Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NDP & the Decline of Labour

The NDP is certainly not asking whether it should abandon organized labour, but maybe organized labour should ask whether it abandon the NDP.

What does it say about the New Democratic Party when it is the only political organization of unions and for unions yet over the last thirty years organized labour has only lost power and legitimacy?

Three decades ago if the Red Cross had proudly announced it would help combat malaria and today malaria was killing more people, it would be more than obvious that the Red Cross's initiative had failed. And so too must the NDP's initiative to advance organized labour be viewed, as a failure.

If a party incorporates a cause so much into their ideology and that cause has only been dramatically weakened over time, is that party not responsible, at least partially for not convincing voters, for not changing anything for the better, indeed only potentially making things worse?

The NDP is responsible, not completely, but in taking up the fight of unions federally and making them highly partisan, the party is at least partially to blame for the decline of unions and the weakening of the Labour Movement in general.

Over the last thirty years not only have unionization rates dramatically fallen but back-to-work legislation has become only more frequent. Adding to the problem the NDP has only made unions extremely partisan and public opinion opposing labour action has increased.

A Statistics Canada report shows that between 1981 and 2004 unionization among Canadians fell from 37.6% to 30.6%, and a report last year shows it has dropped to 29.7%. Over the last three decades while New Democrats proudly declared they were advancing Labour's interests across Canada, unionization rates decreased by almost 8% of the total population and are now 21% lower than they were in 1981.

The recent onslaught of back-to-work legislation is only more evidence that the NDP is not only failing to protect Labour, but most likely making things worse by reinforcing divisive partisanship.

In 2011 the Conservative government with no hesitation prevented strikes at Canada Post and Air Canada with legislation that significantly weakened both unions' bargaining positions. The Conservatives had no real risk of alienating voters, Labour was and is an NDP cause. Instead of the governing party being a neutral stakeholder in negotiations, Conservatives naturally responded to Labour like it would to any other partisan organization, as an opponent.

The same situation is mirrored in the provinces; BC Liberals have just drafted back-to-work legislation for teachers, a union that has strong ties to the provincial NDP, and that unnecessary partisanship was undoubtedly one of the reasons why negotiations went as bad as they did and why the union will suffer.

Besides declining rates of unionization and increases in back-to-work legislation, perhaps the greatest reflection of the NDP's poor performance in advancing the Labour movement is the fact it is losing the war of public opinion on collective action.

In June 2011 a report by polling firm Abacus had 60% of Canadians in opposition to any strike action by the unions of Canada Post and Air Canada. In BC a recent poll mirrors that level of public opposition to a teacher strike. Of course the NDP is not the direct cause why a majority of Canadians opposed recent strike action, but the NDP is certainly a leader of the workers struggle and when a battle is lost, albeit just one of publicity, doesn't that party bare some responsibility in failing to sway Canadians?

Over the last thirty years unionization in Canada has dwindled, back-to-work legislation is prevalent, and public opposition to collective action has increased. The NDP claim to have done so much for Labour, if that's the case then that political organization should take at least some of the responsibility for its current poor condition.

With its guaranteed votes the NDP are not going to abandon labour, but for its own good maybe Labour should abandon the NDP.


WesternGrit said...

I found in past jobs that many union members did not believe in the cause either. In excellent economic times, with big screen LEDs, Escalades in every driveway, and iPads out the ying yang, people have forgotten the struggles unions had to take on to get people to those salaries for the roles. Without unions, most laborers would be lucky to score the salaries a typical backhoe operator, machinist, or other tradesperson makes. Yet, these folks are tending to swing towards the populist right... Hot-button politics in a "populist blanket" have convinced them of the need to be arrogantly greedy, and thumb their noses at "elitists" - the similarly salaried professions from academia.

When the economy starts to contract - which it is doing - and times get tougher... layoffs come... then people begin to realize the importance of groups that protect and enhance worker's rights and fair pay for an honest day's work. said...

WesternGrit, I think there is evidence showing such a relationship between economic turmoil and support for unions; however in this digital age I don't put much stock in pendulums.

Though such a relationship existed and probably exists still, I think the support unions received in other difficult times was nested in broader social values; the same social values that had already existed and were strong in churches, community organizations, political groups, etc.

Today all those social peripheries are significantly weaker, and are bellweathers of those social values they depended on. If the pendulum is still swinging I don't think it will have much force behind it.

It's time to get a clock to set our watches to.

lance said...

"Without unions, most laborers would be lucky to score the salaries a typical backhoe operator, machinist, or other tradesperson makes."

WTF! Do you have any idea what a skilled backhoe operator or a machinist makes?

kirbycairo said...

I think it would be convenient if we could blame the NDP for the decline in union membership but that would be a bit like blaming the Christian church for the abundance of unethical acts in society. What we are dealing with here is not really an ideological failure of unionism or leftism or whatever one calls it. What we are dealing with is the overwhelming power of a globalizing, corporate ideology which have colonized governments and changed the entire global legislative and economic structure to favor the ability of large corporate structures to reduce or simply flee any legislative controls (including labor and environmental standards) and thereby undermine not only the ability or workers to organize but undermined the ability of governments to compel corporations to be accountable and responsible.

And in the face of a media that is 99% corporate and overwhelming supports the reigning corporate ideology and convinces people that there is no alternative to this corporate dominance, it is small wonder that people not only don't understand the importance that unions have played historically in gaining the rights people take for granted but also failing to understand that in an increasingly global and corporate context those rights are slowly being eroded. As nations and workers race to the bottom they will slowly come to realize that they have no pensions, they have no safeguards, they have no one in their corner to ensure their rights or their prosperity and they will once again look to unions (and other bodies of solidarity) to fight back corporate power and bring a better social and economic balance. Let's face it, if they don't the future is rather bleak and looks something like a cyber-punk novel. It has already begun to happen. It is a significant break through that people are actually beginning to realize that our social wealth is being held in fewer and fewer hands while the elderly, for example, are increasingly living in poverty.

I think anyone with a decent knowledge of history and contemporary conditions must surely understand that we have two options - solidarity or a world of unmitigated corporate greed in which there is a handful of very wealthy people and billions who have little or no economic power. said...

Kirby, the church analogy similar to my malaria analogy is not correct.

As unions compose a large part of the NDP membership and have been accorded within the party's structure, a better example would be blaming the church for the decline in churchgoers; blame which I think would be legitimate.

Surely if the NDP are to take credit for the cause of Labour, the party should also take SOME responsibility when it fails.

I would only add that I think with enough planning there are always more than two options.