For as long as I can remember, progressives have argued that one of the basic political roles of the trade union movement was to engage in extra parliamentary action and to “make space” for a social democratic political party to move into. What a strange occurrence that it is the party that has now created space for labour to play its role.

The opportunity is large and possibly a turning point for a beleaguered labour movement that for two decades has lost political influence and core union density in the private sector economy. The question now is whether Canadian labour is ready and willing to move forward and capture the ground that was carved out by the Orange Wave. Like all opportunity, this one also will pass unless it is seized.

Canadian labour’s slow decline was shaped by neo-liberal economic policies that eroded its manufacturing base, and also by a shift in public discourse that impugned the role of unions and marginalized its participation in political and economic decision making. Trade union membership has now dropped below 30% and private sector union density hovers at 16%. Strikes, which remain the most cogent measure of economic influence, are also in decline and four of the last five years recorded the lowest strike days since records began in 1976. Not surprisingly given these trends, the Canadian Labour Congress’ own research demonstrates that a majority of non union workers are today not willing to join a union — a reversal of fortune from a decade ago when most non union workers would join a union if they had a chance.

The election has potentially changed the ground game for labour by moving the centre to the left. After decades of a political centre somewhere between pro-corporate Liberals and hard right social Conservatives, there is now an official social democratic opposition that redefines social consensus. This can have profound implications for industrial policy, social policy and labour law — as well as for public attitudes about unions and collective rights.

The opportunity, however, is not by any means automatic. It will require the party to be firm in support of its labour base and to take a page from right-wing and Republican strategies of using values and principles to shift politics towards its base.

As important, it will require labour to demand recognition and rights in politics and in the workplace and economy. Trade unions have powerful new supporters in Parliament, but without a much more visible, militant and forceful movement making demands on politicians and employers alike, that political support won’t mean very much.

The new NDP opposition has a very strong labour group within it, including many who have served as staff or elected leaders in the trade union movement. In addition to re-elected MPs like Yvon Godin (USW), Carol Hughes (CLC), Wayne Marston (CEP), Don Davies (Teamsters), Pat Martin (Carpenters), Libby Davies (HEU), the new caucus includes Peggy Nash (CAW), Nicole Turmel (PSAC), Jenny Sims (BCTF), Tyrone Benskin (ACTRA), Robert Chisholm and Alexandre Boulerice (CUPE), and Guy Caron and Mike Sullivan (CEP). Others like Joe Comartin and Jack Harris are labour lawyers, closely associated with the trade union movement.

Needless to say, these elected labour activists and the 103 social democrats in Parliament cannot by themselves stop the Conservative majority from further weakening what remains of trade union power. That reality explained the mix of sentiment at this month’s Canadian Labour Congress convention where 2,500 delegates cheered and cried for Jack Layton in an hour-long emotional outburst, but spent the rest of convention at microphones with foreboding of great danger to come.

It is difficult to avoid comparing the Harper majority to the Republican sweep in the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections. After the political defeat, the new right wing legislators quickly launched a massive assault on the last bastion of U.S. unionism — American public sector unions. Anti-labour legislation was introduced in 20 U.S. states after the U.S. mid-term elections — although most attention was focused on the massive fightback in Wisconsin.

Two Canadian public sector unions are expected to immediately have to deal with a Conservative majority, and may be a harbinger of the next four years. First is Canada’s relatively small but militant Canadian Union of Postal Workers who as I write are engaged in last-minute bargaining to avoid a strike. At issue are concession demands to strip postal workers of their sick leave plan and to impose two tier, lower wages and an inferior pension plan on new employees. If a labour dispute occurs, union activists will be on alert for strike breaking tactics ordered by the federal cabinet.

Next up will be the Public Service Alliance of Canada and other federal unions who will bear the brunt of the June 6 new federal budget. Prior to the election the Conservatives said that job reductions would be by attrition only, but new Treasury Board head Tony Clement has already said that whole programs could be axed, forcing layoffs. Conservative groups have already targeted federal public pensions, and there is concern that an attack on pension plans will accompany the job cuts.

There is wide agreement in Canada’s union offices that the successful CLC pension campaign which put the demand for a doubling on the Canada Pension Plan on the agenda at federal-provincial summits is a model to continue rebuilding labour influence.

But there is much less genuine agreement on other elements of a labour agenda to both defend against the Harper majority and to take advantage of the new opportunity to mobilize and organize. An “Action Plan” — “A Workers’ Program to Defeat the Right Wing Agenda” — was adopted by the CLC Executive Council at convention. It calls for a strong opposition, communication strategies, strengthening coalitions and social partnerships, and it pledges demonstrations and direct actions where necessary. But remarkably the statement was not debated or adopted by the convention, a process unimaginable at CLC conventions of the past, and the statement is not posted on the CLC web site.

However the Action Plan was nevertheless negotiated between the CLC’s major affiliates and represents an internal, leadership commitment, even if not a public declaration that the CLC wants to broadcast to Harper and Flaherty. The CLC convention also put in place a new governing structure that will see every union in Canada meet together twice a year, and a new Canada-wide “campaign committee” of the largest unions and all the provincial Federations of Labour. Labour leadership in Canada is organized and ready to make decisions.

Canada’s trade unions suddenly have more political support than they could have imagined only months ago. It’s now up to trade unionists to give the politicians something to talk about.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.