Real populists go to bat for public workers

As these brave public workers undertake one of the largest strike actions in Canadian history, we progressives need to have their backs.

PSAC union members with flags march on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Public Service Alliance of Canada (Instagram)

As of midnight,155,000 federal workers have been on strike. It is one of the largest job actions in Canadian history.

The workers on the picket lines aren’t on any provincial sunshine list. They’re working class — the front-line staff at our Service Canada centres. They’re workers who make our passports, issue unemployment cheques, help our veterans and work at our ports, bases and defence facilities.

These 155,000 workers with the Public Service Alliance of Canada are mostly women making what StatCan would call an average salary of $40,000 to $65,000 per year. They live in federal swing ridings all over the country. They’re “feeling squeezed alongside everyone else.

They are exactly the people and demographics our populist politicians say they want to fight for.

The Trudeau government is not interested in engaging this group of workers. The Treasury Board sent out press releases Wednesday morning stating it has “done everything it can do to reach a deal.” In labour relations speak, the government is digging in and is not interested in any further negotiations at this time.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal New Democrats, was quick with a strong statement: “The government continued to drag its feet and provoked this crisis. New Democrats stand in solidarity with these workers and their demands for respect.” And he is willing to go the distance. If the Liberals’ tabled a back-to-work bill and made the vote a confidence matter, he said his party would vote against it.

But Singh’s not the only populist in the House of Commons.

On the allegedly populist right, we have Pierre Poilievre, who, despite never having worked a real front-line job in his life (or any job at all for that matter, having been elected to Parliament in his 20s), styles himself a tribune of the working class.

Will we see Brother Pierre on the picket line singing the hymns of working people? Will he show support as he did for the so-called Freedom Convoy and join in a march? Never say never, but I have my doubts.

The workers are reasonable: give us a raise that won’t be eaten up by the rising costs of housing and groceries.

The ask is so reasonable that even the government’s own appointed Public Interest Commission recommended it offer Canada’s public service workers a wage increase of nine per cent over a three-year contract. There’s a simple reason why. This is the increase needed if workers’ wages are to keep up with rising costs.

Over the bargaining period, which has lasted nearly two years, prices for commodities such as food, energy and rent have increased by as much as eight per cent. These increases are expected to reach 13.8 per cent by the time the existing contract expires this year, according to the union. That’s not a raise, it’s a cut.

And the cuts would hurt everyone. As Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske points out: “When the federal government lowers wages for its workers, it impacts all workers from every sector, whether they are unionized or non-unionized.” It’s like we say in the labour movement: an injury to one is an injury to all.

With the battle lines drawn, which side has been chosen by the so-called populist right?

It’s not the side of these workers.

Poilievre loves to channel anger, claiming he stands with workers. But when solutions that deliver for working-class people require a market intervention, he is silent. The aversion Poilievre has to the government using its power to mitigate the runaway cost of living is deeply rooted in his self-described “libertarian-minded” ideology, the belief in organizing culture, society, family and government around individual values and the pursuit of profit with minimal rules, laws or government.

A “libertarian-minded” ideology does more than cost us taxpayer money. It hollows out our government and reduces the number of good union jobs. 1-800-O-CANADA, a call centre that answers questions about critical federal benefit programs like EI, is now run by Gatestone, an American company that specializes in debt collection. According to testimony from call centre workers, when Canadians call their government, operators lack the simple answers to common questions.

This is just one small example of why Canadians are mad at their government. And they have a right to be. When you call the government about EI and instead of answers get frustrating lineups and confusion, you will inevitably conclude you are not getting good value for your hard-earned taxpayer money.

EKOS pollster Frank Graves is ringing alarm bells, reporting a “massive monotonic decline in trust in public service. Unprecedented. Harbinger of a legitimacy crisis. Not business as usual.”

Our public institutions are being hollowed out by external contractors. And instead of fighting for regular Canadians, who deserve to be well-served by their government, we hear crickets from the populist right.

Despite his protestations he is sticking up for Canadian workers, despite this being a situation that would undermine his foe Justin Trudeau, I predict Poilievre, who slams the Liberals for spending too much money, will stay silent as back-to-work motions are introduced, the workers’ pay is cut and their jobs are raffled off to foreign companies.

That means it’s up to us.

We progressives need to oppose the very serious pay cut the government is proposing. We need to fight to end outsourcing and call out the flushing away of our tax dollars in order to line corporate pockets. We need to fight for the quality and trust of our country’s institutions.

As these brave public workers undertake one of the largest strike actions in Canadian history, we progressives need to have their backs.

This article originally appeared in the National Observer on April 19, 2023.

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