Workers, unions, and the election



When the writ for the federal election dropped on Aug. 2, both political parties and trade unions moved into full election mode. The lengthy 78 day election period puts spending constraints upon unions including direct election spending and third party campaigning on issues relating to the election. Most unions will be devoting their resources to reaching their membership on issues that matter to them.

The Canadian Labour Congress is running a non-partisan campaign on key issues. This election they are focusing on childcare, good jobs, healthcare and retirement. Some unions will follow this non-partisan line. Most other unions in the country are backing the NDP, save for a handful actively supporting the Liberals such as LiUNA.

For the labour movement it is clear that the NDP offers the best platform amongst the major parties. They have promised to repeal the cuts to Canada Post, strengthen CPP, rollback anti-union bills such C-51, C-525, C-377, create a universal Childcare program and create a $15/hr minimum wage in the federal sector.

An NDP government?

The labour movement’s greatest source of power is not the ballot box, but its ability to challenge corporations and governments in the workplace. The labour movement, through on the ground campaigns, has the potential to reach millions.

This doesn’t mean elections are inconsequential. They can be used as a platform to push a working class agenda such as a $15/hr minimum wage, and they can also achieve important reforms such as the a national childcare program.

The NDP for the first time seems poised to be elected at the federal level. If we simply view this as an end in of itself, we will surely be disappointed. We know from past experiences at the provincial level that the NDP will immediately come under attack by the right, big corporations, international finance and the media. The NDP will respond by trying to placate this criticism from the right by demanding labour and the left not rock the boat. If this were to happen, the NDP will likely fold on many of its key promises and shift the political terrain to the right.

A case in point of this dynamic is the Fight for 15. The $15/hr minimum for federal regulated workers promised by the NDP will benefit roughly 100,000 workers. This is by itself a good thing.

The NDP’s policy was a response to the pressure created by the Fight for 15 movement across the country and even the continent. The NDP’s promise does not go far enough as it will not be fully in effect until 2019 and does not tie the increase to the rate of inflation going forward.

The promise does create the conditions for the movement to extend its reach and put mobilizing pressure on provincial governments to follow suit. The NDP, if elected, will come under fire for raising wages. The response of the labour movement is to not only defend the policy when attacked by the right, but to pressure the government through mobilization from the left to strengthen and extend the minimum wage.

Labour and the NDP

However, it is also obvious that the NDP is far from perfect. While they have committed to raising corporate taxes, they have not committed to raising taxes on the wealthy, letting the Liberals outflank them on the left on this issue. They have wedded themselves to being a government that balances the budget, which in the context of not taxing the rich spells trouble for working class people down the road.

The NDP has also not taken a clear and consistent stance against free trade deals such as the TPP. The NDP’s position on pipelines, the tar sands, infrastructure investment, affordable housing and foreign wars, muzzling debate on Palestine and supporting Israel’s warcrimes, also leaves much to be desired. And now we have Mulcair defending his 2001 comments in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-labour, pro-privatization right-wing policies.

Labour’s relationship with the NDP is complicated. Traditionally the NDP has been the party of labour, but the provincial experiences of the NDP in power have shown that simply electing NDP governments is not a solution. When the labour movement has been silent under NDP governments, the party has shifted the political landscape to the right.

In Saskatchewan under Romanov we saw hospital closures. In Ontario under Rae we saw austerity and broken promises like public auto insurance and a cowardly “free vote” on equal rights for same-sex couples. In BC we saw cuts to welfare and social services and the implementation of mandated bargaining units.

The Nova Scotia government failed to overhaul the labour board, reverse disastrous privatizations and, like their counterparts in Manitoba, carried out an “austerity lite” agenda. Every single one of these experiences created the conditions for the subsequent election of hostile right-wing governments.

The debate about which approach labour should take in the elections usually boils down to supporting the NDP or casting a “strategic vote” to keep the worst party out – in this case Harper’s Tories. Given the problems of the NDP in power, labour needs to do what it does best and independently bargain with the NDP for the best possible political positions. In other words, labour should be focused how it can push the broader political debate to the left and make substantial gains for workers.

But the type of bargaining required has to move out of closed door rooms and private phone calls between labour leaders and NDP officials. We need an open political discussion and debate and workers to be organized so they can hold even the NDP to account in riding association debates and at other public events.

Let’s review some of the issues we’re talking about.

Leave the oil in the soil

It is time we in the labour movement really make our voices heard on the issue of the environment. Some unions have fairly good positions on the climate crisis, some waffle and others are downright reactionary. What is clear is that we can no longer be silent when political parties fail to advocate strongly for a just and speedy transition away from fossil fuels.

When Linda McQuaig spoke an obvious truth on the campaign trail she was attacked by the Liberals, Conservatives and the media. McQuaig’s statement was also disavowed by Mulcair, who claimed the party was in favour of sustainable development of oil and gas in Alberta, whatever that means.

The labour movement should demand better and be willing to speak up to forcefully defend McQuaig, because there are no jobs on a dying planet. Labour has the organizational muscle to play a key role in keeping the oil in the soil and building the political will to develop a green economy. In fact, taking the tar sands on is exactly how labour is going to take on who really runs the economy.

This is the discussion the Canadian establishment does not want to have.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

The NDP’s position on free trade deals leaves much to be desired. They came out in support of the Korea-Canada Free Trade Agreement – which was opposed by the CLC and Unifor. They also have not clearly come out against CETA, the Canada-EU free trade agreement, nor the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the largest proposed free trade agreements in the world.

Both of these deals are opposed by the CLC. The NDP says it is waiting to see the final draft before deciding on either. This position is not good enough, instead of creating anti-free trade pole in the debate they have let the debate shift to the right.

The TPP agreement is being negotiated in secret, but sections have been leaked and it is clear that the TPP will simply mean more privatization, less regulation and more power for big employers. The labour movement in Canada and the United States strongly opposes the TPP, but they have not used any muscle to pressure the NDP to stop its waffling.

Same goes for the CETA deal. The NDP’s stance on free trade agreements has neither been clear nor strong, arguably since at least 1988. It is time for the labour movement to call a spade a spade and demand that change.

Defending Public services

The fight to save Canada Post from privatization, save home delivery, and save 8000 decent union jobs is major struggle playing out during the election. The door-to-door campaign remains a powerful wedge issue against the Tories and only the NDP has said they will fully reverse the cuts.

The Liberals have only promised a moratorium on the cuts and a government review: which means no guarantees of reversal and offloading decision-making to a bunch of Liberal appointees. But the networks built up over the door-to-door campaign and the election need to stay together after Oct. 19 because rural and urban postal workers are going into a big contract fight in the new year.

We also need to put pressure on any possible NDP or Liberal government to purge Canada Post’s management and replace them with people committed to maintaining and even expanding Canada Post’s role as a universal essential public service.

We have to get the foxes out of the hen house. We also need to win a commitment by the NDP to implement postal banking. Saving home mail delivery and stopping Canada Post’s trajectory towards privatization will be a huge victory and deal a massive blow to the political establishment and corporate privatization agenda.

Shifting the debate back to the left

It is obvious that the political debate in Canada has shifted far to the right. Every party in the debate committed to being fiscally responsible and balancing the budget while maintaining low tax rates on corporations and the wealthy.

A balanced budget in this context means more austerity and more inequality. It wasn’t so long ago that we had mainstream political debates about the nationalization of industries and the creation of strong new robust social programs. Those political demands had their roots in the workers’ movement and will definitely force us to take on Mulcair’s support for Thatcherism.

Instead of debating the creation of a national mass transit plan to fight climate change and revitalize our decimated manufacturing sector, we get a debates about tweaking tax rates here and curbing the worst of the neoliberal corporate agenda.

We also have Mulcair recycling one of the party’s previous election promises to spend $250 million on 2500 new RCMP officers, which is a huge capitulation to the right’s law and order agenda and a huge barrier to improving relations with Indigenous peoples. How do we begin to shift the debate to the left?

Finding our voice

If the labour movement is determined to not only stop Harper but challenge the right, it needs to find its own voice. It needs to stand on the principles of political independence while also pushing the NDP to the left. If the NDP is elected, labour cannot for one second trade blind loyalty for vague promises, as the pace of events unleashed by an NDP victory will be fast moving.

The labour movement must constantly demand action and push the government through mobilization. The NDP in power must earn the support of the labour movement through action, not words. For a left government is what a left government does.

This means labour must speak out on issues such as the TPP, the tar sands, green manufacturing and war right now – not when it is too late. The labour movement has the power to affect real change in our society and it must use it to shift the political terrain to the left. With a long time between now and the election it is impossible to tell what will happen.

All we can be sure of is that no matter who is elected, the labour movement will have to mobilize its membership, organize the unorganized, and agitate on the streets for change.

This column was originally published on


Click here for more political news headlines.


Share this article

Add your comments: