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In early May, the federal government announced that it is moving ahead with a plan to force public servants back to the office for an additional day per week. In order to “deliver services to Canadians and strengthen their confidence in the public service,” the Treasury Board stated, workers will soon need to spend three days per week working in-person. 

Government departments are expected to implement this plan no later than September 9. News of the directive was leaked by an unnamed government source prior to the official announcement, and before federal public sector unions were notified.

As the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the largest union representing federal public servants, wrote just days before the Treasury Board’s announcement, the government had not consulted with the union up to that point. Despite ongoing negotiations related to updating the Directive on Telework, PSAC and other federal public sector unions had no indication that the government’s unilateral decision was forthcoming. 

Furthermore, according to PSAC, a week before the decision, the union specifically requested information about “allegations” that the employer might modify the terms of the telework policy. “Treasury Board officials blatantly misled unions, denying any upcoming announcements about telework,” PSAC claims. 

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) also “staunchly opposed” the government’s decision to force workers back to the office, noting that the union was not “consulted about any changes to [the telework] policy, stands against any decision to increase the number of days spent in the office every week, and will continue to organize and support its members to push for greater telework rights.” 

As Nathan Prier, president of CAPE, put it to Class Struggle, “There seemed to be no clear thinking that went into this … The only benefit that we can see to this policy is that it increases management’s in-person surveillance.” 

As the unions have also pointed out, the decision to force federal workers back to the office contradicts other recent government decisions. In the last budget, the government announced plans to sell significant numbers of federal buildings and convert others into housing, making the issue of inadequate office space worse. “When you’ve committed to converting all these buildings to housing in your budget, you can’t just go and say ‘no, now we’re bringing all these people back into the office two weeks later,’” Prier said about the government’s seemingly contradictory decision-making.  

For Pier and CAPE, this is also a health and safety issue: “These federal buildings are decrepit, famously so. They’re filled with bats. They’re filled with bed bugs. They’re filled with asbestos. There are waterline breaks. They’re all desperately in need of renovation. And we have a right to a safe and healthy and substantial workplace. We’re coming back to a worse workplace than when we first went remote en masse in 2020,” Prier told Class Struggle

The unions also see the government’s move as reneging on commitments related to telework following the PSAC strike in April 2023. “This decision has not only broken the trust between PSAC members and their employer, but very concretely, it violates the collective bargaining rights of thousands of workers,” PSAC wrote. Following last year’s strike, the government agreed to a process for handling telework requests and disputes, but refused to include a right to telework in the federal unions’ collective agreements. 

As the CBC reported, the crux of the unions’ complaint is that return-to-work mandates violate the terms of last year’s strike settlements. The question with which the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board will ultimately have to contend is whether, by agreeing to review individual telework requests and disputes, the government foreclosed the right to issue such broad directives. 

Although the government committed only to a process for reviewing telework requests on an individual basis, broadly forcing the entire workforce back in-person for additional days now disrupts the status quo and demonstrates a lack of commitment from the government to meaningful consultation with unions on issues related to telework. 

The current policy mandating in-office work 40 per cent of the time, or two days per week, has been inconsistently applied across departments and managers, according to the unions. In practice, in-office work frequently involves public servants arriving at the office only to sit on Zoom calls with other colleagues who are at home.  

As Prier further explained when he spoke to Class Struggle, in-person work is not the only format that encourages collaboration. “The government hired a ton of people during the pandemic and teams developed workplace culture and collaboration [with telework],” he said. 

On May 3, PSAC and other federal public sector unions launched a joint letter writing campaign to call for “urgent action” from president of the Treasury Board Anita Anand and federal New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh. The letter to Anand was meant to demonstrate union members’ opposition to the new in-office policy. Letters to Singh questioned the NDP’s continued support for a government that “engages in such flagrant disregard for the rights and well-being of workers.” Singh has indicated he supports the unions’ demands, but it seems unlikely that the federal NDP will be able to exercise significant pressure on this issue.

Days later, the unions further reported plans to file a series of legal challenges and vowed to take action across the country against the new return-to-work policy. Up to that point, more than 26,000 federal public servants had sent letters to Anand and members of Parliament. As of May 17, more than 70,000 letters had been sent between PSAC and CAPE’s campaigns. 

As well, PSAC surveyed union members and found that 85 per cent opposed the new in-office mandate, with 90 per cent of them prepared to take action to oppose the government’s directive. At the same time, workers said the government policy would harm their current work-life balance (90 per cent), their mental well-being (85 per cent), job satisfaction (81 per cent) and their productivity and efficiency (78 per cent). 

Federal unions and the 260,000 workers they represent are threatening a “summer of discontent” over the government’s plan. It remains an open question what forms this could take, though unions are now advising members to file thousands of individual grievances. CAPE has indicated it will be escalating its job actions throughout the summer in an attempt to render the new policy unenforceable. 

As Prier told Class Struggle, “We’re going to try to reverse this policy through escalations on the shop floor. It’s not just us saying this… We’re [federal public sector unions] lining ourselves up for something like a common front on this issue.”

CAPE’s ongoing campaign for telework rights argues that work-from-home has multiple benefits for workers and communities. According to the union, telework boasts federal workers’ productivity by reducing sick days and commute times; supports work-life balance, particularly for women; reduces operational costs for government and could allow for office buildings to be converted into affordable housing; creates work opportunities for Canadians across the country; and reduces traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Data from Statistics Canada supports many of the unions’ contentions about the social benefits of telework. Earlier this month, StatCan released figures from the 2022 Time Use Survey, highlighting findings related to telework. On average, teleworkers saved about an hour a day, largely by eliminating commuting time. Notably, there was little difference in average daily working time between teleworkers and those working on-site. Rather, those working from home used their additional time to provide care to children and other family members, while also sleeping more, eating better, and doing more leisure activities. Not surprisingly, those working from home reported better work-life balance and less time stress, exactly the arguments that federal public sector unions are making. 

The unions maintain that the government is implementing blanket policies without any evidence showing benefits of a return to the office. CAPE notes that its members are “more productive and more satisfied with their jobs when they can work in their chosen environment, as they did successfully throughout the pandemic.” 

“They haven’t been able to provide any proof, any productivity studies, that would make the case for a return to office. They haven’t shown a shred of data that led them to make this decision,” Prier said. 

At the same time, pressure has been mounting on multiple fronts for employers in both the private and public sectors to bring workers back to their offices. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been calling for the federal government to return to in-office work, while mayor of Toronto, Olivia Chow, has met with bank CEOs for similar reasons. The common motivation is to “revitalize” city centres and boost worker spending. Many business interests, particularly commercial real estate interests, are opposed to telework, despite the latter’s demonstrated benefits for workers. 

While telework is overwhelmingly popular among the workers who directly benefit, unions may need to contend with less than favourable public opinion. Polling from Angus Reid shows 59 per cent of Canadians want to see federal public sector workers spending more time in the office, though union members overall are more supportive of the federal public sector unions’ position. 

This seems to suggest that there is more work to be done to generate public support for federal workers’ demands. The challenge will be framing these unions’ fight for telework as a step toward achieving similar rights for the broader white-collar working class. 

At the same time, federal public sector unions have an opportunity to connect their fight for telework rights to broader social struggles for more free time, a greener economy and affordable housing. Rather than frame telework narrowly as a luxury for a section of public sector workers, they can use this fight to highlight these various interconnected issues and raise the bar for all workers.

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