07/30/2013 11:47 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Striking diplomats target Harper's office in protest

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa will be the target of a protest today by striking foreign service officers.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) said the protest over the lunch hour is to show disappointment at the government's refusal to enter into binding arbitration to resolve the labour dispute.

Talks between the union and the government broke down in June and the two sides haven't sat down at the bargaining table since then. The union offered to settle the dispute by arbitration but Treasury Board president Tony Clement agreed only if PAFSO accepted certain conditions, which the government wanted kept confidential.

When PAFSO accepted three of the six conditions the government said it would not move forward with arbitration.

"Minister Clement’s rejection of arbitration on July 26 shows he is not interested in a fair contest, the union said in a news release. "It should now be evident to all Canadians that the government bears sole and complete responsibility for the severe and mounting impacts of this strike — on tourism, on education, and on the agricultural sector."

Tuesday's protest comes a day after PAFSO members simultaneously walked off the job at 15 visa processing centres in major cities around the world. The escalated job action will increase the backlog that has already been growing because of rotating strikes that started in the spring.

Bad faith bargaining

The slowdown in processing applications is affecting tourists, businesspeople, temporary foreign workers and international students and the union believes it's having a "severe" economic impact. The tourism industry has estimated it could lose $280 million this summer.

The government and union are accusing each other of bargaining in bad faith.

"We are disappointed that the union has refused our reasonable offer," Matthew Conway, press secretary for Clement, wrote in an email Tuesday. "Our government is committed to bargaining in good faith, unlike the union, which has breached good faith bargaining principles by releasing confidential negotiating documents."

"We remain open to a resolution that respects the interests of both taxpayers and foreign service union members," he said.

The main issue the two sides can't agree on is money. The union argues foreign service officers who work as policy analysts, lawyers, or economists, for example, don't get paid the same as public servants who do those jobs outside of the foreign service and they want a salary boost to close the gap.

The government argues that foreign service officers have highly sought after jobs and that they have unique jobs that can't be compared to others.

"These jobs are substantively different from public service lawyers, economists or commerce officers," Conway wrote.

PAFSO said it is still willing to go to arbitration but for now there are no talks scheduled between the union and the government about that possibility.