OTTAWA — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he will not support any potential back-to-work legislation tabled by the government if 155,000 federal public servants go on strike, which could force the Liberals to look to the Conservatives for support.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) announced on Tuesday evening that its members would go on strike starting Wednesday, after their deadline to have a deal with the government passed.
Singh, whose party is supporting the minority Liberal government with a supply and confidence agreement, said earlier on Tuesday that the possibility of back-to-work legislation to respond to a possible strike by PSAC came up during a discussion with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He told Trudeau that he would vote against any such bill, even if it was a confidence vote.
“We envision that there might be a scenario where the government would bring it back-to-work legislation. They’ve done it in the past and I said really clearly to them that … we will never support that,” Singh said.
“I looked directly at the prime minister and said, ‘We’re a workers’ party, we’re not going to support back-to-work legislation. Never consider that as an option for us, because we’re not going to do that.’” he added.
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Earlier this week, PSAC leadership gave the government an ultimatum to have a deal by 9 pm EDT on Tuesday, or 120,000 core public service members and over 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers will launch the biggest federal public strike since 1991. The union announced last week that its members had voted to support a strike, after two years of contract negotiations with the government having failed to find an agreement.
A deal is still possible as the parties fight for a share of over wages — PSAC wants 13.5 per cent for three years and the last government offered nine per cent over the same period — and return-to-office policies after public servants worked from home during the pandemic . But over the weekend, PSAC began laying the groundwork for a strike, setting up trailers and portable toilets conspicuously around Parliament Hill and a website to help members find the closest picket line.
During the last major PSAC strike in 1991, the government tabled back-to-work legislation just weeks after the work stoppage began, sending bureaucrats back to the office feeling bitter towards both their union and their employer.
But Brian Mulroney’s majority Progressive Conservative government had control of the House of Commons at the time, making the passing of such legislation relatively straightforward.
The Trudeau Liberals currently head a minority government that has to date leaned heavily on the Singh’s NDP’s support to stay in power and pass key legislation through Parliament. The Opposition Conservatives have voted against most Liberal bills, and, to a lesser extent, so has the Bloc Québécois.
But if PSAC launches its strike and the Liberals are compelled to turn to back-to-work legislation to end the stoppage, the Liberals will have to turn to either the Bloc Québécois or the Conservatives to push the bill through. Historically, the Bloc Québécois positions itself as a working-class party with a strong blue collar base.
The last time such a bill was tabled in Parliament was by the Trudeau Liberals in 2021, to end a strike at the Port of Montreal. At the time, both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois called on the government to keep negotiating with strikers and voted against the bill.
Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives supported the Liberals, arguing that a prolonged strike could seriously hurt the country’s economy all the while blaming the Liberals for incompetence for allowing the situation to fester to the point of a strike.
On Monday, Conservative treasury board critic Stephanie Kusie argued that Canadians’ access to government services should not be hampered by the Liberals’ inability to reach a deal on time with PSAC.
“The only reason we find ourselves in the situation we are in is because of Justin Trudeau’s incompetence,” Kusie said, before going on to take a swipe at the Liberals’ increased reliability on consulting firms.
“One thing is clear: Canadians’ access to basic and essential services should not be compromised by Justin Trudeau’s inability to do his job,” she added.
But as of Tuesday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has remained conspicuously quiet on the battle between the Liberals and PSAC and his office declined to respond to questions about possible back-to-work legislation.
But politics can make for strange bedfellows, and both Trudeau and Poilievre might align in a desire to compel bureaucrats to return to work, despite turbulent contract negotiations.