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Members and supporters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket outside the Harry Hays federal building during strike action in Calgary on April 20.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

More than half of Canadians support the right of federal public servants to work from home, according to a new survey from polling company Angus Reid Institute.

The survey was conducted amid one of the largest strikes in Canadian history, and aimed to gauge the public’s attitude toward more than 100,000 striking federal workers – members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

At the heart of the labour dispute between the government and the union are wages and remote work. The union is seeking a 13.5-per-cent wage hike over three years; the government is offering 9 per cent.

How do strikes work in Canada? An intro to unions and labour laws

The union is also demanding that remote work language be entrenched in any future collective agreements, so that unionized workers have the ability to grieve a forced return to the office that they deem unfair. The government has mandated that all federal public employees be in the office at least two or three times a week.

Roughly 55 per cent of Canadians polled said they supported employees’ rights to work from home, while 36 per cent of Canadians were opposed to it. Ten per cent had no opinion on the matter. In a previous Angus Reid poll on returning to the office, 51 per cent of Canadians indicated they preferred working from home most of the time, and it was their employer’s decision to get them back into the office.

Approximately 50 per cent of the public service, according to data from the government, work in front-facing roles that they are unable to do from home – 20,000 of those workers are currently on strike. (About 47,000 unionized workers deemed essential remain on the job.) For the vast majority of the workers on strike then, being able to determine how and where they work is crucial, resulting in it becoming a key sticking point in negotiations.

The Angus Reid survey was conducted online between April 20 and April 21, polled 1,276 Canadians, and had a margin of error of three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll also found that more people (48 per cent) supported the union’s proposed wage increase than opposed it (40 per cent). On the issue of wage premiums of an extra $2.50 an hour for night shifts and overtime – also a key union demand – 65 per cent of those polled said they were in favour of the proposition, while 27 per cent opposed it.

The level of support for various union proposals differed significantly according to political party affiliation, the survey found. Support for the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s demands was much higher among those who had previously voted for the NDP and Liberals, as opposed to past Conservative voters. For example, around 73 per cent of NDP voters and 58 per cent of Liberal voters supported the union’s annual wage demand of 4.5 per cent, while just 30 per cent of Conservative voters were in favour of it.

Labour experts and political observers predict that public sympathy toward striking workers could play a role in the outcome of negotiations, and critically, whether the Liberals might invoke back-to-work legislation.

The striking workers are part of five major Public Service Alliance of Canada bargaining units. They are largely administrative personnel across various federal departments and agencies, maintenance workers in government buildings, port workers and firefighters. Roughly 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers are also on strike. The majority of these workers (60 per cent), according to data provided by the union to The Globe and Mail, earn less than $70,000 annually. Twenty-four per cent earn between $40,000 and $60,000 while 20 per cent earn more than $80,000.

A recent analysis from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that when adjusted for inflation, wage gains for all federal workers since 2007 have been 7.8 per cent lower than the overall national average.

On Friday evening, three days into the strike, the union said that both sides had made some progress in negotiations, but there were still “key issues” outstanding and talks would continue into the weekend.

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