in its refusal to budge on this issue.

In mid-March, PAFSO put the matter to a vote. Ballots were received from 75% of PAFSO’s members, and 82% of those votes were in favour of job action up to and including strike action. PAFSO commenced its job action measures on April 2, 2013.

Pafso Picket Line Aug 20 2013 Cape Lebel
PAFSO Picket, August 2013 in Ottawa.

A first strike measure challenged by the employer

The first such measure was a request from PAFSO for its members to add a note after the signature block in their emails indicating that negotiations with the government had broken off and explaining the issues at stake. The employer was quick to respond and threatened officers with disciplinary action up to termination of employment if this message was not removed. The members had little choice but to comply. However, some job action measures (e.g., turning off cell phones after 5:00 p.m. and refusing to perform duties not included in job descriptions) went uncontested by the employer.

For PAFSO, the mobilization of members was key. PAFSO’s members work in 180 Canadian missions abroad as well as in the National Capital Region. As soon as PAFSO began its job action measures, the employer struck the first damaging blow by blocking all email messages from PAFSO to its members’ government email addresses. PAFSO had no choice but to set up its own communications structure by quickly compiling the personal email addresses and home telephone numbers of its members. In fact, PAFSO has one important piece of advice for CAPE: start doing this now so you don’t have to go into panic mode when the employer shuts you out of its email system.

The eyes and the ears of the union

PAFSO created an eight-member job action committee that worked in close collaboration with a network of 150 wardens (emergency action coordinators) present in nearly all of the affected workplaces.

The network of wardens enabled PAFSO to establish, maintain and distribute a comprehensive list of members, their mailing addresses, personal email addresses and telephone numbers. The network also provided PAFSO with the ability to answer members’ questions quickly while serving as the eyes and ears of the union in its members’ workplaces. The network held meetings via teleconference twice a week. Meeting minutes were prepared; the most‑frequently-asked questions were answered; and members were reminded of the purpose of job action measures. The Chief Warden, in charge of the network, was also tasked with answering members’ emails. For PAFSO, this network was indispensable in ensuring the impact of job action measures.

In April, the members created a Foreign Service Officers coffee break service which organized collective coffee breaks in FS workplaces. Plans were kept secret until a few minutes before a break was to be held, at which point instructions were relayed to affected members via email. The network also organized creative dress campaigns to draw public attention to the issues at stake and remind the employer of members’ solidarity.

Because its members are geographically scattered, the union created two Facebook pages to provide the membership with forums for discussion: a secret group open to all members and a second group open only to the network of wardens. These pages allowed members to engage in discussions, share job action strategies and overcome some isolated members’ feelings of solitude. These discussion groups channelled a number of ideas and constituted an effective barometer for gauging what members were thinking.

In its post-mortem analysis of the strike, PAFSO identified the ingredients that contributed to the successful mobilization of its members. The first of these was the ongoing solidarity of its members. The government’s attitude bonded members together and strengthened their common resolve. Secondly, PAFSO’s establishment of an effective communications network contributed tremendously to the success of mobilization. PAFSO’s leadership used its network to listen to members and answer their questions quickly. In addition, communication went both ways, with leadership informing members and members contributing their ideas and suggestions. 

Personal emails: an critical tool

As CAPE undertakes a campaign to encourage its members to provide their personal email addresses to the union, even as some members continue to express their reluctance to do so, it should be recalled that PAFSO faced the same challenge. According to PAFSO’s leaders, members’ reluctance evaporated when they realized that those who had refused to provide their personal email addresses to the union were often the only members not to be informed of a strategy or a job action measure.

Along similar lines to what CAPE is planning, PAFSO adopted a strategic job action approach that placed only a limited number of members on strike, but in sensitive areas. PAFSO opted for highly decentralized job action measures that involved only specifically targeted missions or locations. PAFSO was thus able to refund 100% of the wages of its striking members. PAFSO members also developed creative ways to avoid doing the work of those who were off the job. They consulted more with co-workers before handing in their work, and they did not work outside of normal office hours. Ultimately, managers learned that there was no point in trying to get them to do the work of their striking colleagues.  

In the five months that PAFSO was on strike, only two or three full-scale walkouts involving all members were organized; these walkouts were on a voluntary basis, and lost wages were not reimbursed by PAFSO. Indeed, PAFSO members quickly learned that certain sacrifices were necessary if there was to be any hope of obtaining what they wanted.

The agreement signed by PAFSO and Treasury Board on September 26, 2013 was ratified one month later by a strong majority of PAFSO’s members.

Of particular interest is the fact that PAFSO developed a post-strike “demobilization” plan, which consisted in rebuilding bridges in workplaces between members and their managers as well as colleagues in other unions. This demobilization effort gave rise to a number of reconciliation initiatives such as thank-you notes and bonding over coffee and cake with fellow workers and supervisors who were affected by the job action measures. According to PAFSO, the overall effect was quite positive and bridges were indeed rebuilt.