Labour looks for opportunity in 40th Parliament

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The labour strategy for the Canadian election was remarkably effective

When Canada's Parliament opens next week, there will be a new influence exerted by Canada's slumbering giant, the labour movement.

Labour hasn't exactly jumped up and flexed its muscles, but it is stirring and looking around in a new way. What it sees in the new Parliament is both a narrow reprieve from a potentially brutal regime, and an opportunity for a change agenda.

It is the opportunity of this 40th Parliament that is interesting and highly complicated because it is predicated on the ability of the NDP and the Bloc to build a political snare trap for the once again leaderless Liberals.

When the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Executive Council met in October less than a week after the federal election, it occasioned what some labour insiders called the best political debate in years.

There was some deserved satisfaction in labour ranks coming out of the Canadian election - but no jubilation. The consensus is that the Layton campaign was almost perfectly executed, with the support of a perfect storm of Conservative mistakes, Liberal weaknesses and economic issues blowing from behind. What should have been a breakthrough year, once again stalled at 18 per cent.

Nevertheless, the labour strategy for the Canadian election was remarkably effective. There were 46 ridings outside of Quebec picked as strategic targets where labour density and organization could make a difference. Over a hundred full time union organizers were released to run the labour campaign or to work directly for the NDP.

The NDP won 35 of those contests and finished second in another 9. Taking into account that two incumbent NDP seats were lost, it was a net gain of 8 seats in English Canada, or a win in 50 per cent of the 16 targeted new ridings. There were no new seats taken outside the labour strategy.

In spite of these successes, the emerging view is that there is something missing. Something more than what a good campaign can produce. To borrow the already trite American descriptor, the Canadian left is lacking a transformational character.

Conservatives have already blamed Quebec for blocking the blue tide they expected to lift them to majority, so it is little surprise that in Canadian labour the conversation on the missing ingredient for the progressive side of Canadian politics also begins in Quebec.

This discussion surfaces now because of the beachhead established by the NDP in Quebec. The NDP spent $3 million in Quebec, almost doubled its vote and elected an MP in a general election for the first time - but it did so without much support from Quebec labour, which decided (wisely, it turned out) that only the Bloc could stop a Harper majority.

La Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) - the Canadian Labour Congress affiliate in Quebec - would have taken the NDP offensive in its stride were it not for an advertising blitz late in the campaign attacking the Bloc as "irrelevant." FTQ leaders were angry with the NDP, and in the election post mortems they let the party know.

The upshot of this debate was a consensus that it's time to recognize that there are two parties endorsed and supported by Canadian labour, and it's time also to expect a larger degree of cooperation between those parties around a labour political agenda. A clear and relevant agenda from labour could be the basis for cooperation between the NDP and the Bloc, as well as about the only thing that can overcome the hostility between the two parties that breaks out like fights in a Habs-Leafs game.

A few days later, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union convention opened in Montreal. In his opening address, President Dave Coles paid credit to the Quebec labour movement and Quebec artists for blocking the Harper majority. That set the stage for Gilles Duceppe to make a cameo appearance where he told the delegates that the Bloc was ready to "work with any party" to oppose a neo-conservative agenda. Duceppe reminded everyone, although they hardly needed it, that the Bloc is a sovereignist party. But in the meantime, he said, let's work together for a shared vision of protecting worker rights.

The next day, Jack Layton had a triumphant visit to the convention, continuously surrounded by literally hundreds of delegates. Layton spoke in some detail about the financial crisis and measures to support manufacturing industries, and he came back to the "kitchen table" analogy for worker rights that was effective during the election campaign. He reminded Harper of the reality of a minority parliament and announced that the NDP will "work with any party" to make Parliament work.

It remains to be seen what real opportunities there will be to make Parliament work on a progressive agenda. Even if the NDP and Bloc can work together on some issues, their combined 86 votes will require almost all of the 77 Liberals to outvote the government.

Nothing short of a snare trap for Liberals will be needed to prevent the worst decisions or to make any gains. In that trap has to be an all consuming fear by Liberals that if they repeat their sorry performance of the last Parliament they will lose another 800,000 votes and be decimated.

The most complicated part of the trap is baiting it with a popular agenda that responds to the economic crisis and raises expectations and hope.

For the CLC, building this trap will be a challenge and likely not possible without a collaboration with social movements. In recent years, the CLC has been somewhat effective but largely invisible in national politics by focusing on a set of issues of direct concern to the labour movement.

The successful passage of the Wage Earner Protection Act, now proclaimed, for example, put unpaid wages ahead of other creditors after a bankruptcy and also prevented judges from using a bankruptcy to unilaterally alter a collective agreement. Anti-scab legislation for workers in the federal jurisdiction was another labour movement priority that went all the way to third reading in the last parliament.

Expect the focus from labour now to be on pension protection and support for manufacturing jobs. These are large and important issues, but by themselves do not provide a vision for the country.

It will take a full, popular economic program with a public sector and private sector response to the crisis to bring together a Canadian progressive majority. To interest Quebec, it will have to be decidedly asymmetrical. Complicated, yes - but a trap that could make the 40th Parliament truly interesting.



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