The workers’ movement is celebrating Labour Day in Ottawa, as it has since 1872, with a march and a picnic that will draw, depending on the weather, upwards of 5,000 people.
The strength of that movement has been an anchor for the New Democratic Party for decades. But party leaders, including potential leadership candidates Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair, disagree on whether affiliated unions should continue to enjoy a share of the votes when selecting the next leader.
The party’s federal council will decide the matter when it meets Friday.
For Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, the answer is clear: “The labour movement was a partner in [the NDP’s]creation. It makes sense for that to continue,” he said Sunday. “Labour needs a party, it should be the NDP, and we should be more active within the party.”
The question is whether a more active role for labour will attract voters to the NDP or drive them away.
Membership in private-sector unions in Canada, at 16 per cent as of 2009, is half of what it was in the 1980s. And strikes by public-sector unions, such as the one by support workers at Ontario community colleges that began Sept. 1, inconvenience and annoy the public.
Conservatives certainly believe that the closer they can tie the workers’ movement to the people’s party, the worse it will be for the party.
Sunday, the Conservative Party of Canada released a letter its lawyer has sent to Elections Canada, asking whether the NDP violated the Elections Act by allowing unions to sponsor the party’s June convention.
“All rules and regulations have been followed by the NDP. And unlike the Conservatives, we stay within both the spirit and letter of the law,” Heather Wilson, the NDP’s director of fundraising, said in a statement.
But opposing labour can attract votes. Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, to show who was boss. In June, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government ordered striking postal workers back to work, and a similar threat helped end a strike at Air Canada.
And as former prime minister Tony Blair recounts in his memoirs, weakening the grip of the unions on the Labour Party was vital to convincing British voters that New Labour was ready to govern.
However, union leaders and many within the NDP are convinced that distancing the party from labour simply plays into the hands of the Conservatives.
In particular, they believe that jettisoning the traditional right of unions to have a voice in the leadership selection process could undermine the trust between the party and one of its core constituencies.
And while Conservatives may believe that voters have lost confidence in unions in an era of globalization and cut-throat competition, most workers still value what those unions fight for: a secure pension, reasonable hours of work and fair pay for a day’s labour.
Either way, it seems increasingly clear that the rules the NDP sets for determining the next leader could not only influence the outcome of the contest, but the future role of labour within the party itself.