The NDP’s union-made caucus

The real power structure in the party comes from organized labour
Union made
Andrew Vaughan/CP

After all the drama and tension of a landmark election, Canadians probably needed a little comic interlude. The NDP provided one, although quite unintentionally. They served up the whimsical story of Pierre-Luc Dusseault, 19, whose upset victory in Sherbrooke, Que., made him the youngest MP ever, and meant he’d have to forgo his summer job on a golf course. Then there were the three McGill University students who will have to suspend their studies after surprising even themselves by capturing Quebec seats. And, of course, there was Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the assistant pub manager at Ottawa’s Carleton University, who hadn’t even visited the Quebec riding of Berthier-Maskinongé before winning it handily. Just as well, since Brosseau’s French isn’t so good and most of her constituents don’t speak English.

Jack Layton spent much of his first post-election news conference fending off questions about the scant experience of these and other rookies in his much enlarged Quebec contingent. With the collapse of the Bloc Québécois, an astonishing 58 NDP MPs from the province were elected on May 2, up from just one, Montreal’s Thomas Mulcair, before the election. But if all the attention on Layton’s youth brigade suggested an NDP caucus characterized by dewy-eyed campus idealism, that’s a misleading impression. In fact, the front benches of the second party in the House—traditionally seen as a government-in-waiting—will feature many tough-minded former union leaders. “We have some pretty major labour folks,” says veteran Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies. “That’s a connection to a very solid base of activism, an understanding of politics and how it works.”

Davies herself came to federal politics by way of a position with the Hospital Employees’ Union, along with five terms on Vancouver’s city council. Among MPs expected to be assigned high-profile jobs by Layton, organized labour credentials are predominant. Take, for instance, just those who have been teachers’ union officials. Paul Dewar, who was NDP foreign affairs critic in the last Parliament, and is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Layton, is one. Irene Mathyssen, the London, Ont., MP who chaired the NDP’s key women’s caucus before the election, is another. They will be joined by rookie B.C. MP Jinny Sims, who was president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation during the 2005 strike, when it was fined for contempt of court for ignoring a return-to-work order.

But the teachers’ unions are outgunned in Layton’s caucus by the Canadian Auto Workers. Returning MPs with CAW backgrounds include Nova Scotia’s Peter Stoffer and Ontario’s Malcolm Allen. Joe Comartin, the Windsor, Ont., MP who was Layton’s respected justice critic, is a former CAW lawyer. Another Ontario MP, David Christopherson, was a United Auto Workers local president way back in the 1970s, and has led the NDP charge on democratic reform issues. Claude Patry, a retired CAW local president, was elected as part of the NDP’s Quebec breakthrough. The best-connected New Democrat in the current CAW, however, is Peggy Nash, a former top negotiator for the union, who won back the Toronto riding she held from 2006 to 2008.

Nash is the sort of union stalwart who drives Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to distraction. In her previous stint as an MP, she spearheaded resistance to the naming of retired oilman Gwyn Morgan, a Calgary business icon, as head of Harper’s proposed public appointments review board. Morgan was the Prime Minister’s hand-picked choice to usher in a new era of clean federal appointments. But Nash argued he was too much a Tory partisan for the post, and she raised sensitive racial issues by criticizing comments he had made linking immigration from the Caribbean and Asia to crime in Canadian cities. Opposition MPs voted down Morgan, and a furious Harper shelved the whole impartial appointment-review concept.

Nash’s return to the House is touted by Layton’s top advisers as a key addition to their bench strength. More than the impact of any single politician, though, it’s the union culture so many NDP MPs share that sets them apart from the Liberals they have suddenly supplanted. Dewar says one big difference is organized labour’s emphasis on contract bargaining. He says that showed in the way the Liberals, along with the Bloc, allowed the Conservatives to largely set the rules for deciding how documents related to the contentious handling of Afghan detainees would be vetted for release—terms the NDP rejected. “The Liberals,” Dewar says, “didn’t have the experience and the skills to negotiate well.”

But few voters ever gain any sense of how MPs play their cards behind the scenes in House committees and caucus meetings. It’s the public impression Layton’s caucus creates that will largely determine if he can prevent the Liberals from reclaiming their traditional centrist political turf. Appearing to be too close to organized labour could be a liability for the NDP. After all, only a minority of working Canadians belong to a union, about 30 per cent last year, down from 38 per cent in 1981. Unionization rates are lower still in the private sector, making the influence of public sector unions in the NDP a potential issue. And that influence is substantial and looks to be growing, with the election of potential caucus heavyweights like Nycole Turmel, the former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and Robert Chisholm, a former Atlantic regional director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The clout of these and other advocates for government unions could be significant in the coming battle over departmental budgets. Harper has vowed to find $4 billion a year in cuts to direct federal spending, not including transfers to the provinces and individuals. Dewar says the NDP is sure to oppose any job cuts proposed to achieve those reductions. But he argues the NDP is uniquely positioned to try to bring government unions into discussions about saving money without shrinking the bureaucracy. “We can actually talk to public sector unions,” he says, “about finding ways to innovate.” And doing more than merely combatting restraint at every turn, he adds, will be vital to solidifying the NDP’s election gains. “The stereotype,” Dewar says, “is that we’ll just oppose cuts and that’s it.”

Since its founding in 1961, the NDP has been formally linked with organized labour. In fact, the party was a joint creation of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. Still, as political science professors Lisa Young of the University of Calgary and Harold Jansen of the University of Lethbridge have written, unions never dominated the NDP to the degree that organized labour long controlled social democratic parties in Britain and Australia. Union representatives typically make up less than a quarter of delegates to an NDP convention. In 2004, political financing reforms banning union contributions to federal parties, along with corporate donations, seemed likely to further curtail organized labour’s influence in the NDP.

Yet the bond endures. Young and Jansen, after interviewing labour leaders and NDP officials about the end of union donations to the party, concluded that “shared ideological commitment and overlapping personnel are sufficient glue to hold together a modified relationship.” That relationship can only strengthen with the addition of a cluster of new MPs who bring senior union experience. With its caucus ballooning to 102 MPs from the previous 36, the NDP also needs to quickly recruit more than 250 parliamentary staffers, and supportive unions are expected to supply many of the needed recruits. That influx of eager young assistants might represent a new bridge between union offices and the NDP on Parliament Hill.

Of course, not all NDP MPs come out of unions. Layton built his political career as a Toronto city councillor, and urban activism has emerged as another key incubator for NDP talent. MP Olivia Chow, Layton’s wife, also made her name in Toronto city politics, as an advocate, like him, on issues like homelessness and as an opponent of some development schemes. Megan Leslie, a rising NDP star since she was first elected in 2008, is a lawyer who worked on social justice and environmental causes in Halifax. As well, the NDP touts its experience from provincial government, led by Mulcair, who was a minister in Quebec’s Liberal government before jumping to the federal NDP in 2007. Layton never misses a chance to mention the NDP’s track record of governing prudently in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

He was scheduled to give his first speech since the election this week at a CLC convention in Vancouver. The event was planned long before the Tory minority fell and the election was on, but the symbolism is potent. He can’t afford to drop what Brian Topp, one of his key strategists—and executive director of the performers’ union ACTRA in Toronto—has described as Layton’s formula of “optimistic, sunny idealism” and “fiscally prudent pragmatism.” Those may not be themes traditionally used to rally a union audience. But as the politician who has just brought Canada’s labour movement closer than ever before to federal power, Layton is in a position to set his own tone.