The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trudeau turns his back on organized labor

Striking Canada Post put up signs outside a mail processing plant in Ottawa on Nov. 23. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Christo Aivalis is a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at the University of Toronto. He is the author of “The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left.”

There’s less than a year to go until Canada’s next federal election. And if the polls are to be believed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party is on track to retain a majority government. This is due in part to our first-past-the-post electoral system, which favors the Liberals as the largest non-Conservative party. Voters who may prefer the Greens or the New Democratic Party (NDP) instead choose the Liberals because — faults aside — they are perceived as less dangerous than the Tories. This strategy is popular among many (though not all) of Canada’s unions, who encourage voting for the most likely candidate to topple a Conservative, which usually means a Liberal.

Trudeau understands this well, and he has made efforts to maintain this relationship with labor. He started by canceling some of the previous Conservative regime’s anti-labor legislation, adopted some notable reforms endorsed by unions, has built a strong relationship with Canada’s largest private-sector union and even helped get Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff to address the Liberal Convention, something nearly unheard of until now.

Still, some tensions with labor have percolated just below the surface. Shortly after being elected, Trudeau downplayed a $15 minimum wage, while his finance minister got into hot water by telling young Canadians that they had to reject hopes of stable employment and embrace “job churn.” Trudeau also abandoned his promise to reform our electoral system, which would have made the above mentioned political calculus irrelevant. But while Trudeau has seemingly weathered all of these storms, a recent move may be harder to overcome.

For the past several weeks, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has been taking rotating strike action as part of its negotiations with Canada Post. While mail continues to be delivered, there have been slowdowns, which have led to business groups calling on the government to legislate CUPW members back to work. Trudeau’s government did just that last week and introduced back-to-work legislation to end the strike by Canada Post employees. The legislation passed and went into effect this week.

But the right to strike is enshrined within Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, meaning it can’t simply be discarded without political or legal consequences. There has been a strong backlash from the labor movement to this bill, with CUPW members occupying postal facilities across the country.

But while the legal consequences will almost certainly take years to play out, the political consequences may be more immediate. Trudeau has been heretofore successful at keeping labor appeased, at least as a strategic ally, but this ordeal may have some unions questioning the value of a strategic ally that attacks their basic constitutional rights. Certainly, 2019 will see Trudeau faced with questions about just how deeply he actually values the role of organized labor in Canada.

Here lies a crucial opportunity for the New Democratic Party, which lost more than half its Parliament seats in 2015 and is currently polling in third place. It is the official party of labor, as much as such exists in Canada, but has struggled thus far to assert a narrative for the next election because — accurate or not — the media and many voters see Trudeau occupying the electoral left’s turf. With NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaking on this issue outside Parliament, and NDP members of Parliament being the leading opposition to the legislation within Parliament, this may be a signal to unions and progressive voters that they — strategy be damned — have a friend that merits principled support.

Ultimately, when faced with the rights of workers and the conveniences of business, the Liberals prioritized the latter. While this legislation may not be unpopular with the electorate and won’t singularly topple the government, it may well shift how Canada’s labor movement approaches the next federal election. And if this happens, it could signal a big boost in the sails of Canada’s social-democratic NDP. Will that alone change who governs in 2019? Likely not, but it may determine if that government is a majority or a minority. And a labor movement united behind a stronger NDP, which could hold Trudeau accountable to his promises in a minority Parliament, would be a far more powerful force than it is now.

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