PSAC thought it negotiated a great remote work deal with the government. But then little changed

Something unexpected happened after the public service union ratified its contract: the Treasury Board didn’t budge from its previous ‘one size fits all’ hybrid work model

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As striking public servants marched around Ottawa’s downtown core last spring, they had one key demand that wasn’t about better pay.

Carrying hand-drawn signs that read “remote work works” and “to telework is to be green,” what many of them really wanted was the opportunity to work from home.

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After 12 days on the picket line, that major sticking point at the bargaining table appeared to be rectified between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Treasury Board.

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When the strike ended in early May, PSAC leadership trumpeted its gains to its membership about the new language around the future of telework. Union members were told they’d be safe from any arbitrary decisions about remote work by the government. Telework requests could come from the employee and they would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, not by groups, which would prevent the “one-size fits all” formula hybrid work model previously announced in late 2022.

PSAC’s media releases quoted professors who claimed the negotiated deal “over remote work may very well be one of the most significant advances in workers’ rights in recent memory” and how this was a “watershed moment” for workers’ rights in Canada.

And yet, something unexpected to its membership occurred after the contract was ratified: the Treasury Board never budged from its previously announced “one size fits all” hybrid work model.

In an email to this newspaper, Treasury Board spokesperson Barb Couperus said there are “no plans” to change the directive that public servants are required to work in the office at least two days per week.

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And so as public servants are reluctantly back at the office at the orders of their employer, the union has few answers as to where their telework agreement went awry or what comes next.
PSAC president Chris Aylward declined a telephone interview to discuss remote work and contract negotiations but in an email statement said the government has not yet implemented the letter of agreement on remote work to PSAC’s satisfaction. He said PSAC continues to review its options, but would not provide details on what that meant.

In a memo to the union’s National Board of Directors dated Aug. 29, which was acquired by this newspaper, Aylward said, “It is becoming increasingly clear that it is the employer’s intention to maintain the current

Treasury Board position to have employees report a minimum of forty (40) percent of their time in the office.”

What’s also clear is mere months after the 155,000 ended their strike, the union’s watershed moment appears to have a few leaks.

Chris Aylward
Chris Aylward, National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /ERROL MCGIHON


It wasn’t until the final few hours of negotiations in late April that the two sides came to an agreement on telework.

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Only the specifics weren’t included in the new collective agreement that members voted to ratify.

Instead, details were laid out in a separate letter of agreement—an enforceable document outside the collective agreement that addresses a specific issue, according to Gilles Levasseur, a professor of management and law at the University of Ottawa.

PSAC’s initial goal was to get the improved telework language directly into the collective agreement, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

“Instead, as part of the give and take of every round of bargaining, we agreed to have those improvements implemented as part of a letter of agreement that sets us up to win the full victory in our next contract,” read a union breakdown of the contract settlement.

While it was not necessarily the desired outcome for many workers who wanted more concrete action on remote work, PSAC claimed the letters of agreement – which committed to the creation of a joint consultation committee to review the government’s directive on telework and a panel to address employees’ concerns about works arrangements – would allow members to be “protected from arbitrary decisions about remote work by the government,” preventing “one-size-fits-all” mandates in the federal public service.

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From the government’s point of view, however, Couperus said the letters of agreement only call for the review of the Directive on Telework, which discusses the management of individual telework agreements.

Meanwhile, the letter of agreement does not enforce the review of the government’s direction on prescribed presence in the workplace, Couperus added, which was introduced late last year and sets the guidelines on how often workers have to be in the office.

The Treasury Board spokesperson said both policies continue to apply.

Neither the union nor the government would comment on how there appears to have been miscommunication about the interpretation of the letters of agreement.

The Canada Revenue Agency had a similar letter of agreement on telework with its 35,000 unionized employees, represented by the Union of Taxation Employees (UTE).

Adam Blondin, a spokesperson for the CRA, confirmed that the agency’s intent is also to maintain the requirement for on-site presence. Needless to say, the union is unhappy with that position, something it made clear to the CRA at a meeting this summer after they ratified their contract.

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Marc Brière, UTE’s national president, said he denounces the position taken by the CRA, adding that he doesn’t agree with their interpretation of the letter of agreement. “It’s either a clear example of huge misunderstanding between the parties or the employer did not bargain in good faith,” Brière said.

Crystal Warner can understand why the other unions feel blindsided. The former national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) said she suspected this outcome given the language in the letter of agreement.

The language was a key reason why the CEIU, which represents over 35,000 PSAC’s programs and administrative services employees, launched an ultimately unsuccessful “vote no” campaign against the proposed agreement with the Treasury Board.

“We were very suspicious,” Warner said. “We didn’t feel that they were going to be reasonable.

“At the end of the day, they’re shooting themselves in the foot because what they’ve got is a miserable and unhappy workforce,” Warner said. “And what they’ve got is people that are looking for other jobs.”

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Marc Briere
Marc Briere, national president of the Union of Taxation Employees, at the picket line for Public Service Alliance of Canada members at the Sudbury Taxation Centre in Sudbury, Ont. on April 28, 2023. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network Photo by John Lappa /John Lappa/Sudbury Star


Chris Aylward said PSAC is considering available means of recourse and is prepared to take “swift and aggressive action” to enforce the requirements of the letters of agreement as understood by the union.

But he would not provide details on what that meant.

The UTE is looking into the possibility of filing an unfair labour practice against the CRA, Brière said. “Clearly the position taken by the employer is absolutely contrary to what we were expecting when our bargaining team signed the agreement.”

There is a legal recourse for a union to grieve an issue it has with the government’s application of the letters of agreement, said Gilles Levasseur, a professor of management and law at the University of Ottawa.

Unfortunately for the union, however, the documents are too vague, leaving room for interpretation of the terms. That “failure of the union,” Levasseur said, diminishes the likelihood that PSAC could win the case in court if it did decide to pursue a grievance.

“The letters do not have specific details about how that actual telework is going to be applied and enforced,” Levasseur explained. “This means the government can continue making decisions as per status quo.”

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The authority around the conditions of the work environment belongs to the employer, unless agreed otherwise, Levasseur added. “If an employee doesn’t have specific conditions, they can do whatever they want. The union has missed on its mandate of fighting for the employees’ rights in specific norms.”

“The sad part is they had the edge during the last strike.”

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Originally posted 2023-10-21 01:14:28.