Gary Doer

The working stiffs of Canadian diplomacy, members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, were walking a picket line in Washington, D.C., yesterday — which raised some eyebrows in the Imperial Capital and must have created some minor discomfort for the Canadian ambassador, a former NDP premier.

At least Gary Doer, premier of Manitoba from 1999 to 2009, didn’t technically have to cross a picket line if he came in to work at the Embassy yesterday — this event was what’s known in the argot of labour relations as an “information picket.”

That is, it’s just there to inform folks there may soon be a real picket line, which good New Democrats aren’t supposed to cross with any joy in their hearts.

Unions usually hold information pickets — which are really just a matter of exercising members’ right to free speech, using placards — when they can’t get anywhere in negotiations and have the feeling a little public support would be welcome.

Unfortunately for PAFSO, which only has about 1,400 members and therefore not much of a community back home to support it, this will be hard to do in an era when there’s no shortage of Americans and Canadians who apparently don’t know the difference between Czechoslovakia and Chechnya.

That disturbing factoid came to light two weeks ago in the wake of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, when some of the braniacs on Twitter started screeching about the poor “Czechoslovakians” for their imagined tendency to commit mayhem in Russia and America.

The explanation, in case you missed it, is that the two accused bombers are of Chechen origin, that is, from Chechnya, a predominantly Islamic territory of the former Soviet Union with a troubled relationship with the Russian government.

They weren’t from Czechoslovakia, which hasn’t actually existed as a political entity since 1993, but used to be in central Europe. About the only thing the poor Czechs have in common with the Chechens is a troubled relationship with the Russians. Plus the sound of the first two letters of their names, of course. If this upsets the Czechs, you can imagine how the Slovaks feel!

But, je digresse. PAFSO’s issue is that its members are paid significantly less than other Canadian public servants doing the same work in the same offices but working for some reason for different departments.

Indeed, there are commercial officers, economists and Justice Department lawyers doing exactly the same work in exactly the same work units, both in Canada and abroad, for up to $10,000 more per year in base salary than their PAFSO colleagues.

And since PAFSO’s membership is made up of the grunts of diplomacy, rather than its masters and commanders, they have many other complaints, including the uncomfortable high-risk living conditions they must endure in many Canadian missions abroad — for example, in tents in Haiti, inside armed compounds in Pakistan — and the fact that if they’re not married to another diplomat for obvious reasons they’re likely to be their family’s sole income earner.

So far, PAFSO’s concerns have been pretty well ignored by the chattering classes, so without a little showmanship they barely register on the domestic radar. Worse, like all unions, PAFSO faces the outright hostility of the Harper Government, the entity previously known as the government of Canada.

When the Harperites and their official flunkies were confronted with PAFSO’s bargaining position, they told the folks serving Canada in places like Kabul and Islamabad that that their jobs were “well paid and highly sought after” — in other words, drop dead or we’ll replace you with someone more compliant.

That’s certainly disrespectful to a group of public employees who, in many locations, are literally putting their lives on the line for Canada, but it’s not entirely unexpected from a political party that thinks the best way to deal with what it calls “the greatest threat to world peace” is to close down the embassy there and stop talking to it

Knowing this government’s staffing inclinations, it would be a surprise if the Tory brain trust didn’t think Canada could be represented better abroad by hiring Temporary Foreign Workers — you could pay them even less than PAFSO members, and there’d be less political embarrassment when they showed up at work than at a Tim Horton’s in Brampton.

Indeed, after yesterday’s Washington picket finally generated a little publicity in the Globe and Mail, the Harperites set their Online Tory Rage Machine loose suggesting just that, apparently seriously, in the national online newspaper’s comments section.

So the PAFSO members tried negotiating politely, then they tried wearing sweatpants to work and now they’re experimenting with information pickets. They’ve been in a legal position to strike since early April, but they’ve kept on serving Canadians even as they made every day Casual Day at the embassy. (With allowances for local sensibilities, of course.)

What Canada’s front-line diplomats really need, it’s said here, is for a couple of well-placed ambassadors to show some intestinal fortitude, pick up the telephone and place a call to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the government’s point man in the negotiations.

An appropriate message to Clement might be: “Respectfully, sir, we need to get this settled. Right flipping’ now!” Leastways, we do if we want to salvage what’s left of our credibility on the international stage.

It seems to me that a former NDP premier of all ambassadors might have the moral credentials needed to send just such a message.

Hello? Mr. Doer? Anybody home in Washington?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...