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Canadian Cybersecurity Workers Vote to Strike Over Wages

Nearly 2,500 workers at one of Canada’s main cybersecurity intelligence agencies have voted to walk off the job over a potential 10 percent cut in pay, a Canadian news report said.

The vote comes after nearly two years of negotiations between the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a standalone Canadian foreign intelligence and cybersecurity agency employing about 2,900 people, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) whose union membership includes specialists in cryptography, applied mathematics, advanced language analysis and cybersecurity employed at the agency. Talks between the two parties broke down in February, 2019.

At issue is CSE management’s refusal to apply a negotiated wage supplement designed to match that of workers doing similar jobs in the private sector. The bump, called a market allowance, can account for up to 10 percent of an employee’s annual wages. It's meant to lure workers to work in the public sector, according to Alex Silas, PSAC Regional executive vice-president for the National Capital Region.

"CSE management is refusing to apply a wage increase to the portion of workers' salaries that is made up of market allowances," Silas told CBC News. "To give you an idea, for some of these workers represents as much as 10 percent of their annual income. So it's a significant financial loss." Should the CSE eliminate the market allowance, PSAC workers would receive wage increases on 90 percent of their salaries, paring hikes to roughly 5.8 percent over a three-year period, as compared to the nearly 6.5 percent negotiated by other federal public sector workers for the same period, PSAC officials said.

“PSAC members at CSE are some of the best minds in their fields and it’s baffling that management has chosen to let things get to this point,” said Silas. “The cost of applying wage increases to the Market Allowance portion of these members’ salaries is equal to roughly 0.8 per cent of payroll at CSE. That’s all it would take to avoid a strike,” he said. “It takes courage to vote to strike in these challenging times and I want to assure these members that the union will deploy its full resources in the coming days and weeks to support their struggle for a fair contract.” At this point, there’s no certainty that a strike vote will result in a work stoppage, he said.

Christopher Williams, director general of CSE public affairs and communications services, told CBC News that the agency still hopes to reach an agreement with the union. "However, we can tell you that essential service agreements are in place to ensure that all areas of CSE have the people at work necessary to continue to provide for the safety and security of the public in the event of a strike," he said.

Canada is a member of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance dating to 1941 that additionally includes Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, which share espionage intelligence. The CSE provides technical advice, guidance and services to the Canadian government to maintain IT security and infrastructure.

The labor dispute comes as cyber attacks against COVID-19 drug makers in Canada and elsewhere have intensified. Last November, Microsoft warned that North Korean and Russian state-backed hackers had intensified cyber attacks on seven unnamed pharmaceutical companies located in Canada, France, India, South Korea and the U.S. involved in vaccine development and treatments for COVID-19.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.