September 2, 2011
The upcoming NDP leadership race is already exposing tensions over the role of the labour movement in the federal party.
Trade unions were founding partners in the NDP 50 years ago and have traditionally enjoyed considerable influence.
In the 2003 leadership contest that elected the late Jack Layton, affiliated unions were accorded 25 per cent of the vote.
How much weight, if any, unions will have in the vote to choose Layton's successor will be determined next Friday by the party's federal council.
The issue has triggered the first point of real division between the two New Democrats likely to emerge as leadership frontrunners.
Party president Brian Topp says unions should not be excluded, but Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair says organized labour should not get any special treatment.
"I think strategic partnerships that the New Democrats have with the trade union movement are very important," Topp said in an interview Friday.
Topp, one of Layton's top advisers, heads up a trade union himself —ACTRA Toronto — and has deep roots in the labour movement.
He said the 25 per cent figure could be negotiable but the principle of reserving a share of the votes for unions shouldn't be lost.
"It's just part of what we are, part of our DNA that we work with the democratic trade union movement and I don't agree with excluding them."
Mulcair took the opposite tack in an interview with Postmedia News.
"If anybody in labour wants to sell (membership) cards on the shop floor, that's one thing," he said.
"That would be great. In the province of Quebec, we're the most unionized province in Canada. But you don't reserve votes for trade unions specifically."
Winnipeg MP Pat Martin similarly said he wants to see a "one-member-one-vote" leadership process, "plain and simple," with no special influence for labour.
"If labour wants a larger voice they can sell NDP memberships among their union members," Martin said.
"It would be one less thing for our enemies to use against us," he added, alluding to the fact that rival parties have often portrayed the NDP as captive to big labour.
Ken Lewenza, head of the Canadian Auto Workers, emailed Martin to praise his courage in raising the merger idea and to offer his union's support. Lewenza said the "writing has been on the wall" for the two parties since Prime Minister Stephen Harper united the right.
However, Topp, Mulcair and other potential leadership hopefuls have reacted coolly to the idea.
Mulcair said Friday he won't contest the leadership unless the party agrees to delay the vote until February or March. That would give him time to recruit support outside Quebec and make the most of his support in the province, which currently accounts for less than two per cent of the party's memberships.
Although Layton's dying wish for a leadership vote as soon as possible in the new year was initially taken to mean January by many New Democrats, a consensus appears to have developed that a month or two later would be better.
Topp said he supports a call by the party's Quebec wing for more time to build a membership base in the province before the vote.
As party president, Topp is a member of the federal council which will determine the timing and rules for the leadership contest. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, he reiterated Friday that he will "not preside over or participate in the federal council unless I have ruled out a (leadership) run."
British Columbia MP Peter Julian, who also sits on the council and is considering a leadership bid, said he too will recuse himself.
"I completely agree there shouldn't be any people who are even contemplating running for the leadership involved in these decisions," Julian said.