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Labour and the NDP: the end of a beautiful marriage Add to ...

It was never a perfect marriage – how many are? – but times change and romance fades.

When the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was transformed into the New Democratic Party in 1961, the labour movement was a full partner. Well, let me re-phrase that with much-needed precision: Most of the leaders of Canadian unions were onside, but neither then nor since have they been able to persuade anything like a majority of their members to support the NDP.

Nevertheless, it was an era when trade unions were major players on the Canadian political scene. Industrial Canada was booming, and unions came to be seen, often grudgingly, as an organic part of the system. The leaders of the best of them – autoworkers, steelworkers, packinghouse workers – were dedicated not only to improving life for their own workers, but also, unlike their American brothers (and occasional sisters), to a kind of social unionism that fought for all the disadvantaged both at home and abroad. For them, socialism was the natural philosophy and the NDP their natural political partner, and they backed the party with funding, organizers and moral support.

Things change. Over the decades, the economy of North America has been drastically transformed, the manufacturing sector declined significantly, and both the numbers and militancy of the labour movement declined with it. The Canadian story has been less dramatic than the American one, where a sustained attack on organized labour has left a meagre seven per cent of private sector workers unionized while the public sector, one-third still union members, are under ferocious assault by Republican politicians across the country.

In Canada, overall trade union membership is now less than 30 per cent, with only 16 per cent of the private sector belonging to unions. And while many labour leaders still identify with the NDP, their members continue to follow their own road, one that leads often enough straight to Stephen Harper.

Inevitably, then, union influence within the NDP has also slipped away over the years, and it was probably only a matter of time before a separation proceedings were instituted. That’s what really happened the other day when the federal NDP decided to eliminate block union voting at next March’s convention where Jack Layton’s successor will be chosen. Many trade union activists will be present, as always, but they’ll be there as individual NDP members, not as labour delegates.

Some labour leaders continue to speak out strongly on behalf of the NDP, but by no means all. Even traditional NDP supporters have defected, most notably former Canadian Autoworkers president Buzz Hargrove. Although the CAW was for decades one the NDP’s most ardent and reliable partners, a dozen years ago Mr. Hargrove in effect moved the union into the Liberal camp, where it remains to this day. Only NDP incumbents are assured of CAW support.

Last week, for example, Mr. Hargrove’s successor, Ken Lewenza, invited himself to a Dalton McGuinty campaign event to offer his enthusiastic endorsement of the Ontario Liberal leader. In the last provincial election, the NDP lost one of the two Thunder Bay seats by 50 votes to the Liberals, and got 38 per cent in the other, also won by the Liberals. While the CAW is only backing the ten NDP incumbents, the party also realistically considers the two Thunder Bay seats to be priorities.

Mr. Lewenza’s intervention in the campaign surprised some observers since only this past summer he was blasting Mr. McGuinty for giving a large contract to a Quebec firm instead of to a North Bay company. On June 28, Mr. Lewenza wrote Mr. McGuinty damning the award that would have secured 104 jobs in Northeastern Ontario and “requesting your government to immediately reverse this decision.” To no avail. Two weeks later, Mr. Lewenza said: “It’s discouraging to know that the province, despite having been given every good reason to keep this work here in Ontario for the economic and social benefits it would provide North Bay and the broader community, simply refused to listen.”

The irony of the CAW’s embrace of the Liberals is that its activists continue to play central roles in the NDP. MP Peggy Nash, a former senior CAW staffer and now NDP finance critic, may well run for the federal NDP leadership and is widely considered a credible candidate. Yet the source of her political strength is less her union background than her unremitting community work in her own complex Toronto riding.

At the same time, one of the NDP’s most appealing candidates in the Ontario election is another CAW staffer, Mike Shields, standing in Oshawa, home of most of what’s left of General Motors in Canada. From everything I hear, Mr. Shields, who ran as federal candidate in 2008 and got 35 per cent of the vote, has a real chance. The NDP got 33 per cent in the last provincial election, losing the seat by only 2,500 votes. Mr. Shields has been endorsed by Dr. Sean Godfrey, the well-respected Chief of Pediatrics at the Oshawa hospital and the Liberal candidate who ran against Mike Shields in the 2008 election. This unexpected support is potentially invaluable to Mr. Shields’ prospects.

Mr. Shields would make a sensational MPP. When you look at his background, you think: This guy should be running for federal leader. Not just a local CAW activist who became president of his large union local, Mr. Shields, like Peggy Nash, has a remarkable record as a community activist. I was blown way by his contributions over the years: Chairman of the Board of Ontario’s only non-profit dental centre. Coach of the Year for the Oshawa Little NHL. Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund Board of Directors. Award for combating homophobia. Chaired the Oshawa/Whitby/Clarington United Way fundraising campaign. Original director of the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College. Board of the Durham Region Unemployed Help Centre. Board of Oshawa General Hospital. And, in recognition of this lifetime of volunteer work, he received the prestigious Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award.

This is exactly the kind of candidate every party dreams of recruiting.

The union-NDP liaison may not be what it once was, and probably won’t ever be again. But the trade union movement continues to develop impressive, progressive individuals who continue to play a large role in Canadian politics at all level. Let’s hope more of them get elected.

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