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Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) stand at a picket line outside Place du Portage in Gatineau, Que., on April 28, 2023.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Chris Aylward is the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, one of Canada’s largest unions, representing more than 185,000 federal public-service workers.

There are two things you can count on when it comes to creating the future of work. The first is that unions will inevitably be the ones turning the radical into the routine. The second is that opponents will echo the same tired arguments as they stand in the way of progress.

Look no further than the history of workers’ rights in Canada. Critics once claimed that an eight-hour workday would hurt businesses and lead to decreased productivity. Weekends were dismissed as an unrealistic luxury that would damage our economy. Before women and trade unionists won the fight for paid maternity leave for workers in 1971, they faced stiff resistance from employers and anti-worker critics.

If we relied on broad public support to advance the rights of workers in Canada, we’d never have achieved same-sex marriage, the right for women to vote and have access to safe abortions, and many of the other rights we take for granted.

Now let’s fast-forward to today. There is major upheaval among federal public-service workers in Canada, stirred by new government mandates requiring more in-office presence. We’re seeing federal unionized workers up in arms over this regressive approach to remote work.

But it’s not just about federal workers. This underscores the long-time struggle of all workers.

Many of these tired arguments of the past are being recycled to push back against remote work as the way of the future for millions of workers. And these paper-thin excuses are just as wrongheaded and nonsensical now as they were then. From the eight-hour workday to remote work, it’s always been workers against the corporate status quo.

Virtually overnight in 2020, we saw the pandemic usher in a massive shift in our work habits, proving that vast numbers of people could work from home effectively. Major corporations such as X TWTR-N (formerly Twitter) and Shopify SHOP-T transitioned their work force to be fully remote, setting a trend that soon saw employers and governments across the country follow suit. This started a new digital gold rush, as companies scrambled to launch new digital tools and software that helped make remote work actually work.

But as the urgency of the pandemic fades, we are seeing employers across North America backslide toward the traditional notion that “butts in seats” means more productive workers. This false narrative persists despite the overwhelming evidence that shows remote work greatly improves work-life balance for workers, and helps reduce carbon emissions amid a climate crisis, all while maintaining or increasing productivity for workers.

Along with finding new ways to work, we found better ways to work. Reverting to old patterns because it is comfortable for old-school managers does a disservice to all, in the public service and the entire community.

This has never been about how many days workers should spend in the office; it’s about the future of work as we know it for tens of millions of Canadian workers whose jobs can be done just as effectively from home as in the office.

Research by Abacus Data reinforces this, showing nearly 70 per cent of Canadians believe it’s a good idea for employers to allow workers to work remotely where possible.

There’s no doubt it takes courage to adapt to change, but the pandemic has erased many of the barriers needed to pave the way to the future of work.

As we’ve seen in the past, organized labour has the collective power to champion changes that benefit all workers in all sectors – from private to public, unionized and non-unionized alike.

Like major battles for workers’ rights before this, unions will once again be on the front lines to secure flexible remote work options as a standard practice for all workers. And as we’ve seen time and time again, when unionized workers secure better wages, safer workplaces and stronger benefits, those improvements ripple out to workers everywhere as employers compete for the best and brightest employees.

The push for remote work by civil-service unions could set a new benchmark that forces all employers in Canada to adapt and innovate, ensuring that the work force of tomorrow is happier, more resilient, inclusive and productive.

As we continue to navigate these changes, let us remember the lessons from our past: when unions lead, society as a whole benefits.

The right to work remotely, where feasible, should be seen as the next great frontier in the fight for workers’ rights. In leading this charge, unions uphold their legacy of securing progressive changes that ultimately enhance the quality of life and work for everyone.

This isn’t just a fight for today’s workers but a foundation for future generations in a rapidly evolving world.

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