Striking diplomats in D.C. timing job walkouts to key events, visits at embassy

WASHINGTON – At past Canada Day bashes at the glitzy Canadian Embassy in the U.S. capital, organizers worried about protests being held outside the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, particularly over the Keystone XL pipeline in recent years.

This year, it’s those inside the building who are kicking up a protest.

The 30 Canadian foreign service workers at the embassy, most of them in high-ranking positions, are among the 1,350 members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers who have been in a legal strike position against the federal government since April.

In D.C., they’ve been timing their job walkouts to coincide with big events at the embassy and high-profile visits from cabinet ministers at a time when reaching out to Obama administation officials, Capitol Hill lawmakers and American media outlets on a host of issues, most notably Keystone XL and the ongoing trade dispute over country-of-origin meat labelling, is particularly critical.

The absence of key staff was noticeable during two recent ministerial visits.

Without the presence of the embassy’s top media relations staffer, Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s office failed to meet with any resistance when it barred Canadian and U.S. media from a recent event involving Sen. John McCain.

In a ceremony that would have made for a newsworthy photograph, MacKay presented an honorary doctorate from the Royal Military College of Canada to Sen. John McCain, who donned the college’s ceremonial robes to accept the honour. Media were only allowed into the event after the ceremony in a shutout that baffled the American journalists who showed up.

During Ed Fast’s visit to the embassy last week to participate in a roundtable with Canada-U.S. stakeholders, the only embassy employee assigned to the international trade minister went with him when he departed the building to attend meetings on Capitol Hill, according to one of the event’s participants.

Those remaining were not given the customary escort to the main lobby, meaning they were free to wander the six-storey building, where corridors are lined with high-priced art works, at will — the type of security breach almost unheard of at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“This is the sort of stuff that falls apart when they don’t come in,” said one embassy staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Things get dropped, briefing notes don’t get done, there isn’t as much media outreach, and it’s not an ideal situation. There have been no major disasters, but certainly it causes a lot of hiccups.”

The striking diplomats are also refusing to work any after-hours events since the work-to-rule action began, causing logistical and organizational headaches for the embassy.

They won’t be at the Canada Day pancake breakfast on Monday, leaving what’s known as “locally engaged” staff to handle the affair. Nor will they work the Fourth of July festivities at the embassy, an event also co-hosted with the Canadian American Business Council featuring a fireworks display from the sixth floor terrace of the building that looks out over majestic Capitol Hill.

One organizer involved in the Fourth of July event says there are concerns about the job action.

“We’re not sure how this is going to go because we’re not sure how many embassy people are going to show up,” the U.S. organizer said.

The ongoing labour dispute is also causing diplomats in the U.S. capital and beyond to hand in their resignations. Two Canadian diplomats in D.C. have recently left for the private sector, while many others are pondering whether to make the same jump, the embassy staffer said.

The union says its members are paid $10,000 to $14,000 a year less than their counterparts who do similar work in other federal departments.

A spokesman for the Treasury Board, meantime, said Sunday that the government “is negotiating in good faith to secure a fair offer for taxpayers and employees. The foreign service is a well-paid and highly sought after posting.”

Talks between the two sides recently broke down when the Treasury Board returned to the bargaining table after four months without a new offer on wages.

“There certainly seems to be no sign of any inclination from the government to find a resolution,” Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who was once the head of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers union, said in an interview.

“You’re also getting into a situation now in which good people are leaving, they’re just fed up and saying it’s not worth it because this government doesn’t value us. And so the government, by holding out, may win this battle but it’s likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, because they’re leaving a very unhappy group.”

It’s time for the Conservative government to make some decisions about the foreign service, Robertson added, given the strike is creating a lengthy visa backlog that’s having an impact on Canada’s tourism and education industries.

Tourism stakeholders have said it may cost the industry $280 million this summer, while some students have been forced to withdraw from Canadian university courses because they didn’t get their visas on time.

“The government needs to take a look at what they want from the foreign service; it needs to use the strike as an opportunity to figure out where they want the foreign service to be in 10 years.”