Alexandre Boulerice is no stranger to tough battles. A former Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) communications officer, he was elected to as MP of Rosemont La Petite-Patrie in Montreal — a riding once solidly held by the Bloc Québécois — as part of the Orange Wave in 2011.
Now the NDP labour critic, Boulerice has fought off criticism from the Conservative party that he’s not a patriot. Their accusation stems from a blog post written in 2007 where he described WWI as “a purely capitalist war on the backs of the workers and peasants.”
When we spoke, Boulerice — an animated MP who punctuates every statement with enthusiastic hand gestures — laughed off the accusations in favour of talking about the NDP’s position on labour issues in Canada saying “let’s talk about some real stuff.”
This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
You were involved with CUPE for a long time before becoming an MP. Since coming joining the house what are you learning about labour from this side?
It’s very diverse and there are a lot of challenges for everyone. All the left wing movement and the labour movement in this country are facing a really arrogant Conservative government that is clearly anti-labour and anti-workers.
We have to work shoulder-by-shoulder together in solidarity to fight back. It’s not easy but I think the Canadian Labour Congress is having a really great campaign right now — Fairness Works. We have to remember all the fights that were there in the last decade that helped people get parental leaves, sick leaves and good pensions.
One of the challenges we have is a lot of the young workers that take all this for granted. It’s not because they have a union at their workplace that they’re having [these working conditions]. When you arrive at the workplace you think that it is the employer who is giving that and the union is just there to take your money.
Speaking of youth workers, that is a huge issue right now. Youth unemployment in some of the provinces is really high.
Also non-unionized workers that are working full time and living in poverty.
Yes, and are working in precarious employment situations. What do you want to see the federal government do?
I want the government to respect unions. I want the government to improve pensions and protect private companies pensions too. I want the government to have a real industrial strategy — right now it’s all about extracting as fast as we can natural resources and sending them all across the world. It’s a short term vision.
We’re not getting any manufacturing jobs, we’re not getting any good industrial jobs. We have a government that is really happy every time there is a new Walmart but you know, Walmarts are not helping build strong communities
But how do you better advocate for those people who are working at Walmart?
I think as legislators our responsibility is to let the workers decide by themselves. I’m not saying that it’s the role of the government to create unions but it’s the role of government to create an environment where it’s possible to create a union when you want it — you can have legal capacities to fight back if you are against an employer like Walmart or McDonalds that clearly doesn’t accept a union in their workplaces.
Turning to legislation that will impact unions, Bill C-4, the budget implementation bill, has come under scrutiny from the federal unions.
There are huge changes for public servants. The fact that now the president of the Treasury Board will be the only one deciding if this employee is essential or not.
So for you, what’s the strategy trying to combat this bill?
The strategy for us is asking the government to remove that part of the rights of collective agreement from C-4, and have a real consultation and a clear discussion.
One of the challenges of those big mammoth bills is that we have really few hours in committee to study and discuss them so it’s with a lot of other issues…let’s be clear about that this, it is something that will not catch the general public’s attention.
I was talking with some people about the senate scandal recently and one of the things that they noticed is that it might be easier for Canadians to understand that scandal because it’s stealing. Do you think its harder to get people interested in the omnibus bill because it’s so complex?
It is. Some people are following politics and those people are really angry with the Conservative government. But if you have a citizen that is not following exactly what is going on and how Parliament works it’s really difficult to explain to them. It’s like the $16 box of orange juice [purchased by] Bev Oda was easier to explain to Canadians then the $25 billion…
…It means nothing. But an orange juice — that’s $16. In real life, that’s what people will catch more easily. And in communications, in politics, if you have to explain you lose.
Let’s move to Bill C-377. I talked to [President of CUPE] Paul Moist recently and he told me they are not so concerned about it any more. Is that where you’re at too?
I’m still concerned a little bit because a lot of Conservative Senators were able to challenge the Harper government on that with amendments that essentially gutted this private members bill and reduced the scale and the impact.
It was still a bad bill but it was not touching a lot of people anymore and they were improving amendments on a really bad bill. But with the vote of the Conservative Senators for the expulsion for Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau I’m not sure they have the same independence from the Prime Minister’s office.
Has your perspective on the labour movement changed now that you are on the government side?
I consider myself a labour activist, but now that I’m a member of the Official Opposition I am there to represent the interests of the workers in the labour movement — but it can’t be 100 per cent of the time. Sometimes it has to be “sorry my friend, I am still your friend but on that issue I have to say maybe or no or not now.”
You have to consider your constituency.
And also balance between interests of employees and employers. This is always what we are seeing — this government is an unbalanced approach.
Because of the attitude around unions right now do they need an image make over?
I think the labour movement — maybe with the help of the NDP — has a responsibility to rebrand themselves as not the fat cats of society, but the defenders of good working conditions and living conditions so that the attacks of the Conservatives about the fact that the NDP is buddy-buddy with the big union bosses won’t stick that much with all the Ottawa Sun‘s of this world.