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Jim Stanford: Unions and grassroots organizations shouldn’t rely on political parties to effect change in new Ontario government

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Ontario, Canada, the election results are in, and it’s a Liberal minority government. Early in the campaign it looked like it might even be a majority Conservative government, but by the time it came to vote, things had turned around. So the results are the Liberal Party 53 seats (one seat short of a majority government), the Conservatives 37 seats, and the NDP 17. So the minority government begins what might be a four-year term if it can last that long. So now joining us to talk about the results is Jim Stanford. Jim is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union. Thanks for joining us, Jim.


JAY: So this is kind of what you thought was the best scenario that might come out of these circumstances. What do you make of the results, first of all?

STANFORD: Well, I think anyone with a progressive bone in their body in Ontario has to be breathing a big sigh of relief today. As you mentioned, the Conservative Party had been very high in the polls–and even more dangerously, it’s a very right-wing version of conservativism. The new leader of the party here, Mr. Tim Hudak, was evoking a very sort of hard-nosed, tough-love approach. Some of his backers were very similar to the Tea Party movement in the States. And he was going to launch an all-out attack on public programs on unions, on equity programs. So having him defeated–he’s still got a strong presence in the legislature, but having him defeated was our main goal.

JAY: Well, when the networks were interviewing Conservative Party representatives on election night, Thursday night, they were blaming the big unions. They said the big unions came after us, and they threw their dollars, and all of that. And I suppose–I don’t know. You’re a big union guy. You work for a big union, anyway. You might even be sort of pleased to hear–pleased to hear you had so much to do with the outcome.

STANFORD: Well, I believe it’s true, actually. Our union and most unions in Ontario recognized the danger of a Hudak victory, so our number-one priority was opposing their policies, highlighting their policies, showing how the Conservative policies were very similar to those of Mike Harris, the right-wing premier we had in the 1990s, and encouraging people to use their votes to stop Hudak. So our union did that. Teachers unions, construction unions, other unions did a lot of lobbying, a lot of organizing, a lot of protests, a lot of advertising. Now, it wasn’t just unions. The environmental movement in Ontario, for example, was horrified at the prospect that Tim Hudak would undo many of the good measures that have come into effect. Women’s groups and antiracist groups were appalled by his promise to get rid of the human rights tribunal system that we have here. So it wasn’t just the unions. But I think all of those non-governmental, progressive organizations played a crucial role in undermining support for Mr Hudak and making sure that the Conservatives did not win. So they’re still there, and I still view them as a very strong political and ideological threat, so our work is not done, but last night was certainly cause for us to heave a sigh of relief.

JAY: Alright. So let’s look forward now. The Liberal Party has got a minority government–one seat short. But I guess one question will be: just how much influence or effect can the NDP have on this government? They’re going to need at least, you know, a couple of NDP votes every time to pass something. What do you make of that? How much pressure can the NDP actually put on the Liberals, and to what extent does the NDP have the wherewithal to want to do it?

STANFORD: Yeah, there’s number of unknowns there, Paul. One of them is they’re so close to a majority–they’re only one seat short–many observers think they can almost function as if they do have a majority. For example, if they appoint the speaker of the legislature from an opposition party, then that cuts the opposition votes by one. And so it’s not clear exactly how much active support they’re going to need. It’s also not clear what the NDP’s approach is going to be. You know, there were some commentators, actually, who were speculating before the election that the NDP might actually support a minority Hudak government, because their policies on some of the issues–cutting the sales tax here, for example, and cutting electricity prices–were quite similar. And, in any event, the NDP’s role in this is likely to be dominated by their judgment about what will enhance their electoral success in the next election. Many NDP strategists don’t want to support a Liberal government, because they feel that will undermine votes for the NDP in the next election. So I think with both the Liberals and the NDP, for unions and progressive groups, it’s going to be very important to challenge both parties to cooperate with each other to move ahead some progressive reforms in areas like poverty, minimum wage, environmental protection, job creation, those types of things. And I’m optimistic that if we hold both parties’ feet to the fire, we can push through some progressive reforms.

JAY: Well, the NDP positions itself as a progressive alternative to the Liberal Party. What are some of the litmus-test issues, very specific things you would like to see that the NDP would make a sort of condition of their support? I mean, they are going to need at least a kind one or two NDP votes to pass things that the Conservatives are opposed to. So what’s a litmus test? And in your list of things, you didn’t say labor law, which I would’ve thought would be a big one.

STANFORD: Well, I said poverty, and the whole thing about labor law, Paul, is precisely to give workers the chance to get together and organize and win themselves a share of the pie. So poverty, income distribution, labor law is certainly one area. Environmental issues, moving ahead with the Green Energy Act, and trying to make sure we get good job creation here in the solar and wind energy and other green industries, that will be another one. Protecting public services will be another important litmus test, because the provincial government has a big deficit, of course. Now, all three of the parties had agreed on the same timetable for eliminating the deficit, but if the economy goes into another downturn, which is certainly possible–not inevitable, but possible–then there’ll be pressure for cutbacks in some of those public services that we have up here, like health care.

JAY: What are some–what are sort of the line-in-the-sand issues for you? And one of the ones we’ve been talking about on The Real News is, you know, this growing income gap between the top one or two percentile and everybody else in Ontario. And, in fact, taxes on the top two percentiles have actually gone down over the years. And I know you disagree to some extent with the NDP putting a lot of emphasis on lower taxes for ordinary people, but shouldn’t–do you–is it an issue for you that the NDP should be pushing on taxing that top two percentile? And how big an issue should they make it?

STANFORD: Well, there’s lots of ways to address the issue of the income gap. And I agree with you that it’s a very important challenge for our whole society. One of them is to raise the incomes of people at the bottom. And that’s where continuing to increase the minimum wage is very important. Allowing unions a fair shot at organizing and bargaining up wages is important. Expanding income security programs for the lower income groups is also important. I’m all in favor of higher progressive income taxes on high-income brackets. I’m also in favor of higher corporate taxes. So those are also possible items to throw into the brew. I think it’ll be very tricky for the left to not go into this whole process with a laundry list of 100, you know, favorite items. In this type of thing, if we can come out with two or three or four things that we can be proud of that make a difference, then we can say, you know, we used this moment to benefit average working people in Canada and in Ontario. But the challenge there will be to, you know, coordinate ourselves, make sure that we’re organized and focused, and make sure that we hold both parties to the fire, because, again, there’s a tendency by both the Liberals and the NDP, I guess, like any political party, to want to keep the maximum eye on what’s going to benefit their electoral fortunes in the long run. And that’s not always the same as doing what’s right for average people.

JAY: Now, in one of our earlier interviews, you talked about, you know, that all the parties are really giving neoliberal solutions to the problems, and that it’s critical that working people, unions have an independent voice. Put that together with the fact that less than half of eligible voters in Ontario actually voted–I think it was–what is it? Like, 49 percent or something like that voted. It was less than 50 percent. There needs to be, one would think, some kind of movement outside of Parliament that builds to actually, you know, lean not just on the Liberals, but particularly on the NDP, to exert some real pressure. What do you see as the potential for that? Like, half the people didn’t vote. Is it ’cause they tuned out or ’cause they’re cynical about the parties?

STANFORD: Well, it’s a terrible sign, whatever the causes are. It’s a sign of disengagement and cynicism and hopelessness. And so that’s where I agree with you 100 percent. It’s up to the sort of civil society, if you like–the social movements, the unions, the environmental groups, anyone else who’s fighting to improve our society–to first of all educate Ontarians about what’s wrong and what needs to change, organize them into, you know, whatever form, whatever movement we can–unions, community groups, environmental groups–and then mobilize and go out and fight for those things. I think that’s the only way that we’ll combat that cynical disengagement that we see in the very low voter turnout.

JAY: I mean, a lot of this is–needs the unions. You know, on the left, there isn’t any other organizations that have mass memberships and money. The unions have been sort of a mixed story about how effective they’ve been in mobilizing a movement, even amongst their own members. What needs to change?

STANFORD: Well, everything’s a mixed story about mobilizing, isn’t it? And I’d say the unions have probably done a better job than most in at least carrying on a fight-back. But we have to learn from what’s happening in other countries, learn from that Occupy Wall Street movement that’s so wonderful, how to capture people’s imagination, how to rekindle their hope. And the older I get, the more I realize that has less and less to do with who you vote for once every four years. We have to practice politics 365 days a year–and by politics I mean working with our fellow citizens to identify what’s wrong, what needs to change, and then going out and fighting for it.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Jim.

STANFORD: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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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).