Job action by Canadian Foreign Service Officers initially was presented as a novelty item. Diplomats threatening strike with information pickets at the Washington Embassy? Were they wearing striped trousers?
The work stoppages initiated Monday by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) are drawing more serious attention. Officers issuing visas around the globe (Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Beijing, Cairo, Delhi/Chandigarh, Hong Kong, London, Manila, Mexico City, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, Sao Paulo, and Shanghai) are off the job, leaving foreign students, family visitors, tourists, and conference goers unable to come to Canada.
As the NDP pointed out, this is bad for Canadian businesses, specifically the tourist industry which stands to lose almost $300 million because of cancelled trips before the end of summer.
PAFSO president Tim Edwards regrets the personal inconveniences caused to those unable to travel. He also suggested to iPolitics.ca reporter Michelle Zilion that the cost to the Canadian economy could mount to $1 billion by the end of the year. Edwards says the amount his union is asking (only $4.2 million to eliminate serious wage discrepancies with other public service professionals) represents about 1.5 per cent of the short-term cost of the strike to the Canadian tourism sector alone.
A breakdown in labour relations has prompted PAFSO to cite the government for "bad faith bargaining" in an appeal to the Public Services Staff Relations Board (stocked with Conservative appointees presumably).
So why do the Conservatives not protect Canadian business and universities dependent on foreign tuition fees, and settle with the striking workers? Why have they refused to go to binding arbitration when asked to do so by PAFSO on behalf of its 1,350 members, and instead imposed pre-conditions which deny the union has a case?
Conservative political strategy is to rally support for itself by demeaning public servants.
Conservative statements about FSO diplomatic perks and benefits are designed to rile up party donors, and potential supporters. The people who matter to the Harper government are those who might vote for it, not those who want to debate rates of pay for public servants.
A polite recitation of the facts to reveal the fallacies in the Harper approach to public sector workers is not going to get the NDP or Liberals very far. Facts and reason have nothing to do with Harper's strategy because for him this is all about politics. Defeating his opponents in the next election is what drives policy. How to best run the government does not enter into his calculations when he gets tough with its employees.
The Cons rely on an emotional appeal to the economically insecure. Phony talking points about subsidized education and free dry cleaning are designed to create envy and resentment over benefits enjoyed by Foreign Service Officers, and eventually other public employees, not begin a conversation about the role of the public service in "a free and democratic society" in the wording of the Charter of Rights.
Ignoring legitimate demands from PAFSO -- whatever the costs to the economy -- is more like a test run for the main event: over 270,000 public sector union members will enter collective bargaining when contracts expire next year.
Expect the Harper government to use 2014, the pre-election year, to try and befuddle the opposition parties, and make strategic gains by attacking public service workers.
The Harper government wants to drive the anti-government, anti-union vote over to its side using a tough union-busting approach. The not-so-subliminal message is that economic problems originate with government, and public servants deserve to be punished.
Conservatives like the idea the NDP, with its labour roots, can be tied to public sector workers. With Tom Mulcair as leader of the Official Opposition, the NDP insists it will lay out a better approach to public management than what Canadians have become accustomed to seeing under Harper.
The NDP can try to put Conservatives on the spot for denying the obvious role of government in building a strong Canadian economy, but the party needs a political strategy, not just a better approach to governing. On the principle that all politics is local, the NDP can certainly concentrate on winning the seven Conservative ridings in the Ottawa region, and making its presence felt in every riding across Canada where union issues resonate.
With the Liberals focusing on the need to defend the middle class, the door is open for the NDP to challenge Canadians: what is the way to promote economic security and improve the standard of living for Canadians? Is it an attack on public sector workers, or projects to use public dollars to create well-paying jobs?
The next election will turn on pocketbook issues. The Conservatives have revealed their approach to win public support. What can be done to better them?
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
Photo: Takashi Toyooka/flickr