It’s time for Labour and NDP to figure out their relationship

by Sid Ryan

September 5 marked the annual Labour Day parade in many Canadian cities. And just after Labour Day, the federal NDP’s leadership campaign ramped up. It’s time Labour and the NDP had a frank talk.

The NDP, formed in 1961, resulted from a merger between the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

The CCF was based on a solid foundation of opposition to the capitalist system, and vowed to replace it with “a planned economy.” The CCF called for the nationalization of key industries, such as transportation and electric power. Interestingly, 83 years later, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader in the United Kingdom, urges the nationalization of Britain’s railway and energy systems, which polls show is wildly popular with voters. South of the border, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist,” stormed the presidential primaries with his vocal opposition to “free trade agreements” and “Wall Street bailouts.” It appears Socialism is making a comeback.

But in Canada, today’s NDP has strayed far from its socialist roots, harbouring the false notion that electoral Nirvana lies within the confines of Canada’s political mushy middle.
While some union leaders criticize the NDP’s drift to the centre, most labour bodies are in no position to point fingers. Why? Because they advised their members to vote “strategically” for Liberals, thus contributing to the rightward shift. The Liberals are masters at playing union leaders during election campaigns. The Liberal Party has co-opted most of the big unions in Ontario with its “strategic voting” siren song. Fewer than six of the 54 unions affiliated to the Ontario Federation of Labour openly and exclusively support the NDP. The majority play on both sides of the street. Last October, the CLC’s election campaign, titled “Better Choice,” provided cover for unions urging a vote for Liberal candidates while remaining in the loose framework of the Congress’s cross-country effort.

Unions are struggling today to expand beyond their aging membership. But some have alienated young workers by negotiating two-tier pension plans and wage rates, allowing bosses to pay new and younger workers less than senior employees. Skilfully, employers have made unions an accomplice in the infernal process of short-changing the next generation of workers.

Labour and NDP ranks need to have a serious internal discussion about what they stand for. Unions cannot continue to straddle two horses and simultaneously try to build strong opposition to austerity and its consequences: growing inequality, bad trade deals, diminishing workers’ rights and the downward spiral of two-tier wage and pension plans. There is no question that many unions helped elect a majority Liberal federal government. Now those Liberals they helped to elect are about to sign the CETA trade deal, a devastating blow to workers rights and union jobs.

Similarly, the NDP cannot expect to regain the support of 3.2 million unionized workers and their families when it presents to the electorate the straitjacket of a “balanced budget” in times of austerity; when it proffers a universal childcare program that would take nine years to implement; when it espouses lukewarm opposition to so-called free trade agreements and meek policies on the Middle East.

On the key issue of climate change, the NDP ought to embrace the principles of the Leap Manifesto and put foremost the retraining of displaced workers for a new, green energy economy.

The NDP and Labour should look to the positive aspects of the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders campaigns. Find a way to connect with young voters in Canada. The NDP leadership campaign will kick into high gear following Labour Day and offers a golden opportunity to find that spark to ignite Canada’s own political and social revolution.

Sid Ryan is a former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and was a candidate for the NDP in three provincial and two federal elections.

The article above first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on September 2, 2016.