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Jim Stanford: Unions need to be independent from all the parties and do what’s best for workers

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. The Ontario election will be held on October 6. And to some extent, some of the political problems facing unions and progressive people in Ontario are not that dissimilar to those in the United States. Now joining us again to talk about Ontario politics and the coming election is Jim Stanford. Jim’s an economist at the Canadian Auto Workers. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: In the US, when President Obama was elected, the unions said, one of our most important issues is a piece of legislation called EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama campaigned all over the place saying, I support this act, got into power, and it didn’t take very long before it was not much on the agenda, and then it was off the agenda, and then they lost control of the House and it was completely off the radar.


JAY: The unions never are willing to say to the Democratic Party, it seems, either you do A, B, C for us, or you won’t get a penny, you won’t get a foot soldier. Now, in Ontario, while you’re saying–you, CAW, and some of the other unions, taking what is called a more strategic voting position, as opposed to some of the unions which are saying just support the NDP, which is traditionally the more left social democratic party, more linked to the union movement, you’re saying stop the Conservatives. You wind up saying, in most of the ridings, support the Liberals, ’cause it’s the only way to stop the Conservatives, although in ridings where the NDP are the incumbents, you’re saying reelect the NDP. But there’s no, to the Liberals, do this or else there’s no–you know, there’s no deal, in a sense. Like, what stops the Liberals from–if they do, for example, win a majority government, what stops them from simply carrying on, which was more or less, you know, not as radical right as the Conservatives would likely be, but a kind of neoliberal economics that doesn’t–hasn’t done all that much for workers in Ontario?

STANFORD: Well, a couple of things I’ve got to jump in on. First of all, the neoliberal economics is true across Canada, whether that’s Liberal, Conservative, NDP, or Parti Quebecois in Quebec. They’ve all followed the same tendency. So voting for a particular party never protects you against neoliberal economics.

JAY: Okay. So talk about that, talk about the NDP, then.

STANFORD: So the NDP’s view in this election has been a very sort of populist, very centrist strategy. Their main emphases have been kind of pocketbook issues. They’ve had a whole campaign over the last year and a half against taxes in Ontario, and particularly this new version of a sales tax that we have. We had a sales tax before, and then they’ve converted it into a new value-added structure, and they’ve tried to sort of foment a sort of populist tax rage kind of argument there. So there’s many things on the NDP platform that are progressive, but many that aren’t. And in general, the NDP in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada is very much within the constraints of neoliberalism. So if our goal is to fight neoliberalism, it can’t be to endorse any particular party. This is where the labor movement has to have an independent voice to go out and show what’s wrong with neoliberalism and convince enough Canadians that those policies have to change. And if we’re successful in that, then we’ll win stuff from government, whichever party is in power. And this is where I completely reject the assumption that who you endorse in an election is the be-all and end-all of your politics. If that’s what we do, we’ve outsourced our politics to a political party, whereas I think the union movement has to have an independent view. I also have to correct you on what the actual strategy is. We are not endorsing Liberals in most ridings, even in any ridings. As I said, our campaign from our union is to oppose Hudak, highlight what’s wrong with his program.

JAY: Okay. For–hang for a sec. For people that didn’t watch part one, Hudak is the leader of the Conservative party, which is sort of like a Republican Party in Ontario.

STANFORD: And engage in the battle of ideas that way, rather than the battle of party logos. Now–.

JAY: Now, hang on, your president of CAW was out campaigning with Dalton McGinty, the leader of the Liberal Party the other day. I think they showed up at a–.

STANFORD: No, he wasn’t. It was a CAW plant, and Lewenza was there and–our CNW president. And McGuinty was there to tour the plant where they had made some announcements. And he’s–that was part of an election tour that Ken is on, an independent union election tour where we’re having public meetings and rallies in communities across the province, to rally our members and our activists and their neighbors, to say, this is what’s wrong with Hudak.

JAY: But you are saying–I thought you’re saying overtly–certainly that’s the message people are getting, that to stop Hudak, vote either NDP or Liberal, whichever one is more likely to defeat the Conservatives.

STANFORD: Use your vote to defeat the Conservatives–that’s what we’re saying. And that’s very different from saying we endorse the Liberals. It’s very different than saying we endorse the NDP. I don’t think that we’ll be in a situation where we’ll endorse the NDP, not solely, because the NDP’s policies themselves are often questionable; and not solely, because the NDP’s actions when they’re in government are also questionable.

JAY: So drill into that a little bit, ’cause part of your basic argument is there’s not a significant enough difference between NDP and Liberals to endorse just the NDP and allow for a Conservative government. And just to be clear, that’s–two of the big unions in Ontario have taken that position. CUPE, which represent most of the public sector workers, and the Steelworkers are both vote NDP across the board. They’re not agreeing with your more strategic approach.

STANFORD: Yeah, and as we mentioned, there’s a whole range of views. There are other unions, like some of the construction unions, which explicitly endorse the Liberals. And then there’s other unions, like the teachers unions, which had said, we’ll endorse Liberal incumbents and NDP incumbents as part of our effort to try and prevent the Conservatives from winning. So there’s a whole spectrum of views. But that traditional approach, which was never really universal in the labor movement, where the union was actually affiliated to the NDP, and in essence union members, by joining the union, were also joining the NDP, that approach is very much on the wane and is in the minority view within the labor movement now.

JAY: JAY: And part of that came about, if I have this correctly, when Jack Layton, who died recently but was the national leader of the NDP, kind of brought down a Liberal government that led to several years now of Conservative government. Is that more or less when the break takes place?

STANFORD: That’s part of the history. But part of the history is Ontario as well, where the NDP won–by fluke, really–the election in 1990. They ruled for five years.

JAY: This is the Bob Rae government.

STANFORD: Bob Rae government, in the context of a wicked recession, so they never really had a chance. And they did do some positive things, but they also did some very negative things, including an outright attack on public sector unions and legislating their contracts to be opened and changed. So that was as much proof as you’ll ever need that you can’t trust any political party to do what’s right for you when they’re in government, unless you, as a mass movement, have mobilized and educated your base that can pressure that government to do the right thing. And that’s where, again, I think it’s much deeper than just an issue of whose platform looks good in which particular election. I think there’s an important structural principle that the labor movement has to have an independent voice and an independent capacity in politics, because otherwise we’re always in some party’s back pocket, and that’s where you get into trouble.

JAY: Now, your president of the CAW, Ken Lewenza, if I understand it correctly, has called for a kind of merger between the NDP and the Liberals. What is the thinking on that? And is there any possibility of that?

STANFORD: Well, this is part of our trying to make sense of the political landscape after the federal election. And, again, there’s lots of NDPers who think the federal election was great, because they got a record number of seats and now they’re the official opposition. I think most progressive Canadians think the federal election was horrible, because the way the vote split, the Conservatives won a clear majority, even though their vote didn’t actually go up that much, and we’re now stuck with a very hard-right government for four–likely eight or 12 years. So it’s a disaster.

JAY: Because of the likelihood of continued vote-splitting.

STANFORD: Continued vote-splitting. And the NDP’s surge was a bit of a fluke. Everybody knows that. In Quebec it’s going to be very hard for them to keep all of those seats in the next election. And the prospect of the NDP actually winning the government in the next election is very farfetched. I mean, you never know. But–so in the light of that, you have also had the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois, which is the federal parliament wing of the separatist or nationalist movement in Quebec, which is very progressive on social and economic issues, generally more progressive than the NDP is, but the NDP took most of their seats in Quebec. So what happens to the Bloc? How do we deal with the Greens, which are there now in the House of Commons? But that also contributes to the vote-splitting. How can we try and have the math work to take back power from the right is the open question. So Lewenza didn’t call for a merger. He said we’d better have a discussion about how we’re going to do this, and one way or another we will. The NDP insiders’ or the NDP establishment’s approach is they don’t want a merger–they just want all the other parties to disappear. So their–in a way, their end goal is the same, to have a two-party system where they have the monopoly on the center and the left. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’re going to need some kind of cooperation between the parties, if not an outright merger, in order to get the math right so that we can get rid of Harper.

JAY: How do you explain the strength of the right in a city like Toronto? You have now in Toronto a right-wing mayor, Rob Ford. You have–the Tories are ahead in the polls. I mean, if there was an election today, based on the polling, probably the Conservatives would win–I guess it’s not entirely clear, but probably. How do you explain this shift, particularly in urbanized Toronto, which is–. I mean, you know, I’m from Toronto originally, but I’m in Washington a lot of the time, and it’s–like, to imagine this kind of a mayor getting elected is really shocking. Rural Ontario has always had a kind of a Conservative part of it, at least, bent. How do you explain this?

STANFORD: Well, part of it’s the puzzle, Paul, that faces the left everywhere in the world. In the wake of the crisis and the recession and the austerity and the hardship that people have experienced, why is it that right-wing forces and right-wing movements have actually picked up steam in the wake of a crisis that was clearly caused by right-wing policies? And that’s a puzzle that reflects many weaknesses–our inability to have a true alternative to put in front of people, I guess the whittling away of the labor movement and the other progressive institutions in society, and, you know, just a kind of a, I don’t know, knee-jerk kick him in the ass mentality on the part of many individual voters. Now, to be fair, in Toronto we’ve only had a few months of this guy, Rob Ford, and already he’s sinking like a stone in the polls, ’cause Torontonians now realize they’ll pay, and pay dearly, for his agenda of tax cuts and cutbacks and–.

JAY: And he’s already given in on some closing of libraries, subsidized daycare centers.

STANFORD: Yeah, he’s made some token concessions. But more importantly, he’s kind of on the run politically. And I think Rob Ford’s problems in Toronto are going to hurt the Conservative campaign provincially, because Mr. Hudak, the Conservative leader, is very much in the Rob Ford model, and his platform will require huge cutbacks in provincial services, just as people in Toronto are waking up to how painful the cutbacks in municipal services would be because of those same policies.

JAY: Okay. Well, after the election we’ll do this again, and we’ll see what kind of Ontario Ontarians are living in. Thanks for joining us.

STANFORD: Very good, Paul. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And If you want to see more Canadian coverage, which we want to do–we’re going to start a campaign in the next couple of weeks to hire a full-time Canadian producer. So please look for that and help us with that, and then you’ll see regular Canadian reporting every week. Thanks again for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Jim Stanford is an Economist in the Research Department of the Canadian Auto Workers, Canada's largest private-sector trade union. He received his Ph.D. in Economics in 1995 from the New School for Social Research in New York. He also holds economics degrees from Cambridge University in the U.K. (1986) and the University of Calgary (1984). Jim is the author of Paper Boom (published in 1999 by James Lorimer & Co.) and co-editor (with Leah F. Vosko) of Challenging the Market: The Struggle to Regulate Work and Income (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004).