One of the myths perpetuated by corporate media is that the NDP, or any progressive social democratic political party for that matter, is in the pocket of Big Labour. This is not surprising considering that the corporate media is owned by corporations who, as a matter of record, are opposed to unions. What is surprising is when some potential allies of the labour movement start advancing this misconception.
Soon after Horgan’s NDP government announced that they were proceeding with the Site ‘C’ hydro project, the social media was awash in angry speculation and one of the targets was unions. Variations of ‘NDP caves to Big Unions’, as an explanation for the Government’s decision, started popping up in conversations and on social media.
First and foremost, Horgan’s Government knew there would be a very strong negative reaction to the decision, both within the Party membership and with the general public. They simply would not take all that heat for the sake of the Building Trades Council, which were the unions pushing for Site ‘C’. Many other unions in BC were opposed to construction of the Site ‘C’ dam. So it does not wash that the NDP decided to proceed because of the lobbying of some Building Trades unions. Add to that, that many of the workers at Site ‘C’ are actually members of a company union called the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) which is not affiliated with the BC Federation of Labour and is despised among trade unionists in Canada.
Part of the story line was how much money all trade unions in BC have donated to the NDP. The figure cited was 14 million dollars between the years 2005-2015. This money, while it pales beside the 80 million given by corporations to the Liberals in that same time period, supposedly is proof that unions own the NDP. One story from De-Smog entitled “ NDP Union Heavyweights Come Out Fighting for Site ‘C’”, and starting with the opening, ‘The NDP’s trade union base’, is an example of a rather clumsy and one-sided story line.
Lobbying, in and of itself, is neither illegal nor immoral. In a Vancouver Sun story from Feb. 13/17, Gordon Hoekstra stated, ” unions lobby for specific goals including employment standards, workplace safety, apprenticeship training, pay equity and an increased minimum wage, according to records filed with the BC Lobbyist Registry.” Sounds like quite the nefarious activity on behalf of working people. Considering the efforts of corporate lobbying were to minimize employment standards, gut any effective safety rules, eliminate apprenticeships, thwart pay equity and keep minimum wages low, it’s a good thing that unions are there lobbying.
There is no question that the union movement and the NDP, both provincially and federally, have a close relationship. The New Democratic Party was formed in 1961 when the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) united with unions from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Its first leader was Tommy Douglas.
The following resolution authorizing this merger was passed at the 1958 CLC convention.
“The time has come for a fundamental re-alignment of political forces in Canada. There is need for a broadly based people’s political movement, which embraces the CCF, the labour movement, farm organizations, professional people and other liberally minded persons interested in basic social reform and reconstruction through our parliamentary system of government. In participating in and initiating the creation of a new political movement , labour emphasizes that not only is there no wish to dominate such a development, but there is the fullest desire for the broadest possible participation of all individuals and groups genuinely interested in basic democratic social reform and the democratic planning necessary to such reform.”
The subsequent relationship between trade unions and the NDP, especially when the NDP has been in government, has at times been rocky. While unions recognize they are only one portion of the NDP they also feel that the NDP has an obligation to at least listen to working people and their representatives. In the early 70’s, during the three years the NDP were in power, a new progressive Labour Code was brought in and BC’s public sector workers were granted the right to free collective bargaining. However Barrett himself was leery of unions and the BC Federation of Labour, precisely because he felt a close association with labour would harm him politically. During the 90’s the new Premier Harcourt stated on election night ‘We are here to govern for all British Columbians’ as if to reassure the business community he would not be too tight with labour. However, at least he and his Cabinet did institute annual meetings with the BC Fed Executive Council to discuss issues of mutual interest.
Glen Clark continued this tradition of meeting annually but in his last couple of years it appeared the Premier was not listening, especially when we warned him that he was losing touch with working people. This is one of the frustrating aspects from the unions’ point of view. Sometimes NDP leaders take union backing for granted, almost taunting, ‘Who else can you vote for?’ It’s true. There is not a lot of choice out there for working people.
Of the sitting NDP MLAs only six have union backgrounds. They are: Judy Darcy of the Hospital Employees Union; George Heyman of the BC Government Employees Union; Harold Bains of the Steelworkers; Janet Routledge of the Public Service Alliance of Canada; Raj Chouhan of the Farmworkers Union; Jenny Simms of the Teachers Federation. However, the Greens and Liberals have none. We rightly talk of gender balance and of promoting diversity with our elected representatives but rarely do we talk of the class makeup. Most legislative assemblies are filled with lawyers and business people as if that was the natural order of things.
So while at most times we have the ear of the NDP, we are far from dictating what their actions are. If that was the case the world would be a whole lot better and we would have things like sectoral bargaining, true pay equity, anti-scab legislation, affirmative hiring initiatives for indigenous workers, and triple bottom line budgets. And that would just be the start. I don’t see that happening on its own soon so we will have to continue to lobby in the legislature and struggle on the street and elect truly representative governments.