The good reasons for the CAW and NDP to split up

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

It became impossible to credibly claim that electing the NDP was the answer to labour's political prayers, given the spotty record of NDP governments to deliver on progressive promises.

Friday's decision by the Canadian Auto Workers' executive board to recommend disaffiliation from the NDP is a historic development — and probably an inevitable one. And if we step back a bit from the mutual enmity that (as in most divorces) dominates the moment of break-up, it is likely that both sides will ultimately be better off for it.

The labour movement is nearing the end of one chapter in its political evolution, and struggling to open a new one.

The NDP was formed in 1961 as a partnership between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. Local unions were to affiliate directly to the party — in essence, making a collective decision to “sign up” their members as members of the NDP, too. With this collective membership came corresponding influence over finances and policy (exercised, when needed, via block votes at party conventions).

The NDP, in this model, was supposed to be “labour's party.” And traditional unions at the time took this mission seriously. The two that went furthest in linking their activity to the NDP were the Canadian locals of the United Steelworkers of America and the former United Auto Workers (which became the CAW in 1985). Public sector and construction unions never affiliated to the NDP in mass numbers.

Activists were motivated by a sense of “social unionism”: efforts to promote economic and social equality could not be limited to collective bargaining, but had to extend into the broader political arena. And this principle is as valid as ever: without it, the labour movement risks becoming isolated as a “vested interest,” rather than a voice for all workers.

But the complete identification of unions' broader political mission with “working to elect the NDP” became less effective over time.

In the first place, it became impossible to credibly claim that electing the NDP was the answer to labour's political prayers, given the spotty record of NDP governments to deliver on progressive promises. And working-class voters became more independent in their political judgments. For years, union members have been about as likely as any other group of Canadians to vote NDP.

In response to these growing cracks in labour's traditional political model, the CAW undertook a task force among its members in 2002. Randomly selected focus groups of rank-and-file members confirmed that they supported union involvement in broader political debates, but on two strict conditions: The issues the union took on must reflect members' concrete concerns. And members did not want their union to tell them how to vote.

The implication is that unions need a more independent and flexible approach to politics: rooted in identifying members' hopes and fears, then mobilizing the union's collective strength in support of those goals. Union interventions must be conducted in the name of the union, not on behalf of any party.

This evolving approach is visible in numerous instances (not just the CAW): the CLC's recent efforts at the federal level; the success of construction unions in winning friendlier labour laws; the Toronto Labour Council's campaign to support that city's one million low-income workers. These initiatives would all fail if unions position themselves as an automatic arm of the NDP.

Some unionists hang tough with the traditional approach. The Steelworkers, in particular, continue to go all out for the NDP — and exert a corresponding influence (both co-chairs of the NDP's federal campaign were affiliated to the union, as were key architects of the party platform). But most union leaders, even those espousing continuing party loyalty, implicitly recognize this enthusiasm is not widely shared by the rank and file.

Modernizing their approach to politics will be important to unions' broader efforts to renew and reinvent themselves, within a hostile economic and legal climate. On the other hand, it will be harder than it already is to organize new members, if party membership gets “bundled” along with a union card.

There are still many commonalities between labour's political goals and the work of the NDP. In fact, the NDP's efforts may be enhanced if the now-tenuous strings that bind it to labour are broken.

At any rate, the labour movement will certainly become more influential if its political work can now be done directly in the name of its members.

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.