For too long militant trade union leaders have acted as if they were entitled to represent “labour” in their campaign to restructure Canada according to the socialist blueprint. The media has done a very poor job of critically analyzing the far-reaching implications of this politicization of the mainline Canadian trade union movement. Presumably, it is not politically correct to subject unions to the scrutiny they deserve.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Canada has lent its prestige to the notion that “big labour” and “public welfare” are synonymous. In 1991, the Court rejected an appeal by lone dissenter Merv Lavigne who argued that the forced payment of dues violated his right of freedom of association guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court’s ruling reads in part more like a New Democratic Party (NDP) brochure than a balanced decision by members of the highest court in the land.
Don’t patronize us
Shut out by the mainline media and the justice system, union members have only one option left. And that is to stand up for themselves and tell their leaders that they are not taking it any longer. But members face a tough battle in confronting their union bosses. There are many ways to keep members in line, including fines, expulsions, freezing them out of jobs, and using threats and intimidation tactics.
Confronted with these obstacles, and given the relative security and comfort unionized workers enjoyed, most members were content simply to ignore the antics of their union leaders. Many of them just stayed away from union meetings, allowing the ideologues to ram through their political agenda, roughly summarized as follows: Our society is divided between the good guys and the bad guys. On the one side are those who promote the “corporate agenda,” which is driven by greed and aimed at keeping workers and their unions down. On the opposite side are the unions and all other “progressive” movements fighting on behalf of the endangered workers and similarly threatened interest groups.
The times, however, are now changing. Many companies are in trouble and workers feel vulnerable. The ensuing insecurity has triggered a lot of rethinking by workers who previously might have shrugged off the ideological biases of their leaders. Workers are beginning to question leaders such as Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), and their simplistic division of society. In fact, it is for this reason that the largest local in the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) decided to sever its ties with the NDP. Local 222, with 23,000 members, represents the workers at the sprawling General Motors assembly plants in Oshawa. Traditionally, the CAW has formed a united front behind a strong political program in support of the NDP. White (also a former national president of the CAW) and a coterie of leaders around him have used their position to “educate” their members. For example, the CAW built a multi-million dollar training school in Port Elgin where many union members have gone to be trained in militant trade unionism and “be indoctrinated about the NDP,” according to Doug Gammie, spokesman for Local 222. Gammie continued: “People are insulted. We don’t need to be educated and we are not about to be dictated to.” (Labour Times, April 1993)
Last fall, a small number of CAW members at the Oshawa plants began a campaign to cut their local’s affiliation with the NDP, which includes the payment of an annual fee of more than $40,000. Over 8,400 members signed a petition to disaffiliate from the party. Earlier this year, members voted 553 to 337 in favour of cutting ties with the NDP.
The decision by Local 222 to go against its own leadership has caused quite a ruckus. Explained current CAW national president Buzz Hargrove: “It’s a right-wing faction that’s been able to capture the frustration and anger that’s there over the economy… and clearly unfairly direct it at the NDP in Ontario. We’re trying to contain it.” But other locals, notably in Windsor, are contemplating a similar move.
Hargrove warned the dissidents that their action would hurt workers by reinforcing “the growing strength of the corporate sector.” But this is not how supporters of disaffiliation understand the issue. Gammie explained that many members are frustrated with the NDP and the national CAW executive for “patronizing” the members. He and others reject the CAW line that only the NDP cares for the wellbeing of workers. Instead, there is a growing impression among union members that NDP policies are anti-business and, by discouraging investment and job creation, anti-worker. Auto worker Allan Clarke, who initiated the disaffiliation drive, told Richard Gwyn of The Toronto Star (March 14, 1993) that “when people like Tommy Douglas led the party, it supported and fought for working people.” But today, “rather than representing workers, it [the NDP] represents special interest groups.”
A merger that isn’t working
Rumblings of workers’ discontent about the political direction of their unions are not restricted to Ontario autoworkers. Peggy Martin, president of the Edmonton hospital employees union, believes that the tie between the CLC and the NDP is not in the interest of workers. On the contrary, she believes that the CLC has failed to put together any coherent program for the workers who need help. And she is convinced that NDP policies do not meet the needs of labour. “Why stick with the NDP? They don’t raise the issues that are important to us. They never have.” (Labour Times, October 1992)
These sounds of discontent in the ranks of labour should send some powerful signals to the union leadership. The issue of labour aligning itself with the NDP has come to the fore in part because of the serious economic difficulties and uncertainties now faced by all Canadians. But there is a more profound reason for believing that this 32-year old alignment is an unhealthy one. It is not only impractical but also wrong in principle for a labour union and a political party to merge.
A political party is concerned with political power and the formation of government policies. Politics must remain distinguished from other social spheres out of respect for the freedom and integrity of nonstate structures. Or to put this another way, the distinction between the state and (civil) society is an essential ingredient of a free society. This is exactly where the shoe pinches with respect to socialist philosophy. Socialists believe in the preeminence of politics and the state, and therefore it is consistent with their own policies to seek a merger between a political party and a labour movement. But those who are not socialists should never accept this statist argument.
There are also very practical reasons why a labour union should not be politically aligned, and it is this practical side that has hastened the recent uprising in the ranks of the CAW. The uncontestable fact is that the NDP does not speak for all workers. Poll after poll has shown that most workers do not even vote for the NDP at election time. Workers’ opinions and beliefs are spread across the entire spectrum of political beliefs and it is inappropriate for a trade union to pretend to speak for all workers, especially when union support is made compulsory.
Central to this debate is the issue of freedom. All those convinced that freedom is a precious good worth defending should take heart from the Local 222 members who refuse to kowtow to union bosses and their political agenda.
Two cheers for the dissenters in Oshawa!