Friday, March 25, 2011

Why we fight:: Labour's stake in the federal election

By Fred Wilson
March 25, 2011

There is nothing like a campaign to make choices clear. And for thousands of trade union activists rolling into action this week there is one great unifying purpose -- to end Steven Harper's five year minority rule.

That much is very clear now, even if it did appear that the labour movement was a bit soft on the decision to bring it on. Only minutes before Jack Layton announced that the NDP would oppose Harper's budget, Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti called on Parliament to consider voting for the budget. The crossed wires between the CLC and the NDP gave the Conservatives political room to make mischief with claims that the labour movement was in sync with business in supporting their budget. The Congress was forced to release a subsequent statement calling on Flaherty to "stop misleading" Canadians about the labour position.

The miscue on the budget choreography had many trade union members scratching their heads because of the near unanimous view that after five years of Harperland it's past time to fight for a new government -- and most likely a coalition government that could dramatically change the direction of the country. It is that overriding political context that made it almost impossible for the NDP to broker a deal on Harper's budget.

But I do not discount the CLC's point on the Harper budget that the $300 million in increased GIS for poor seniors is not to be sneered at -- and although a crumb it may be in the context of fighter jets and prisons, the $600-$840 per year for 680,000 seniors adds up to a lot of meals.

In trade union terms, the GIS improvements and other program spending adding up to about a billion dollars was "left on the table" as we head for the campaign trail. That is worth remembering when we ask what we have to get out of this election fight now.

There will be no avoiding five weeks of personality politics where much gravitas is awarded to Harper's sweater, Jack's rolled up shirt sleeves or Ignatieff's crooked grin. But the sum of that will not lead us to any better place, nor will it deliver tangible results that make the sacrifice of Canada's poor seniors worthwhile. Unsolicited and unwanted advice to the campaign team: let's drop some of the Jack ads and put a lot of money into a campaign to double Canada Pension Plan benefits.

It has been a long time since working people connected either their quality of life or their most deeply held aspirations directly to politics, because for thirty years politics has been about the diminishment of collective rights and how deep will be the cuts to the social wage. While the short and long term goals of labour and social movements have been pushed off the political stage, politics has increasingly been about perceptions of leadership, competence, trust and ethics.

However the looming context of the coalition may just differentiate this campaign and renew what politics means. If the campaign goes at all well, it will soon be redefined beyond the leaders' debate or the fight for a seat here or there. The choice will be between a Harper majority and a new government that stands for something fundamentally different.

The inevitable question that will arise is what a progressive majority could and would do when Harper is denied a majority? Therein will be the opportunity to answer Harper's coalition-baiting and anti-Quebec bigotry. It will be a chance to raise expectations and aspirations, instead of lowering them in favour of tactical considerations that move what is truly important down or off the list of the so-called ballot questions.

As Harperland falls, let's imagine why we fight.

Perspectives and information from a labour and NGO activist in the nation's capital. Fred Wilson is the Assistant to the President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. He volunteers with the Council of Canadians and serves on its Board of Directors.

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