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Public service unions promise 'summer of discontent' over in-office policy


Public Service Alliance of Canada president Chris Aylward speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Public service unions say they'll launch further legal challenges and grievances over new rules that federal employees must work from the office at least three days a week.

The unions are promising a "summer of discontent" over the policy, which was announced by the federal government earlier this month.

Public Service Alliance of Canada president Chris Aylward said Wednesday the NDP supports the unions and he expects the party to press the Liberals on the issue. 

But he stopped short of calling for the NDP to pull its support for the minority government. 

He said the NDP would be asking questions in the House of Commons "to get answers from the government as to why this decision was made without any consultation with any of the unions."

Those comments did not go as far a letter sent by the unions to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, dated the same day. 

The letter calls for Singh to "take decisive action by utilizing the mechanisms of power in the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement to hold them accountable." The agreement is the mechanism through which the NDP supports the minority Liberals to keep them in power. 

Asked about the apparent difference in messaging, a PSAC spokesperson said the focus is on having the NDP use that deal to pressure the government, "not on tearing up the agreement."

Singh told reporters his party has "lots of tools" to put pressure on the Liberals.

Aylward made the comments at a press conference on Parliament Hill alongside representatives of other public service unions.

They didn’t specify what kind of actions they are planning. They did say they have either already filed legal challenges, such as unfair labour practice complaints and policy grievances, or are planning to do so. 

Aylward said PSAC is considering making a separate application to the Federal Court.

The new rules, which also stipulate that executives will have to be in the office at least four days a week, take effect on Sept. 9.

Treasury Board President Anita Anand said Wednesday the government has the jurisdiction to make the changes and hybrid work arrangements aren’t in the collective agreements with the unions. 

"It is something that, at the time of the negotiations, the Government of Canada retained prerogative over to determine the scope of the hybrid environment," she told reporters.

Asked about Anand’s comments, Aylward said there is an agreement in place with the government "to sit down and talk to us and create these joint panels within each individual department and agency so that we can have these assessments on a case-by-case basis."

He said the government has "broken that promise by simply making this announcement last week."

Previously, most federal public servants had to be in the office at least two days a week. Those rules were put in place March 2023, two years after people began working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unions say there are already problems with the existing hybrid work arrangements because there is not enough space for employees, who struggle to find available desks and meeting rooms. The federal government said in its recent budget it plans to cut its office portfolio in half. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press

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