PSAC marks 20th anniversary of pay equity victory

Twenty years ago, on October 29, 1999, PSAC won a long-running battle with Treasury Board over pay equity for federal public service workers. The union’s victory resulted in retroactive pay and interest payouts to some 230,000 PSAC members and former members totaling $3 billion. Salaries for various female-dominated classifications were also adjusted to adequately reflect the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.

Here is how PSAC won the fight. 

Margot Trevelyan of the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition explains equal pay
for work of equal value (c. 1980) 

Initial complaint 

The struggle began 16 years earlier, in 1983, when PSAC filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) alleging the federal government was violating its own human rights laws by denying equal pay for work of equal value to its workers — mainly women — employed in a wide range of clerical positions. Pay equity had been law since 1976 and PSAC had already achieved successful settlements for a number of federal government bargaining units. 

Joint union-management study confirms pay gap 

In response to PSAC’s complaint, the Progressive Conservative government of the day took advantage of International Women’s Day on March 8, 1985 to announce a joint union-management initiative to study pay equity in the federal public service. The largest study of its kind in Canada, it involved equal numbers of employer and union representatives and took four years to complete. The results clearly showed a wage gap between male and female employees doing work of equal value.

Pay equity rally on Parliament Hill

Pay equity rally on Parliament Hill

PSAC steps up the fight 

In 1990, however, the government backed away from the study’s conclusions despite being jointly involved in the entire process. This led PSAC to file a second complaint with the Human Rights Commission that was expanded beyond the original group of clerical workers to include other female-dominated bargaining units represented by PSAC — secretarial workers, hospital workers, librarians, education support staff and data processing employees. 

The CHRC referred the case to a Human Rights Tribunal appointed in January 1991. No sooner had the Tribunal been appointed than the government made the first of many court appearances challenging the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the case. The government lost its case every time, however, and the Tribunal went on to conduct more than 260 days of hearings over a period of six years ending in January 1997. 

The 1991 national strike 

Concurrently, pay equity also became a priority issue at the bargaining table and the 1991 national strike against the Mulroney government. Rather than deal with PSAC members’ concerns, the government eventually legislated an end to the strike and froze collective bargaining. The bargaining freeze was extended until 1997 by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government that came to power in 1993. 

CBC News report on pay equity talks (1997)

The ‘leaked’ offer 

Several months after the conclusion of the Tribunal hearings, and on the eve of the union’s 1997 triennial national convention, the government ‘leaked’ an offer to settle through the Toronto Star without ever having presented it to the union.  

While the offer seemed like a lot of money, it was considerably less than what was required to close the wage gap. The Chrétien government gambled that PSAC members would settle for less. After all, the government’s financial ability to drag the case out as long as possible in the courts, as well as its legislative power were ever present threats. But they lost the gamble because PSAC members stood firm and resisted the offer. 

Tribunal victory and federal court appeal 

On July 29, 1998, the Tribunal issued its decision — a decisive and resounding win for PSAC members. It ordered pay adjustments retroactive to March 8, 1985, the day the joint union-management pay study was launched, with interest up to the date the government would mail the cheques. 

Unsurprisingly, within a month the government challenged the Tribunal’s decision in federal court. The appeal was heard in May and June 1999 and on October 19 that year, Justice John Evans upheld the Tribunal’s decision favouring PSAC. In his ruling, he observed that the case had “dragged on for far too long, and at far too great a cost for all concerned,” adding that “justice unduly delayed... is indeed likely to be justice denied.” 

PSAC reaches settlement with Treasury Board 

Within days of the Federal Court decision, PSAC began settlement negotiations with Treasury Board and, by October 29, reached its historic pay equity agreement with the government. 

Nycole Turmel and Darryl Bean celebrate pay equity settlement

PSAC National Executive Vice-President Nycole Turmel (left) and National President Daryl Bean (right) celebrate the pay equity settlement (October 29, 1999) 

The fight continues 

Despite this important, precedent-setting victory against the government, PSAC continued its fight for pay equity. In 2002, the union reached a pay equity settlement for thousands of members working for the Government of the Northwest Territories. In 2011, PSAC won a 28-year long case at the Supreme Court covering pay equity for thousands more members at Canada Post.  

Moreover, complaints filed in 2002 on behalf of members at the Office of the Auditor General, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, the Canadian Security Establishment, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were finally settled in 2013. And in 2018, PSAC won additional pay equity compensation for Statistical Survey Operations workers at Statistics Canada. 

Auditor General of Canada workers rally for pay equity

Auditor General of Canada workers rally for pay equity

PSAC has also spent years advocating for proactive federal pay equity legislation, which was finally achieved in 2019. The new law, introduced by the Trudeau Liberals, is proactive, not complaint-based and obliges employers to eliminate gender-based discriminatory wage differences. This should mean that 30-year legal battles to resolve pay equity complaints will become a thing of the past. However, the new law does not become effective until the regulations are finalized.  

Still, women today earn only $.87 for every dollar earned by men, but the gap has been closing steadily since 1998. PSAC’s and the broader labour movement’s work to advance pay equity has undoubtedly played a big role in sustaining this trend. But the struggle isn’t over and PSAC remains committed to working towards a future where all workers are paid fairly and treated with respect. 


October 28, 2019