Ottawa is threatening disciplinary action against foreign service officers over an e-mail-based campaign stating that their union is in a legal strike position.
The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers says its members, which include diplomats and visa and immigration officers, are paid substantially less than those who do similar jobs in Canada. The union, which has been without a contract since June, 2011, says it will continue to take incremental job action in an effort to force the federal government back to the bargaining table.
Earlier this week, foreign service officers launched their first action, an "electronic picket" in the form of an out-of-office message explaining that they are in a legal strike position and apologizing for any delay in responding. The note is sent automatically to anyone who e-mails a foreign service officer taking part in the job action and includes a link to a web page detailing the union's grievances.
"Following a breakdown in collective bargaining with the Government of Canada, members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers are now in a legal strike position. As a result, there may be a delay in responding to your inquiry. We regret any inconvenience," the message states.
On Thursday afternoon, union members received a message demanding that they remove the automatic e-mail reply. Nadir Patel, an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs, said in the note that foreign service officers should not use their work e-mail for anything that could have an adverse effect on the department. If the practice continued, he added, employees could be fired.
"The use of the department's electronic mail system, including the 'Out of Office' feature or modifications or additions to signature blocks to promote an agenda that is adverse to the interests of the department must cease immediately," the message states. "Should such inappropriate use of electronic mail continue, it may result in administrative or disciplinary measures up to and including termination of employment."
The union has been unable to send e-mails directly to its members' work accounts since last Thursday.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office referred questions to the department. Tristan Landry, a spokesman for the department, said the electronic picket contravenes Treasury Board policies for the use of electronic networks. And he said the unions e-mails were blocked last week because the collective agreement does not allow it to communicate with members through their work accounts.
Timothy Edwards, the union's president, said members have been instructed to continue the electronic picket while the union files a complaint with the Public Service Labour Relations Board over the department's message, which he called an "unfair labour practice."
Mr. Edwards said the union's biggest concern is that its 1,350 members are paid significantly less than government employees who do similar work in Canada. For some jobs, he said, the difference is almost $10,000 a year.
He said the union made several concessions in bargaining with the government, including accepting a cap on annual pay increases and the loss of severance pay for resignations and retirements. But he said it had no plans to budge on pay equity.
"At the end of the day, we're just trying to catch up with what these other groups have already been granted in current or previous rounds of bargaining," he said.
A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said it is unfortunate that the union "would seek to deny services to Canadians," and that the government will do its best to ensure services are not compromised.
"The foreign service is a highly sought after and well-paid posting," Matthew Conway wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "The government will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a reasonable settlement with PAFSO [the union] that is fair to workers and taxpayers."
Mr. Edwards said its members voted 82 per cent in favour of giving the union a strike mandate in mid-March. He said the automatic bounce-back e-mails were just the first step in job actions that could escalate to include pickets outside of working hours and the withdrawal of services.