The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Canadian NDP:
Unions Divorce their Labor Party?

May 19, 1995

In late April, Bob Rae, the first New Democratic Party (NDP) premier of Ontario Canada announced that provincial elections would be held on June 8. The NDP has been presented by the unions as their labor party, as well as the party of small farmers in the western provinces. But with most of its political base having deserted it, there is little doubt that it will go down to defeat.

Up until only a few years ago, the NDP had been basically a protest party with vague social democratic reference points, considered to be the Third Option behind the two dominant parties, the Conservatives and Liberals. But in the last half of the 1980s, the NDP began to grow. Its big breakthrough came in 1990, when the NDP won the provincial election in Ontario, Canada's largest province with a third of the country's population and most of its industrial base. In 1991 this breakthrough was followed in two more provinces, British Columbia on the Pacific Coast and Saskatchewan on the western plains, which joined Ontario in electing NDP premiers. A majority of Canadians were being ruled under provincial governments controlled by the NDP. Polls showed the NDP gaining the support of 40 per cent of the voters nationwide. The NDP was in a position to become the number one party in Canada, head the national government and become the first social democratic party to rise to power in North America.

Instead, the NDP provincial governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan quickly discredited themselves. They began to impose the same austerity measures as did all the other bourgeois parties. The consequences soon showed up in the federal elections of 1993. In a spectacular fashion, voters revolted against the parties in power. The NDP was caught up in the tidal wave, winning less than 7 per cent of the vote. It went from 43 seats in the Canadian parliament to only 6. And it lost all of its parliamentary seats from central Canada. As a result of these sweeping losses, it also lost its status as an official party. Suddenly, the NDP was threatened with extinction.

From Zenith to Nadir in Three Years

This was not just a defeat for the NDP, but also for the trade unions that had been behind it. The unions called the NDP Canada's labor party. The trade unions did not dominate the party. But they played an important role in its affairs, occupied high positions in its structure, had about one-quarter of party delegates in its conventions, also financed about a quarter of its budget, ran candidates in elections, and mobilized to get out the vote.

During the 1990 Ontario campaign, the unions presented the NDP as the party that would enact real reforms to protect the working class. And in 1990, at the beginning of the most profound economic crisis to hit Canada since the 1930s, with growing unemployment and inflation, many people were ready to hear that.

Of course, the program on which the NDP ran was not aimed particularly at the interests of the working class confronted by the crisis, nor was it particularly radical. The biggest promise was consumer based: to reform the auto insurance laws. Second, there was some labor law legislation, and a regulation banning the use of scabs during a legal strike. Third, the NDP called for affirmative action for women and minorities. And, fourth, they pledged to introduce a tax reform which included a minimum corporate tax and an inheritance tax.

Once in office, Bob Rae, the NDP's premier very quickly backed away from most of even these timid campaign promises. Business of course, was making all kinds of threatening noises. According to Rae, the last thing that was needed was to offer a hostile environment for investment. Instead, Rae concentrated on "healing" the economy by attracting investment through giveaways. Gone and forgotten were auto insurance and tax reform. Besides, Ontario's budget was being hit by a mushrooming deficit that doubled in 3 years. (Bankers were threatening to drop the bond rating of Ontario to junk bond status.) Added to this deficit was the federal deficit, which was partially dealt with by cutting payments to the provinces, with Ontario hit the hardest.

Rae said he had no choice but to cut the budget in such a way as not to antagonize business. He did this on the back of the public sector workers. Rae introduced measures that basically tore up the collective agreements of some 950,000 public service workers, imposed wage rollbacks of 5 per cent, and blocked wage increases negotiated in hundreds of contracts.

In the other two provinces, where the NDP had power, the premiers did little different. They slashed and burned social programs. Michael Harcourt in British Columbia, who campaigned as an environmentalist, completely reversed himself by having the province government buy stock in the lumber company that was cutting down old-growth forests – in order to help with the deficit, of course!

The attitude of the trade unions could be measured by two Labor Days. In 1991, Rae marched in triumph, cheered by the crowd. But in 1993, he was not invited back. Instead, to the few NDP dignitaries who still bothered to show their face, a union official dressed in an oversized pink foam "Premier Bob" costume pranced around the parade grounds, drawing jeers from the crowd and mock fisticuffs from other unionists. Throughout the rest of Rae's term, contingents of public employees trailed Rae to jeer him whenever he made an appearance.

The unions called the NDP the labor party. But by the 1995 campaign, its strongest supporters among the unions, the public service workers and the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) had dropped all support. This meant the ending of a relationship with the NDP and its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), that had stretched back into the 1930s.

The CCF: A Counterweight to the Communist Party

Union militants in Canada had been trying to form a labor party since the 1920s, when Communists, Socialists and trade unionists formed the Canadian Labor Party. But this early effort failed for many reasons, including simply because it was a reactionary time period in which social struggles had hit a lull.

When the depression hit in the 1930s, few trade unionists raised the issue. The main unions at that time were of the skilled trades, organized in the Trades and Labor Congress (TLC), which, like Samuel Gompers's American Federation of Labor (AFL), opposed supporting any political party. So, during this period of acute crisis, there was no substantial effort to build a labor party.

Instead, what was built was the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation; Farmer-Labor, Socialist (CCF), founded in 1933. The CCF had its roots in the populist revolt of farmers in the West against domination by the Eastern banking and industrial interests. Joining it also were intellectuals, especially clergy, who had vaguely socialist ideas. The CCF was also strongly anti-Communist. When members of the Communist Party tried to join it in Ontario, they were kicked out. Despite the few unionists, mainly out of the railroad brotherhoods, who joined, the CCF was definitely not a working class party.

Things remained this way through most of the 1930s. Toward the end of the decade a big strike wave among industrial workers broke out in Canada, a few years after the sitdowns began in the U.S. Out of these strikes, new industrial unions and a new union federation, the Canadian Congress of Labor (CCL), were built, modeled after the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the U.S.

The Canadian Communist Party (C.P.) was relatively strong in the unions, with many militants playing key roles in the strikes and unions. Many had been toiling away at organizing among unskilled workers since the 1920s. The C.P. had built up a strong position in the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Electrical workers (UE), Mine, Mill and Smelters, the needle trades, the Leather and Fur workers and the Seamens' union.

The union faction in the CCL that opposed the C.P. could not afford to avoid involvement in political parties, as the TLC had; this would have left the C.P. as the only apparent political organization of the workers. Instead, they brought in young CCF militants to help organize the unions, as a way to undercut the C.P. organizers. And they began to support and even adhere their unions to the emerging CCF. This did not change the nature of the CCF, a mainly middle class electoral party, but only the way it was presented to the working class.

With Canada's entry into World War II, the unions in the CCL and TLC did not agree to a no-strike pledge, as the unions did in the U.S. They couldn't. The strike wave and union building were just getting under way, with workers striking over working conditions, pay and for union recognition. The biggest strike since the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 took place in 1943 at a Montreal aircraft plant, involving 25,000 workers. As a result of this strike wave, union membership doubled between 1940 and 1944.

The growth of the CCF grew proportionately to the growth of the CCL. By 1943, the entire CCL had formally adhered to the CCF, declaring it the political arm of labor in Canada. This support from labor transformed the CCF into the official opposition in Ontario. Of the 34 CCF'ers elected to office, 19 were trade unionists.

The C.P., which declared that it wanted a purely labor party, opposed this. And it was able to block the formal adherence of many of the unions of the CCL into the CCF.

But the CP did not propose that the workers should build a party to organize the workers' struggles. On the contrary, the C.P. was moving rightward. With the entry of the Soviet Union into World War II, the C.P. adopted a line of "supporting those of the capitalists who understand that they can and must co-operate with labor." In 1943 in opposition to the CCF, the C.P. called for a vote for the Liberals. In 1945, with the war won, they reversed themselves again, calling for a CCF-Communist united front.

The result was that despite the Canadian workers' massive movement of the 1940s, the working class did not build its own party.

With the end of World War II came the advent of the Cold War, and the great purge of Communist militants from the unions. Unions that had been run by Communist militants were isolated and destroyed. This purge and strong shift to the right contributed to a decline in the workers movement.

It also led to the weakening of the CCF. Unions that affiliated with it declined from a membership of 50,000 in 1943 to 16,000 in 1949. The Liberal Party won much of the CCF vote. By the 1958 election, the CCF had suffered a catastrophic defeat, and it was in danger of disappearing.

The First Decades of the “New Party”

The heads of the unions who survived the purges of the late 1940s by embracing a politically conservative stance, were not about to take an initiative in the late 1950s to set up a working class party. But they were ready to throw their support to the dying CCF, when its leaders approached them, looking for a way to give the CCF more of a hearing in the cities, especially the industrial heartland. The unions had become sizeable enough to count on the political level. And the union bureaucracy had just united its two separate federations of industrial and skilled trades unions to form the CLC (Canadian Labor Congress), following the merger in the U.S. of the AFL and CIO to form the AFL-CIO.

As the result of negotiations between the CLC and the CCF, both sides agreed to form the New Democratic Party. At its founding convention, the unions had about one-third of the delegates. They helped fund the NDP. But they did little to get out the vote for it. And in fact, they also maintained unofficial links with the Liberal Party, for which most workers still continued to vote anyway. The showings of the NDP in Ontario and the East through the 1960s and 1970s continued to be poor.

For the conservative union leadership this was not too bad a solution. They were not looking for political confrontations with the capitalists and their two main parties. But Labor could use the NDP as a tool to gently pressure the Liberal Party, which the NDP politically resembled anyway. Despite some vague reference to socialism, the NDP was a "moderate" party with roots among the middle classes.

As its predecessor, the CCF, the NDP continued to be a regional party, in power mainly in Saskatchewan and with a strong presence in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. In an era of economic expansion with a capitalist class willing to pay a little to buy labor peace, these regional governments began to enact a few reforms. In Saskatchewan, the health care reform the CCF had carried out in 1944 became a model for the nationalized health insurance system, Medicare. While national Medicare was enacted under the Liberals in the 1960s and '70s, the NDP took credit for what its predecessor had done in Saskatchewan. Also, a kind of retirement system was started locally, under the influence of the CCF-NDP, and then gradually expanded.

Unions Faced with a Rise of Worker Militancy Confronted by Concessions

The early 1970s marked the beginning of a rise in militancy among Canadian workers, as corporations and government tried to impose concessions on the working class. In 1975, the government headed by Liberal Party leader Pierre Elliot Trudeau introduced wage and salary controls. Under pressure from the rank-and-file, most unions vowed to resist them. There was pressure from the public service workers unions to carry out a general strike to force the government to back down. In response to this, unions sponsored one day actions and demonstrations. Several unions, including the UAW, were able to break through the wage barriers set by the government.

But this was done on a contractual level, company by company. A big strike was carried out against de Havilland Aircraft, which ended with a settlement that disregarded the wage controls. In other cases companies put money into a fund that would be paid after the wage restraints expired, or else they paid extra money to beef up benefits, which were not directly covered by the controls.

Faced with this heightened militancy, the union bureaucracies proposed formal "tripartite" boards comprising representatives of the government, companies and unions to work out disputes. This was turned down cold by the national government. But on the provincial level, the union leaders met regularly with their counterparts in government and corporations, although these talks remained informal.

The CLC unions also began to take steps to build up the NDP. The CLC had little choice. After all, it couldn't call for a vote for the Liberal Party, since the Liberals had imposed the much hated wage controls. They began to pour more money into the NDP and create educational programs to build membership support. And the leaders of the CLC unions assumed executive positions in the NDP. In the 1979 national election, the CLC took much more responsibility for the NDP campaign to get out the vote. This added effort by the union structures did not reap big results. The gain in the NDP vote was small.

For the NDP structure, it had little to lose, and political positions to gain. However, it was already demonstrating whose side it was really on, despite its vague references to "socialist ideals". The NDP headed two western provinces, where they tried to impose the same wage controls the unions were fighting against. The CLC threatened to withdraw from the NDP. This time, CLC prodding was able to force the NDP-led provincial governments to back down.

The Fight Heats up

The year 1979 marked the beginning of a new economic downturn that led to double digit unemployment and inflation in Canada for the first time since the 1930s depression. Like the U.S., Canada was hit by the crisis in auto and manufacturing in general, along with a wave of plant closings. The companies increasingly demanded concessions. Chrysler led the way.

At first, the Canadian union leaderships accepted the concessions and argued with the workers that they were necessary. They claimed that the best they could do was try to get the government to fork over some more money for unemployment benefits. Against other companies, the unions occasionally led strikes, even a few small sitdowns. But they were rearguard actions, nothing on the scale of the attacks.

But the unions' problems were compounded when one round of concessions was soon followed by corporate demands for another one. Unions like the UAW, led by its new president, Bob White, who came from what was known as the more militant wing of the structure, found themselves confronting a membership that was increasingly angry – at the union itself. When international representatives were sent to one Massey-Ferguson local to negotiate a local contract, they were met by wildcat strikes, who blamed the union for the concessions.

The union leaders were forced to take the head of the fight against concessions, and this reaped some results. The Canadian district of the UAW consistently won higher pay and benefits than what the U.S. workers were getting. At Chrysler, which pleaded poverty and took a tougher stand against the union, White led a 6 week strike, and won some gains. Again, two years later, Canadian auto workers struck GM to force it to give up wage increases and COLA, while the UAW in the U.S. accepted bonus payments.

The Unions' Political Answers

The militancy of the Canadian workers, however, continued to go up against the headwind of a continuing economic crisis. Through the 1980s, factories closed and manufacturing jobs continued to disappear.

To this, the unions offered a two-pronged political solution. On the one hand, they opposed the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), that was negotiated between the U.S. and Canada and went into effect in 1989, on the grounds that it would lead to further job erosion to the U.S. Certainly this position hit a nerve among Canadian workers. Canada had been long dominated by U.S. corporate investment and trade, which appeared responsible for all the problems faced by Canadian workers. But in proposing that workers campaign against the FTA, the unions just took them in a nationalist impasse.

Opposition to the FTA was simply an excuse for not confronting the very corporate forces that were destroying jobs and attacking workers on both sides of the border. This is perhaps why it just so happened that the AFL-CIO officials in the U.S. used the exact same excuse, blaming the FTA – and therefore Canadian workers – for job losses in the U.S. With this issue, the union officials had the workers on both sides of the border blaming each other for taking each others' jobs.

The second part of the unions' political strategy was to get the NDP elected to power. The unions claimed that if labor put the NDP in power, this would halt the wave of privatizations, factory closings and cuts in social programs. Of course, it was easy to pretend this, since the NDP had not had a chance to discredit itself, never having been in power before.

However, the NDP had already given every indication, by what it said and did, of what it was all about. Confronting the situation of the 1980s, the NDP swung in a rightward direction. Its leadership abandoned all pretensions of "social democratic" government programs, and it endorsed budget cutting at the workers' expense.

The NDP leaders carefully distanced themselves from "Big Labor". In 1988, in the middle of a national electoral campaign, Ed Broadbent, the head of the NDP at the time, purposely snubbed the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers, the split-off of the Canadian district of the UAW) by canceling a longstanding commitment to speak at the CAW convention.

And the NDP never really took up the unions' rallying cry of stopping the Free Trade Agreement, simply because even out of power, the NDP was not about to oppose something that the Canadian government and bourgeoisie wanted.

It wasn't that the union leaders did not see what was going on. A circular written by the CAW's Bob White to fellow NDP members showed his frustration:

"We went into this election with the Liberals in disarray, with the respect for Ed Broadbent and the NDP at an all-time pre-election high, but what happened?

"The opening media conference of our party didn't even mention free trade... We should never have let John Turner and the Liberals steal this issue... Many canvassers told me they couldn't believe our ads with other issues...

"My problem with this is that we didn't fail by accident – but rather, we failed by design."

White summed up what he saw. "We watched the disintegration of what should have been the NDP's finest hour... I've never seen such a level of disappointment and anger among our activists, leaders of the labour movement and candidates, at how the party strategists conducted the campaign."

However, the unions were not about to cut their ties with the NDP. On the contrary, they swallowed their disappointment and worked harder to bring them to power, especially as conditions became more desperate and support for the other parties began to evaporate. All the unions could promise was that with their influence inside the NDP, they could get their people, or people tied to them, in key positions. How successful this strategy was can be shown by the fact that it was Bob White who backed Bob Rae for head of the NDP in Ontario, a selection that soon backfired in a spectacular fashion once Rae took office as the first NDP premier of Ontario, and proceeded to tear up all those contracts of government workers.

A Labor Party that Organizes Labor's Fights

With the collapse of the NDP, the unions are once again in political disarray. The unions in the CLC are split, reflecting a rivalry between the steelworkers and auto workers unions. A small minority of unions, led by the steelworkers, continues to formally support the NDP. The auto workers, along with the public sector unions, have pulled out. But on a political level, they offer nothing else to the working class. And this disarray comes as the government and corporate attacks against the working class in Canada are growing ever more severe, and the political pendulum continues to swing farther to the right.

Unfortunately all this could have been predicted. It was apparent from the beginning what would happen once the party the unions were helping to build took power. Of course, in order to avoid this, the unions would have had to offer something else to the workers.

They could have proposed that the workers, in their fight against corporate and governmental attacks, go out and build their own party from scratch, that is, a party organized to fight and defend the workers' interests, and eventually unite the workers to take the offensive against the opposing class and its allies. Certainly it would not have taken any more effort than what it took to build up the NDP. And it would not have ended up with the catastrophe that labor now faces.

But in order to do that, the union leadership could not be integrated into the political establishment of the opposing class ... including as part of the NDP leadership.