The PSAC strike could mean a major hit to Canada's GDP: Economist
Canada’s government is grappling with what comes after the “forced experiment” of remote work brought on by the pandemic as it negotiates with striking civil servants, the country’s labour minister said.
More than 155,000 federal employees launched one of the country’s largest strikes a week ago in a dispute that primarily focuses on wages and enshrining the right to work from home.
With talks at a standstill, the union has escalated its demonstrations, targeting major ports for exports of grain and other commodities. While that’s prompted calls from industry for the government to step in, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan declined to comment on the status of negotiations.
Though O’Regan said the government doesn’t dictate what works for other employers or sectors, a deal that cements a right to remote work may set a precedent. If the civil servants are successful, it may strengthen the negotiating leverage of workers in other sectors to push back against employers who favour a return to office.
“The government as an employer is trying to figure it out. We as a society are trying to work this out,” O’Regan said in an interview at his Ottawa office. “We had a crazy forced experiment of remote work imposed on us. There are some workers who had no choice but to go to work. There were a lot of people who didn’t have to go anymore, and yet we functioned and our economy got through it.”
When most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, employers started mandating a return to office or hybrid work, saying that it would foster collaboration and boost productivity. But some workers are eager to keep the autonomy and flexibility they enjoyed during the pandemic lockdowns.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada is demanding that the arrangement be included in a new collective agreement. If that happens, it has the potential to influence the outcome of future talks between unions and provincial governments, municipalities, and even private-sector businesses.
About a dozen clients who are currently negotiating collective agreements have already asked to delay the process to see the eventual deal from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, according to Patrick Groom, a labor lawyer at McMillan LLP in Toronto.
“This is going to set the standard for collective-bargaining negotiations and employee expectations, even in non-union environments across the country,” Groom said. “If the federal government agrees to working from home arrangements, that’s going to be a serious and difficult challenge to overcome for employers who want to have their workforces return.”
Employee resistance has left many business districts from Toronto to New York and San Francisco much emptier than in pre-COVID times. That’s been particularly acute in Ottawa, where more than 45% of workers were still working from home last year, compared with a national average of about 25%, according to Statistics Canada.
In an open letter earlier this week, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier — the cabinet minister who’s leading the talks for Trudeau — said the government has proposed to review the current telework directive jointly with unions to “help ensure that our approach is modern, fair, and supportive” for employees.
“We value our workers. We’re like any other firms out there. We want make sure that we retain them,” O’Regan said. “The government has a vested interest in making sure that it gets the best employees at the best value for the taxpayer. I’m very hopeful that we’ll land in a good place.”