In November, 2015, days after forming his first government, Justin Trudeau visited the Lester B. Pearson Building, which houses the foreign-affairs department. Hundreds of ecstatic public servants thronged the building’s halls and foyer to cheer his arrival.
Seven-and-a-half years later, much of the federal public service is on strike. Sunny ways, my friends. Sunny ways.
The strike by federal public servants is calamitous for this Liberal government. Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre likes to say that everything is broken. The strike is now Exhibit A.
Remember how hard it was to renew or procure a passport last year? Back then, at least there were people working in passport offices. Now they’re on the line. Expecting an income-tax refund? Don’t expect one any time soon. Heard about the immigration backlog? It’s going to get worse. There will likely be delays at airports and border crossings. If Week 1 becomes Week 2 and Week 3, disruptions will increasingly ripple through society.
The good news for Canadians is that the two sides seem committed to reaching a settlement. They both know the strike is damaging their reputations. But the federal government can only go so far in meeting the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) wage demands.
The Bank of Canada, as it battles persistent inflation, is urging employers to limit wage hikes. The PSAC settlement, whatever it is and whenever it comes, will offer a template for public-sector unions across the country, from Manitoba public servants to teachers in Nova Scotia to garbage collectors in British Columbia.
If Ottawa throws in the towel and meets PSAC’s demands, that could make the bank’s inflation fight harder, delaying any reduction in interest rates.
PSAC knows it is not popular. Public servants felt none of the economic insecurity that gripped many in the private sector during the pandemic. Their benefit and pension packages are the envy of all – except for others in public-sector unions. PSAC wants to get to an agreement as much as the government does.
And yet here we are.
In 1991, a PSAC strike became so disruptive that Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government bought in back-to-work legislation, ending the strike after three weeks. That would be much harder this time. The Liberal/NDP-not-really-a-coalition would suffer serious strain, perhaps even a rupture, if the government tried to force the workers back.
To get the legislation passed, the Liberals would have to look to Mr. Poilievre or to Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet for support. Neither has any reason to offer it. Every day the strike lasts erodes Liberal support in Quebec. And while Mr. Poilievre’s supporters will at some point demand that the workers be forced back, they will also delight in the Liberals’ discomfiture.
Mr. Poilievre practically chortled during Question Period on Wednesday, observing that it is one thing to increase the size and cost of the public service, as this government has done, and another thing to be faced with a massive strike by public servants, as it now faces, but “it is an especially incredible achievement of incompetence to do both of those at the same time.”
A hit. A very palpable hit.
Let’s go back to that 1991 strike. At the time, Mr. Mulroney was more than halfway through a second majority government. The big achievements, including the free-trade agreement with the United States, were behind him. The big problems, including the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax, a recession, rising inflation and high interest rates, were painfully fresh.
The strike, and its enforced resolution, contributed to the growing sense that the Conservatives had become tired and unable to cope. In the election two years later, they were reduced to two seats and the Liberals under Jean Chrétien won a majority.
This strike comes at a time when the Liberal government seems unable to control its finances, interest rates and inflation are high, and Mr. Trudeau appears to be stonewalling in the face of evidence that the Chinese government is interfering in Canadian politics.
The longer this strike lasts, the greater the political damage to a government that is already listing and to a union that has little public support. The odds favour it ending sooner rather than later. Neither side will profit from letting this agony endure.