Picking the Picket Line

3 minute read

On April 19th, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and the NDP caucus, joined Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers on the picket line. Over 120,000 civil servants are currently striking in pursuit of a 13.5 percent raise over three years, greater job security, and in opposition to a mandatory return-to-office order. It is the largest federal strike since 1991.  

The NDP and Organized Labour

The NDP’s rally-’round-the-picket-line posture is unsurprising: The NDP, of course, was hatched in the nursery of organized labour. In the summer of 1961, while fledgling New Democrats were engineering the party’s launch, the Canadian Labour Congress marched in step. At the zenith of the union-NDP alliance, in 1963, 14.6% of union members were affiliated with the party. 

This foundational relationship has transmuted over time. The Conservatives have successfully made inroads in the labour voting bloc — on the provincial and federal level. During the last Ontario election, under Doug Ford’s leadership, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario was endorsed by eight unions. Ford’s courting of private sector unions included the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Ontario Pipe Trades Council, two previous endorsers of the Ontario New Democratic Party. 

On the federal level, however, public sector unions and the NDP have protected their strong, protracted ties. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) formally endorsed the NDP during the last federal election. Meanwhile, PSAC communications encouraged members to vote in favour of a government “that will continue supporting workers,” while clarifying that this precludes ballot-box approval of “Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives.” Their federal party platform comparison noted that the Liberal platform, while containing many positive commitments, “does not address other significant issues like privatization and contracting out.” The NDP platform received PSAC’s most positive analysis, union leadership concluded that “it contains realistic commitments on all the major issues PSAC members have told us are important.” Last year, PSAC welcomed the Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement, contending that it would support the “most vulnerable Canadians.” 

The Confidence and Supply Agreement 

The steady security of this aforementioned NDP-Liberal agreement is now under scrutiny. If neither side of the negotiating table reneges from their stalemate divisions, the Liberals may be forced to introduce back-to-work legislation. On Tuesday, Singh and Trudeau discussed this potentiality. Singh publicly drew a red line — declaring that he would indisputably vote against the bill, even if it were designated a confidence vote. If the Liberals pursue back-to-work legislation, a possibility that this government certainly does not relish, the passage of a Government Bill would, for the first time since this inaugural agreement was announced, exclude the support of New Democrats.  

The Conservatives face few political incentives to bring this quagmire to a rapid and clean solution, although they have not ruled out their support. Stephanie Kusie, the conservative Treasury Board critic, has blamed the strike on Liberal incompetence. Governance-centred pressures to end the stalemate will mount as public service disruptions accrue. Union-side difficulties will increase in positive correlation, as the most recent publicly available financial statements revealed that at the end of 2021, PSAC had collected approximately $43 million in its strike fund (strike pay sits at $75 per day). 

At the end of the day, these socio-fiscal considerations are now extraneous to the federal NDP. The party has, in effect, removed itself from the political equation. There are thick relational ties between the federal NDP and PSAC’s leadership. An eleventh-hour betrayal is unfathomable. The NDP has long-struggled against the well-funded, entrenched Liberal party infrastructure. A commitment to workers’ rights was foremost in its founding doctrine, and its base of support among mobilized federal public service unions is critical. In many ways, the NDP’s political path forward is admiringly uncomplicated: The strike is Trudeau’s problem now.

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