Thousands of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers will be navigating “uncharted” territory if they strike Wednesday, especially for those who currently work remotely, observers say.
More than 100,000 employees could walk off the job across Canada if a deal isn’t reached with the federal government by Tuesday evening. Two PSAC bargaining groups moved into legal strike positions last week after voting in favour of a strike mandate.
PSAC said it’s requiring its members — including remote workers — to show up in-person to picket locations across the country to qualify for strike pay and avoid “fines and suspension of membership privileges.”
“Remote work or telework allows an employee to work from home rather than from a specific worksite but does not exclude them from the bargaining unit,” the PSAC website reads.
It poses a unique challenge for the many members who were hired in the middle of the pandemic and, with no physical office to go to, have only ever worked from home — especially those in rural locations.
“The ability of employees to strike when they actually don’t have an office to work in … that’s uncharted territory,” said Rich Appiah, an employment and labour lawyer based in Toronto.
“It’s a novel situation, especially given the pandemic and the very fast rise of remote work.”
‘It isn’t 1991. It’s 2023’
A lot has changed since the last time members of the core public service walked off the job in 1991, which saw thousands of workers across the country form picket lines to physically block people from entering regional offices. At that time, remote work was unheard of.
“It isn’t 1991. It’s 2023, and I think this is new territory for the employer and it’s new territory for the unions,” said Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council.
PSAC said members will be able to report to the picket line nearest to them, regardless if it’s their usual work location or region. Members can use an app on the union’s website to locate a picket line, officials said, but the app had not been launched as of Monday afternoon.
The union has made an effort to make picket lines as accessible as possible, but for those who are especially far away, considerations would be made on a case-by-case basis, said Alex Silas, regional executive vice-president for PSAC in the National Capital Region.
“We expect and trust that our members are going to be there for each other at the picket line just as those members are going to trust one another that they’re in this fight together,” he said.
Silas said members have been sent a barcode they can use to sign in at any picket location and have their four hours of daily service registered.
However, with about 60 per cent of the federal public service outside of the National Capital Region, “keeping track of all that on a day-to-day basis is going to be a major logistical challenge for both sides,” Wernick said.
Regardless of how it will work, he said a strike “unquestionably will be messy and disruptive and inconvenient.”