Monday, November 10, 2008

Thoughts on Bob, the NDP, and Big Labour

There was a marvellous op-ed in the Star yesterday that reminded me a) why I like Bob Rae, and b) why I don't vote NDP so much any more.

Go. Read. I'll wait.

One of the earliest votes I ever cast was for Bob Rae (my very first was for John Sewell, I'm proud to say). I did it partly to piss off my very conservative dad, but mostly because I believed, and still believe, in most of the policies and ideals espoused by the New Democratic Party of Canada.

The sticking point for me, and especially after Bob Rae's rather rocky stewardship of Ontario, has been the implementation of those ideals.

As reported in Rae Days, columnist Thomas Walkom's informative book, one of Rae's closest advisers, David Reville, said they had "the passion and the theory. But we didn't have any fu**ing idea how to make things work."

Rae tried to implement the ideas he'd presented during the campaign but the recession was ravaging the economy. He wasn't the only one who misjudged the severity of that recession; hundreds of once healthy companies and skilled entrepreneurs went broke.

That's the first part of Rae's legacy, but he revealed his true political stature once he realized his policies were outdated and decided to do something about it.

That's why I like Bob. He isn't married to ideology, and he learns from his mistakes.

But then there's this:

Union boss Bob White called a meeting with all the NDP premiers to give them their marching orders on how to cope with the economic crisis. As Rae recalls in his book From Protest to Power, White suggested the provinces keep spending; if they couldn't pay their debts, they could declare bankruptcy "like the Reichmanns." Roy Romanow, the then premier of Saskatchewan, led the charge against White along with Rae. "After that exchange," Rae writes, "there was nothing more to be said."

And that's another sticking point for me.

I support the labour movement on general principles. Workers' rights, fair wages, all that. In practice... well, I have heard too many tales from too many friends and family who are union members to have many illusions about the benefits of most modern unions.

One fundamental question for me is this: at what point do the interests of the Big Labour unions coincide with those of the corporations that employ their members?

One example in my own neighbourhood is Loblaws. Some time in the mid-nineties, Loblaws decided that they were facing an imminent threat from Wal-Mart, which had been opening grocery sections in many of their stores in the U.S. Assuming that it was only a matter of time before Canadian Wal-Marts followed suit, they pressured their main labour union - the UFCW - to accept some pretty draconian measures in order to ensure that their employers could remain 'competitive'.

The result was union employees working for barely above minimum wage, and the near total elimination of full time positions in favour of even lower paid part-time jobs with no security and no benefits for three years.

But of course they still have to cough up their union dues. And their boss is still in business.

I look at that and think about the Canadian Auto Workers Union and wonder: at what point do the short term interests of their union members, linked as they are with the fate of the big auto makers, begin to conflict with the interests of... well, the planet? And what about the oil workers' unions? Or coal miners' unions? Or... ?

To me, this is the fundamental problem with the relationship between the NDP and labour. A union's responsibility is to look after the best interests of its members, however they interpret those interests. As it should be. But the responsibility of a political party or, potentially, a government, is to look after the interests of all of its constituents.

So, what happens when there is a conflict? What happens when what is good for the environment isn't so good for Ford and GM's car sales? What happens when what is good for the majority of Canadians is maybe not so good for, say, the workers in the Alberta oil sands, or the forestry industry?

This concerns me, and I think it is question that both the NDP and the Liberals would do well to ask of themselves, their party and their leaders.

Who do you serve?


  1. I too at one time thought that the NDP had the potential to be a better choice than the alternatives but also had great reservations about their association with organized labour. My concern with unions however is almost the opposite of yours, I am less concerned about them “being in bed with the corporations” than with their constant “we must have MORE” refrain that until recently was the norm. This is of particular concern where they represent those paid from the public purse, teachers, civil servants and the like. In most cases these folks are paid above the average wage, have above average benefits and have above average job security but still each time the contract is due demand more of each of those things. That a contract for a group, say in Toronto, then sets a precedent for similar members in areas where the cost of living and ability of the taxpayer to support further increases is perhaps considerable less increases my concern about the larger unions.
    Many of us must be satisfied with the status quo, perhaps less, even the strong possibility of NO job but will the unions and their members understand that each demand costs all of us in these difficult times? I doubt it.

  2. As someone who is pretty active in the NDP, I can assure you that labour is a partner but not the only voice in the NDP.

    I am sorry to say that there are a number of unions that support the Liberals. The difference between those unions that support the NDP and those that support the Liberals? The ones that support the LPC tend not to focus on workers rights first and foremost. The CAW is the notable exception to this but they are a singular example given that their membership have been some of the best paid/benefitted union members in Canada and their membership has supported NDP, Liberals and Tories. To Buzz's dismay btw.

    The construction-related unions and the teamsters tend to be very supportive of the Liberals at the organizational level (again not necessarily at the membership level). I find it interesting that many of the unions that support liberals have a documented history of corruption.

    Does the NDP support workers rights? Absolutely. We support raising the minimum wage. We support anti-scab legislation. We support better health and safety regulations. We support protecting workers pensions by putting them first should companies go bankrupt. Those are progressive policies that make me proud.

    Those policies are not about 'kowtowing' to labour - they are about helping Canadian workers.

    BTW- the example you cite belies your very argument. Even if Rae's characterization of the meeting is accurate (which I don't necessarily believe), the NDP premiers Romanow and Rae would not be dictated to.

    Labour turned against Rae, in large measure because he was arrogant, dictatorial and adversarial. He really sucked at selling his program, at building concensus, at developing coalitions. I would suggest he is the anti-Obama in this regard. Case in point - the labour movement didn't turn against Romanow the way they did Rae even though he was unwilling/unable to go allowing with Bob White (again if you buy Rae's self-serving version).

    So for those lib folks that want Rae as leader, my partisan NDP response is - you can have him because off camera and behind closes doors your in for a big surprise.