Are Canadian unions divorcing the NDP?


When asked recently to comment on the troubled relationship between the federal NDP and Unifor, the Frankenstein monster of Canadian unions, in the sense that it’s the product of a fusion between the CAW and the CEPU, President Jerry Dias said the “divorce is almost complete.”  What Dias was referring to was the departure of the unionized political staff of the NDP on Parliament Hill from Unifor.  The former claims that they were kicked out of Unifor because they no longer supported the latter’s political machinations, particularly its decision to back Liberal candidates strategically in Ontario’s last election, rather than throwing in its lot with the NDP.  Unifor claims that the NDP left after the regional council voted against supporting the Dippers, without exception, in Ontario.

With the criticism that the NDP has been getting from Unifor and other leaders over their support for the South Korean free trade agreement recently finalized by the Harper government and the break-up of the political marriage they once counted on for moral and strategic support, it seems fair to ask the question are Canadian unions in the process of divorcing the NDP?

Let’s look at Dias’ reasoning, such as it is.  When asked to comment on the strategy behind refusing to exclusively support the NDP in the 2015 elections it seem that the decision basically boils down to strategic voting.  Unifor figures that supporting the candidate that has the best chance of defeating the Hudak hordes in the last Ontario election (the man did promise to cut 100,000 jobs from the public service including teachers) was better than getting behind Horwath’s team that wasn’t, as it turned out, a terribly viable alternative to the Conservatives in the minds of Ontarians.  As it happened, Kathleen Wynne did beat “Tea Party” Tim quite badly in the final tally, and now has a solid mandate to govern for the next five years, though she gives no sign of being favourable to the interests of organized labour.

Applying this to Harper’s gang in the upcoming federal contest, Dias is again betting on the best horse in the race to defeat the federal Conservatives (whom he has already compared to Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives), which doesn’t necessarily rule out the NDP.  In fact, Unifor will continue to endorse all sitting NDP members of Parliament in their re-election bids.  But it does mean that a large number of Liberals may also receive Unifor’s endorsement, along with all the organizers, resources, electioneering and votes that unions can bring to an election campaign.

The example given by Dias was the riding of Brandon-Souris where, admittedly, the NDP were nowhere to be seen in the last by-election in 2013 (7.2% of the vote share doesn’t even get you a refund on your deposit from Elections Canada).  That means that the next time around Dias will urge his membership (it’s worth remembering unions do not slavishly follow orders from the boss) to vote Liberal in the next election because he maintains that Conservatives don’t care for working class Canadians and that he doubted that the federal Liberal’s are intent on destroying the movement.

Whoa, talk about damning with faint praise!

Let’s examine this thinking for a moment.  Based on zero history of supporting union and no pro-labour policies (e.g. the Grits are still on the fence regarding raising the federal minimum wage), Dias is betting that Justin Trudeau will somehow magically become the hero of the working classes in this country.  If all it takes to get a union endorsement these days is to not show scorn for the movement, then organized labour is in worse shape than anyone, including me, imagined.

A word on strategic voting: don’t do it.  There is any number of good reasons not to.  The fact that polling in this country is notoriously poor at predicting election results.  The fact that it leads to a distortion of the democratic process in that people elect politicians and parties that don’t necessarily lead to the desired policies.  And above all else, they reduce the act of voting to a cynical, strategic tool, devoid of principles, that will only serve to increase people’s negativity about politics and ultimate disengagement from the whole democratic process.

But that isn’t the only bone of contention between the mighty Unifor and the federal NDP.  Lately the two have been at odds over the issue of the recently finalized free trade pact with South Korea.  The NDP has not gone out on much of a limb by supporting a deal with South Korea,  a country with tremendous economic growth and a potentially huge export market for Canadian goods.  Not to mention, a stable democratic government as well as strong labour and human right’s standards.  But they got flak from Unifor and other unions anyway, because it represents a threat to the auto manufacturing industry in Canada given that one of South Koreas major exports to Canada is cars.

Unifor calls the pact a “disaster” and other union leaders have joined them in criticizing the NDP for their new position.  Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour even suggested that the NDP’s call for a federal minimum wage hike to 15 dollars was intended to soften the inevitable blow to the relationship between them and the Party.

Regardless of whether the marriage between the unions and the federal NDP is irreparable, the current public divorce between them is undeniably painful for both.

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Other articles by David DesBaillets

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