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.
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