by Thomas Walkom
When the Labour Day parades began Monday, New Democratic Party politicians were, as usual, there.
For a party that was co-founded by the union movement, participation in the annual event is a symbolic must.
National party leader Tom Mulcair may have mixed views about Toronto – a city that shut out the NDP entirely in last year’s federal election.
But he is scheduled to march in Toronto’s Labour Day parade anyway. To miss it would be like the Pope skipping Easter Mass.
Yet this symbolic attachment of the NDP to organized labour obscures the real strains that have
developed between the two sides.
Some within the party don’t want to be tied too closely to a movement they view as out-of-date.
To these New Democrats, organized labour is an albatross weighing heavily on the party’s neck. Except for a few industrial towns, being onside with the unions wins the party few votes. Indeed, it may lose them some.
Unions, these New Democrats fret, are not cool.
Conversely, some unions find they reap no practical benefits from supporting a party that is rarely in power.
To make matters worse, even when the NDP does form government it can be just as harsh toward organized labour as the more right-wing parties.
As a result, some unions have softened their support for the NDP. Canada’s largest private-sector union, Unifor, now routinely recommends strategic voting.
In both the 2014 Ontario election and the 2015 federal contest, Unifor called on voters outside of safe NDP constituencies to cast their ballots for whichever party was best able to defeat the Conservatives.
In practical terms, that meant the union, in most cases, supported the Liberals.
All of this is sadly ironic. We live in a time when labour needs a political party willing to work for it. And the NDP needs a reason to exist.
Labour needs a political party because unions, on their own, are a declining force. Only 29 per cent of the Canadian workforce is unionized. The number continues to fall.
This has happened because the economy, once characterized by large manufacturing plants, is now
dominated by smaller service firms that, under current labour laws, are more difficult tounionize.
The decline of well-paying union jobs is one of the key factors behind the rise in income inequality that politicians routinely fret about.
Yet to reverse this trend would require a total rethinking of employment and labour laws, most of which were designed in the 1940s and ’50s.
Among other things, the laws must be amended to eliminate the loophole that allows so many employers to pretend their workers are independent contractors who do not qualify for benefits or statutory protection.
As well, labour relations laws would have to be changed to allow unions organizing, say, fast-food franchise outlets, to take on the ultimate employer.
These are just a couple of examples. The point is that, if unions are to survive, labour laws must be rethought.
That in turn requires a political party willing to do the rethinking.
Is the NDP that party? It hasn’t been in recent years.
Both federally and provincially, the New Democrats have focused on the mechanics of voter targeting – on how to win support from, say, seniors or small business owners or families with kids.
In short, they have tried to out-Liberal the Liberals. And in that contest – both nationally and provincially – the real Liberals have won.
But now, having failed at faux Liberalism, the NDP has a chance to try something radically different. The labour party formed in 1961 to represent the interests of working people could, in fact, do just that.
Provincially, the NDP could focus on labour and employment law. Federally, the party could take on, in a coherent and consistent way, the free-trade orthodoxy that promises to destroy good Canadian jobs.
Or New Democrats could simply ignore the needs of the old-fashioned working class and, as is happening in the U.S. and Europe, surrender the field to the far right.
That too is an option.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services