It’s a labour dispute playing out on the national stage as public servants stage a full-blown strike.
The roughly 155,000 federal government employees, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), are fighting for a new collective agreement, one which includes better wages and working conditions.
But there’s another contentious issue between the workers and their employer, the federal government.
And it’s one not seen in past labour disputes.
“Working remotely, working from home,” said Sue Moser, strike captain and president of the Union of Taxation Employees (UTE) Local 20003.
“Remote work and telework have been proven to be very productive. I think we are able to do our jobs remotely.”
Many federal public servants have been working remotely for three years now since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in January, the Treasury Board of Canada mandated that federal employees have to come into the office two days a week, or 40 percent of the time.
The mandate is a point of contention between the two sides.
“We’re looking to have that clarified in our collective agreement,” Moser told Global News. “So that we have some say in whether we come into the office or not, how many hours we come in, where we come in, that sort of thing.”
While certain jobs require workers to come into the office, many can and have been doing work remotely.
For example, in Kelowna, the public hasn’t had in-person access to Canada Revenue Agency officers for years. So whether they are working in the office or from home, no one would know.
“We don’t have public access to CRA in this building,” Moser said.
While remote work wasn’t typically part of pre-pandemic labour negotiations, it’s something labour lawyers now expect to see more of.
“We’re in a bit of a state of flux, where we’re trying to make decisions and work together without something being in a written contract, said Richard Johnson, a lawyer with Ascent Employment Law.
“I expect that it’s going to become more of a topic of collective bargaining negotiations as we make our way into the future.”
Johnson said this one might not work in the government’s favour, having allowed remote work to go on for this long already.
“They’re establishing that as a term of employment, they’re allowing it to happen. It’s not a COVID thing anymore,” said Johnson.
“It’s been months past COVID and so the longer that goes on, the more employees have the right to say it’s become a de facto term of my employment,
“There’s no problem and clearly doing my work, what’s the issue? And so that’s where I come down on the issue. If I had to pick a side, it’s the employees I think have it on this one.”
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Kelowna barrister and solicitor Aleks Kukolj, who also specializes in employment law, told Global News the law has long been that employers generally get to determine where work is to be performed, with such a large workforce
“The reality of the present situation, however, is that 155,000 unionized employees have massive leverage over an organization (the government) that has, generally speaking, a track record of agreeing to generous terms of employment for its workers,” Kukolj stated.
“A portion of the employees who are on strike, in this case, are also responsible for managing revenues (CRA). So I would be very surprised to see the government hold firm on not allowing remote work moving forward. I think they can also sell it to people that the government is keeping with the times and accepting the realities of the modern workplace.”
The concept of a modern workplace is an argument Moser strongly agrees with.
“The federal government needs to step up and realize that because we will lose people, our younger generation has options,” Moser said.
“If they don’t get the kind of working conditions that they’re expecting, or that they can get from another department or another area, our workforce is going to shrink.”