NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh joins PSAC workers on a picket line in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh joins PSAC workers on a picket line in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Federal public-service strike lands in middle of political battle for working class

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has often been followed by crowds of people looking to snag selfies, but with the largest federal public-sector strike in decades underway, Jagmeet Singh is the one receiving rock-star treatment in Ottawa.

The federal NDP leader visited the picket line near Parliament Hill multiple times this week, appearing to be the only party leader to have shown face-to-face support to the thousands of public servants who walked off the job starting Wednesday.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada’s decision to strike amid stalling negotiations with the federal government lands in the middle of a political fight for the support of organized labour and the working class.

Union leaders and their members have historically found a home with the New Democrats, but for nearly a decade Trudeau has concentrated on eating into that support — and a confidence-and-supply agreement between the two parties has muddied the waters even more.

The Liberal government agreed under the deal to provide 10 paid sick days to federally regulated workers, and said in this year’s federal budget that it would introduce legislation this year banning the use of replacement workers during strikes or lockouts in federally regulated industries.

Both are measures Trudeau takes credit for, but that Singh says would not have been possible without a push from the New Democrats.

Each is also watching another opponent, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has signalled he is committed to seeking the support of the country’s working class — a group he charges is finding itself increasingly isolated under Trudeau.

Although Poilievre regularly attacks Trudeau for his elite exterior, the Tory leader’s nearly 20 years in the House of Commons shows a record of supporting back-to-work legislation.

He once espoused the belief that members of the union currently on strike should have a chance to opt out of paying their dues.

The federal Conservatives have so far steered clear from telling the workers to return to their jobs, instead saying the strike itself and the service disruptions it is beginning to cause are the fault of Trudeau’s incompetence.

This week, Calgary MP Stephanie Kusie, who serves as the party’s critic for the Treasury Board in Parliament, told reporters the striking public servants are also paying high prices, thanks to inflation.

But Singh and other NDP MPs have been quick to point out that the Conservatives may be the Liberals’ only dance partner if they decide to pursue back-to-work legislation.

That’s a step neither Trudeau nor his ministers have mentioned, as negotiations between the union and government continue.

Singh himself has ruled out helping the government pass any legislation of the kind, raising questions about what that could mean for the NDP-Liberal deal, slightly more than a year old.

The agreement has the NDP supporting the minority Liberals through key votes in the House of Commons to avoid an election until 2025, in exchange for advancing NDP priorities.

Labour leaders are among those watching how both Trudeau and Poilievre handle the dispute, as federal leaders try to court the support of workers.

“Silence in the face of this struggle is just not on,” Lana Payne, national president of Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union, said in a statement Friday.

“The federal Conservatives have their chance now to show they actually support working people and their Charter rights and the exercising of those rights to improve living standards. They have the chance to show they truly understand and support collective bargaining in this country. But I’m not holding my breath.”

Payne added that Unifor, which boasts more than 300,000 members, “fully expects” Trudeau’s government to work with the Public Service Alliance of Canada to reach a collective agreement — at the bargaining table.

—Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Both union, government warn of major service disruptions as a result of strike

READ MORE: Here’s what happens to government services if federal public servants go on strike

Federal PoliticsLabourPublic Sector Bargaining