Collective Bargaining Remote Work

As a fully virtual firm since 2017, we are big remote working fans. We recognize that, as a result of the pandemic, most work environments have come to accept and adopt remote working With the recent public sector strike, remote work is once again a hot topic. This time however, the conversation has taken a new and interesting direction as the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) seeks to enshrine the right to remote work in new collective agreements for the hundreds of thousands of workers it represents. 

PSAC announced early Monday morning that it had reached a tentative deal with the Federal Government on behalf of the more than 120,000 Treasury Board workers it represents. At the time of writing this blog, the strike continues for the 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) workers who are also represented by PSAC. 

While Canada’s largest public sector strike is now at an end, what remote work rights were sought, what was achieved and why is this such an important new development?

How Are New Employment Rights Secured in Unionized Environments?

While strikes involving high-profile unions like PSAC are often hot topics in the news, we wouldn’t blame you if you were wondering how any employer lands itself in this position or exactly what the Union was seeking to achieve with its strike. Here’s a quick primer: 

Unionized environments like the Federal government are bound by collective agreements. Typically, collective agreements outline the rules, policies, rights, expectations, and obligations of both parties (that is the employer and employee) within the workplace. Collective agreements are typically in place for 2-4 year periods. Once they expire, the parties begin to bargain, meaning they exchange proposals for the new collective agreement. Much of the agreement remains status quo but the bargaining process is also an opportunity for both parties to achieve new rights in the workplace. 

After two years of bargaining, the Federal Government and PSAC reached an impasse and the Union voted to strike, meaning it was withdrawing its employment services until a new and more attractive agreement was reached. A wage increase is almost always at issue in matters of collective bargaining but another major sticking point in this strike was the right to work remotely.

Federal Workers Were Already Working Remotely, So What’s the Big Deal?

While it’s true that Federal workers have mainly been working remotely since the pandemic began, late last year the government announced an expectation that these workers would return to the office 2-3 days per week. This meant that these workers were no longer truly remote (ie. working permanently and fully from home), but rather, they had a hybrid arrangement of working  2-3 days in the office and the remainder of the week at home. Up until now, the decision as to where employees would work, whether from home, in the office or both, was up to the complete control of the Federal Government as the employer. PSAC called the decision senseless and claimed it was forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on a diverse and evolving workforce. 

In its negotiations with the Federal Government, PSAC sought to enshrine a worker’s ability to work from home in the collective agreement. It may be the first Union to do so and is the most high-profile Union to make the move. The Union was seeking to allow workers who were denied the ability to work remotely the ability to grieve the employer’s denial. The Federal government opposed the notion, claiming it would limit a manager’s ability to manage and would limit the employer’s ability to determine an equitable and consistent workplace for workers. Commentators suspected that the Government feared a landslide of grievances that any employer would wish to avoid. 

Ultimately, the collective agreement settled on for Treasury Workers is somewhat of a compromise. It doesn’t appear that employees will be able to grieve decisions regarding remote working, but managers will need to assess requests individually and provide written reasons for their decision. The new agreement will also require the Government to meet with the Union to address issues related to remote work. 

So What Does This All Mean? 

You can likely expect Unions to continue to advocate for their members and seek the right to grieve decisions around working remotely. It may also mean that employees everywhere, whether unionized or not, can keep asking for remote work or voting with their feet and find it elsewhere.

Wondering about your obligations to provide remote work or looking to retain your top talent by allowing them to work remotely? Please get in touch with one of our lawyers.