The NDP’s union-made caucus

The real power structure in the party comes from organized labour

by John Geddes

Union made

Andrew Vaughan/CP

After all the drama and tension of a landmark election, Canadians probably needed a little comic interlude. The NDP provided one, although quite unintentionally. They served up the whimsical story of Pierre-Luc Dusseault, 19, whose upset victory in Sherbrooke, Que., made him the youngest MP ever, and meant he’d have to forgo his summer job on a golf course. Then there were the three McGill University students who will have to suspend their studies after surprising even themselves by capturing Quebec seats. And, of course, there was Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the assistant pub manager at Ottawa’s Carleton University, who hadn’t even visited the Quebec riding of Berthier-Maskinongé before winning it handily. Just as well, since Brosseau’s French isn’t so good and most of her constituents don’t speak English.

Jack Layton spent much of his first post-election news conference fending off questions about the scant experience of these and other rookies in his much enlarged Quebec contingent. With the collapse of the Bloc Québécois, an astonishing 58 NDP MPs from the province were elected on May 2, up from just one, Montreal’s Thomas Mulcair, before the election. But if all the attention on Layton’s youth brigade suggested an NDP caucus characterized by dewy-eyed campus idealism, that’s a misleading impression. In fact, the front benches of the second party in the House—traditionally seen as a government-in-waiting—will feature many tough-minded former union leaders. “We have some pretty major labour folks,” says veteran Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies. “That’s a connection to a very solid base of activism, an understanding of politics and how it works.”

Davies herself came to federal politics by way of a position with the Hospital Employees’ Union, along with five terms on Vancouver’s city council. Among MPs expected to be assigned high-profile jobs by Layton, organized labour credentials are predominant. Take, for instance, just those who have been teachers’ union officials. Paul Dewar, who was NDP foreign affairs critic in the last Parliament, and is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Layton, is one. Irene Mathyssen, the London, Ont., MP who chaired the NDP’s key women’s caucus before the election, is another. They will be joined by rookie B.C. MP Jinny Sims, who was president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation during the 2005 strike, when it was fined for contempt of court for ignoring a return-to-work order.

But the teachers’ unions are outgunned in Layton’s caucus by the Canadian Auto Workers. Returning MPs with CAW backgrounds include Nova Scotia’s Peter Stoffer and Ontario’s Malcolm Allen. Joe Comartin, the Windsor, Ont., MP who was Layton’s respected justice critic, is a former CAW lawyer. Another Ontario MP, David Christopherson, was a United Auto Workers local president way back in the 1970s, and has led the NDP charge on democratic reform issues. Claude Patry, a retired CAW local president, was elected as part of the NDP’s Quebec breakthrough. The best-connected New Democrat in the current CAW, however, is Peggy Nash, a former top negotiator for the union, who won back the Toronto riding she held from 2006 to 2008.

Nash is the sort of union stalwart who drives Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to distraction. In her previous stint as an MP, she spearheaded resistance to the naming of retired oilman Gwyn Morgan, a Calgary business icon, as head of Harper’s proposed public appointments review board. Morgan was the Prime Minister’s hand-picked choice to usher in a new era of clean federal appointments. But Nash argued he was too much a Tory partisan for the post, and she raised sensitive racial issues by criticizing comments he had made linking immigration from the Caribbean and Asia to crime in Canadian cities. Opposition MPs voted down Morgan, and a furious Harper shelved the whole impartial appointment-review concept.

Nash’s return to the House is touted by Layton’s top advisers as a key addition to their bench strength. More than the impact of any single politician, though, it’s the union culture so many NDP MPs share that sets them apart from the Liberals they have suddenly supplanted. Dewar says one big difference is organized labour’s emphasis on contract bargaining. He says that showed in the way the Liberals, along with the Bloc, allowed the Conservatives to largely set the rules for deciding how documents related to the contentious handling of Afghan detainees would be vetted for release—terms the NDP rejected. “The Liberals,” Dewar says, “didn’t have the experience and the skills to negotiate well.”

But few voters ever gain any sense of how MPs play their cards behind the scenes in House committees and caucus meetings. It’s the public impression Layton’s caucus creates that will largely determine if he can prevent the Liberals from reclaiming their traditional centrist political turf. Appearing to be too close to organized labour could be a liability for the NDP. After all, only a minority of working Canadians belong to a union, about 30 per cent last year, down from 38 per cent in 1981. Unionization rates are lower still in the private sector, making the influence of public sector unions in the NDP a potential issue. And that influence is substantial and looks to be growing, with the election of potential caucus heavyweights like Nycole Turmel, the former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and Robert Chisholm, a former Atlantic regional director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The clout of these and other advocates for government unions could be significant in the coming battle over departmental budgets. Harper has vowed to find $4 billion a year in cuts to direct federal spending, not including transfers to the provinces and individuals. Dewar says the NDP is sure to oppose any job cuts proposed to achieve those reductions. But he argues the NDP is uniquely positioned to try to bring government unions into discussions about saving money without shrinking the bureaucracy. “We can actually talk to public sector unions,” he says, “about finding ways to innovate.” And doing more than merely combatting restraint at every turn, he adds, will be vital to solidifying the NDP’s election gains. “The stereotype,” Dewar says, “is that we’ll just oppose cuts and that’s it.”

Since its founding in 1961, the NDP has been formally linked with organized labour. In fact, the party was a joint creation of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. Still, as political science professors Lisa Young of the University of Calgary and Harold Jansen of the University of Lethbridge have written, unions never dominated the NDP to the degree that organized labour long controlled social democratic parties in Britain and Australia. Union representatives typically make up less than a quarter of delegates to an NDP convention. In 2004, political financing reforms banning union contributions to federal parties, along with corporate donations, seemed likely to further curtail organized labour’s influence in the NDP.

Yet the bond endures. Young and Jansen, after interviewing labour leaders and NDP officials about the end of union donations to the party, concluded that “shared ideological commitment and overlapping personnel are sufficient glue to hold together a modified relationship.” That relationship can only strengthen with the addition of a cluster of new MPs who bring senior union experience. With its caucus ballooning to 102 MPs from the previous 36, the NDP also needs to quickly recruit more than 250 parliamentary staffers, and supportive unions are expected to supply many of the needed recruits. That influx of eager young assistants might represent a new bridge between union offices and the NDP on Parliament Hill.

Of course, not all NDP MPs come out of unions. Layton built his political career as a Toronto city councillor, and urban activism has emerged as another key incubator for NDP talent. MP Olivia Chow, Layton’s wife, also made her name in Toronto city politics, as an advocate, like him, on issues like homelessness and as an opponent of some development schemes. Megan Leslie, a rising NDP star since she was first elected in 2008, is a lawyer who worked on social justice and environmental causes in Halifax. As well, the NDP touts its experience from provincial government, led by Mulcair, who was a minister in Quebec’s Liberal government before jumping to the federal NDP in 2007. Layton never misses a chance to mention the NDP’s track record of governing prudently in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

He was scheduled to give his first speech since the election this week at a CLC convention in Vancouver. The event was planned long before the Tory minority fell and the election was on, but the symbolism is potent. He can’t afford to drop what Brian Topp, one of his key strategists—and executive director of the performers’ union ACTRA in Toronto—has described as Layton’s formula of “optimistic, sunny idealism” and “fiscally prudent pragmatism.” Those may not be themes traditionally used to rally a union audience. But as the politician who has just brought Canada’s labour movement closer than ever before to federal power, Layton is in a position to set his own tone.




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The NDP’s union-made caucus

  1.  Here we go again.  If this was a liberal win, nothing would be said, except macho  things like rolling up the sleeves and work as a team for the better of the people of Canada.  Humor and bullying walk a fine line, and this writer has twisted the article to be a humorous critique of the young people.  Heaven forbid that the young speak up and not let the PC and Liberal, and bloc walk all over them.  The PC are out for themselves first and foremost.  Iron clad teflon pensions that can’t be touch, robbing the people of this money because they get this status after 6 years of office.  Leave the young people alone, and find something else to write about.  This style of writing is based on the Ontario Bob Rae experience, when David Peterson, the liberal candidate preceding Bob Rae, ran the province of Ontario into large debt, and because Bob Rae is not a magician, and could not recover what Peterson lost,  the articles will never end about Rae’s time in office.  Stephen Harper should have resigned a long time ago, but the press has to support him, because he supports them.  Good luck to all the new representatives.

  2. The list of who’s who in the NDP sounds like the old Soviet Union Politburo.  When Canadians see this bunch in action  whining and wanting to spend the treasury on special interest groups you can expect one thing.The Liberal party will take a hard turn to the right if they want to survive the next election.Those 35 seats they kept were all right of center and they should not forget it..Their fight in parliament should be against the NDP. The Conservatives are here to stay but the NDP on very shaky ground. They will be lucky if they do not lose one third of their Quebec caucus to the Bloc once they see what they signed up for as many are Separatists.

    • Here we go, the old “call them communists and try to scare the ignorant”. Qubecers generally lean towards left wing ideas. They finally realize that they have a home with the N.D.P. They don’t care anymore about separatism. They just want a responsible fair government that treats them well. The N.D.P. can provide that.
      http://politicsdisgust.blogspot.com/

  3.  Thanks Macleans, for once again reporting the blindingly obvious. I note that you never once ran a headline about either the CPC or Liberals that referenced their “Open for business” caucuses. Which, to my mind, seems at least as big a special interest group. Seems like your entire editorial staff has just a bit of an ideological blind spot. 

    •  It would be useful to compare the power within the parties as you suggest.  I can’t find the NDP constitution anymore, but in the past it actually reserved a lot of votes within the party specifically for organized labour.  I haven’t seen anything similar in other party constitutions.  In particular I am not aware of the Liberals or CPC reserving votes within the party for organized business groups.  Members of those groups may join the parties and then vote, but that is quite different from having votes reserved specifically for union representatives.

      Does anyone have a current copy of the NDP constitution and its voting structure?

      • This is from 2001 – I’ve read that they plan on some ammendments next convention. 

        The preamble to the constitution says:”The principles of democratic socialism can be defined briefly as: That the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to the making of profit; To modify and control the operations of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning. Towards these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership;”
        http://www.scribd.com/doc/28843857/Federal-NDP-Constitution-Out-of-Date-2001

  4. Thank god for a Conservative majority.  Trimming the public service is going to be fought tooth and claw by the PSAC and CUPE.  (Why are they allowed to advertise during elections anyway?)

    Here in Vancouver we just had a member of the United Steelworkers gets charged with mischief related to feces thrown on the roof of an MLA he wasn’t happy with – nice people.

    Jack’s full of it if he thinks B.C. was ever run well by an NDP government, lol!!!

  5. All those CAW folk who are now Dipper MPs shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given how few jobs remain in that sector, thanks primarily to the CAW. As for the public sector unionistas, why suck one public teat when there’s room for two (or more, if you’re Linda Duncan)

    • Oh look, CAW is busy helping chase away what few union jobs that are left in Windsor, ON.
       

      Just months after unionizing, workers at Northstar Aerospace could be on the picket lines next week.The plant’s 65 full-time workers voted 72.2 per cent in favour of a strike mandate Sunday afternoon, setting a deadline for next Tuesday at 12: 01 a.m. It’s the first strike vote and the first contract negotiations for the workers, who joined CAW Local 444 in October.Read more: http://www.windsorstar.com/business/Northstar+workers+vote+strike/4788381/story.html#Comments#ixzz1MZRTHfzc


  6.  Bev Oda named herself as the de facto author of the ^NOT insertion. 
     
    The NDP have ^NOT named the purported staffer that altered Brosseau’s CV. And journalist and bloggers apparently disdain the sort of muckraking to get their hands dirty in this ostensibly trivial backstory. But you can be confident the Tory machine has filed it away. 
     
    Just for when it’s useful some day. It’s a matter of timing.
     .

  7. Yawn.  So a bunch of NDP MPs worked for unions and a bunch of NDP MPs are young idealists.  Terrific.  We could use some people in parliament who actually put the needs of ordinary working Canadians first, and we could use some people who actually believe in something and are willing to fight for it. 

    • Great point! Maybe
      this parliament will be filled with less jaded politicians. A breath of
      political fresh air could be blowing through this country. We have
      hopes that the N.D.P. can keep the Conservatives at bay until the next
      election, after which they will meet their defeat at the hands of the
      Newbies. http://politicsdisgust.blogspot.com   

  8. Let me see if I understand all this . . .

    The NDP having inexperienced candidates is comical.

    The Conservatives having about as many inexperienced candidates is not a headline.

    And the almost 15% of NDP MP`s from a union background dominate the party.  Is that Conservative math?

  9.  Well I for one, still want to know the truth..about Layton’s frequenting of brothels.. From Chow’s statement ‘I knew about of his appointments” plural..  This leaves many questions unanswered.. for instance. Was anyone arrested that night for a bawdy house offense? If so who and why.  What exactly did she mean “all of his appointments”?  Why did Laura Payton, CBC, change the quote to “I knew about his appointment”  on May5? Quite a difference in meaning.. THis issue for the “leader” is by far the most important, far more important than the duly elected MP’s youth and inexperience. They will be expected to toe the line. We all,  as responsible citizens, should all want to know the truth..

    • Who cares!

  10. People in Canada love their social programs but many have no idea that
    these programs are a result of union efforts to change the conditions
    within society. Many have drank the Kool-aid of the right which say that
    unions are not necessary because Corporations have changed their ways
    and are much more compassionate. The naive need to realize that
    corporations only answer to the bottom line (i.e. -money) and only the
    bottom line matters. They will do whatever it takes to benefit
    themselves.
    http://politicsdisgust.blogspot.com

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