January 6, 2011
So why do the accumulating conditions for a radical resurgence seem to spell trepidation and crisis for the labour-based New Democratic Party and for unions in Canada? Could it be that the labour leadership has been driving in reverse gear for so long that they find it difficult to stop, and shift into forward?
The problems are numerous. Many are self-inflicted. Instead of fighting the bosses, some union leaders are fighting one another. Conflicts over raiding (in the Canadian Labour Congress) and bids to undermine top elected officers (in the Ontario Federation of Labour) testify to that.
Instead of mobilizing the rank and file to reverse corporate bail-outs and tax gifts to the rich, union leaders tend to rely on weak ad campaigns, legalistic initiatives and token rallies. Instead of bolstering labour's political independence, the tops play footsie (or cohabit) with Liberals. Instead of deepening workers' democracy, the brass clamp down on the left, and treat the NDP membership like a milch cow rather than as a source of new ideas and energy.
The likelihood of a federal election in Spring 2011 should be good news for the NDP. Party debts are paid and many of its candidates are already in the field. But the NDP vote in three federal by-elections on November 29 sank like a stone; it even lost its long-held seat in Winnipeg North.
Even more inauspicious was the municipal election disaster in Toronto where a voter revolt against the lethal combination of service cuts and tax hikes turfed the Liberal/NDP regime at City Hall in favour of a right wing populist mayor and allied anti-labour councillors.
As in west coast British Columbia, the Ontario NDP failed to channel popular opposition to a heightened Harmonized Sales Tax, which could have been done by demanding its abolition and its replacement by major tax hikes on the rich. Proposing paltry exceptions to the regressive tax, and steering clear of a radical critique of the bourgeois tax system, has allowed right wing populists to run wild with the issue, especially in B.C.
Dissatisfaction with BC NDP Leader Carol James within her own provincial legislative caucus forced her to resign from the top job. Her anemic response to the sales tax hike, which was a broken promise that forced Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell to quit in November, was only the tip of the political iceberg. James' refusal to campaign in 2009 for reversal of Liberal provincial cutbacks, and her ongoing attempts to distance the NDP from its traditional labour base, while appealing to the business elite, which remains firmly aligned with the BC Liberals, proved to be her undoing as NDP leader.
The disorientation, confusion, even crisis in sections of the NDP reflect also the state of the labour movement, and vice-versa. At the BC Federation of Labour Convention, held Nov. 29 - Dec. 3, there was little word about the schism among the NDP tops. But division within the labour brass was evident when most of the CUPE delegation walked away for an entire session. This left the BC Government Employees' Union in the hall even though the latter will be outside the Fed in January due to the imminent expulsion of the federal public service umbrella, the National Union of Public and General Employees, over non-payment of dues to the CLC. That is NUPGE's response to a dispute over raiding of its affiliates by other unions in three western provinces.
It is the last thing workers want, highlighting the urgent need for a class struggle opposition in the unions and the NDP to mine the deep reserves of working class solidarity, to sweep aside the mis-leaders of our class, and to fight for a Workers' Agenda against the employers' relentless austerity drive. -Barry Weisleder