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OTTAWA – The tentative deal that ended the largest federal strike in decades could open a whole new conflict around remote work, a demand that came second only to wages in the two-week standoff and isn’t going away.

“It’s a strike that didn’t need to happen,” said Linda Duxbury, a Chancellor’s professor of management at Carleton University and expert on work-life balance and remote work.

She blames both the government and its largest federal union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, for failing to manage workers’ expectations about remote work, which she says is a “privilege not a right.”

“The government caused this problem by arbitrarily picking out of the air that employees must come into the office two to three days a week,” she said.

“It makes no sense when you’ve got such huge number of different jobs…. You’re can’t treat everyone the same. By trying to be fair to everybody, they are fair to nobody. People are enraged.”

In the coming days, 155,000 public servants will vote whether to ratify a deal that some fear could set the government and its workforce on a collision course. Former Privy Council clerk Kevin Lynch has questioned how it will lead to a more productive public service that delivers better services.

The federal public service strike ends on compromise over wages, remote work

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PSAC never got the raise it wanted to match inflation, but the four-year deal is one of the highest recently negotiated in the public sector. It will dole out raises worth 12.6 per cent – along with other sweeteners.

The agreement on remote work, however, falls short of the breakthrough PSAC wanted.

Remote work remained a red line for both parties. PSAC wanted the right to work from home enshrined in the collective agreement. Treasury Board President Mona Fortier stood firm that how and where employees work is a management right that she would not surrender.

Instead, remote requests will be assessed individually by managers and in writing. Requests that are denied will go to a joint union-employer panel for review, but they cannot be grieved.

Treasury Board has also promised to consult with unions on a review of the 30-year-old telework policy. Other union officials don’t have much faith.

“C’mon,” said one long-time negotiator. “Have you ever seen a government consulting with a union that leads to a major overhaul of anything? Let’s be real here.”

With the new deal, the first in the line of fire will be managers, who will have to juggle the responsibility and complications of remote work.

“I can’t tell you who won this deal, but I can certainly tell you who lost; the front-line and middle-level managers who all of sudden have all the onus for this on them,” Duxbury said.

Managers are already a beleaguered bunch. Duxbury said data shows those empathetic to their staff worked flat-out during the pandemic, squeezed between the must-do orders from senior management and front-line employees doing the work.

“They’re coming out of the pandemic, already burned out and what do we do? We dump this responsibility on them. We don’t give them any tools. We don’t give them any guidance. We don’t even tell them what productivity looks like for people who work at home,” she said.

Many of the issues around remote could be solved by better management. The relationship between managers and employees is all-important, but now managers are “put in the position of judging who gets to work from home. They can’t win,” said Duxbury.

“If they say no, for whatever reason, they are suddenly in hours of follow-ups and grievances and committees and more committees on top of everything else they have to do.”

How to measure productivity?

It’s particularly challenging to measure productivity among knowledge workers, and the government charged ahead with hybrid work with no way track it, said Duxbury.

Its outdated classification system desperately needs an overhaul to measure productivity in jobs as diverse as carpenters and cooks to scientists and economists. What productivity means varies wildly by job, department and even the person doing the work.

Prior to the pandemic, the public service measured productivity by hours worked, and those who worked the longest and were available 24/7 were the “most worthy and promotable,” said Duxbury.

The pandemic sent everyone home to work, where employees claim they are as or more productive. They are indeed working longer hours – about 11 hours more a week, Duxbury’s studies show. But can that extra time be equated with productivity?

“Longer hours are just an input. We’re interested in output. What do you do? No one has measured that at all, so claims of productivity can’t be supported. We don’t have a clue,” she said.

Duxbury argues the strike might never have happened if Treasury Board had stuck with its original plan of letting departments decide how to make the shift to a hybrid workforce and who to bring back to the office.

Treasury Board faced lots of criticism for that hands-off approach. With more than 100 departments and agencies, the result was a patchwork, with some requiring a day or two in the office and others allowing people to work from home. Departments also didn’t enforce the various standards.

Ultimately, the government clamped down with a “one-size-fits-all” approach and created a massive uproar when it forced people back to the office two to three days a week.

“If they (had) just left it alone, and gone with departments’ plans, and given autonomy to the deputy ministers who knew the type of work being done, knew their people, and knew what was possible, probably none of this would have happened,” said Duxbury.

PSAC tapped into the fury and frustration over the government’s return-to-office order to stoke its strike vote — something it knew the government wasn’t going to give in on.

But labour observers say PSAC is facing a backlash among its members for failing to manage expectations. Already, the deal has created fractures within PSAC.  One of its union components, which represents 37,000 workers, is leading a no-vote campaign against the deal.

The PSAC union representing tax workers at Canada Revenue Agency didn’t want the deal and stayed on strike. Without the leverage of 120,000 striking Treasury Board workers, it settled a couple of days later with much the same deal.

What about tensions between front-line workers who have to report to work and office workers who can work from home? Many argue this will inevitably lead to two-tier employment with those who can’t do their jobs remotely wanting to be paid a premium over remote work colleagues who get to save on commuting costs.

Will public servants become politicized?

Some worry the strike has so seriously shaken labour peace that public servants could become politicized against their employer.

This kind of politicization could play out in the next election, said Larry Savage, professor of labour studies at Brock University. Federal unions fear the election of a labour-unfriendly and cost-cutting Conservative government, but they don’t want to be “seen as helping the prime minister who pushed them out onto the picket line.” (Remember in the 2015 election, some federal unions openly campaigned against the Harper government over anti-labour legislation that took away their collective bargaining rights. The Liberals repealed that legislation.)

For the upcoming ratification vote, PSAC is positioning remote work as a major step forward to be built on in future rounds of collective bargaining.

And what about the other unions still in bargaining?

“What leverage does any other union have to get a better deal when this is all that came out of a 12-day strike?” said one longtime union leader. “After all this, do you think the government is going to say, ‘Oh yeah, ‘we’ll give you more than we gave them?’”

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read more of Kathryn’s work here.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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