As you may be aware, there is a provincial election happening and on May 9th the citizens of British Columbia will vote on the party that they want to form government for the next four years. As part of this democratic process unions and union activists are out there making people aware of the issues that affect workers, motivating people to get out and vote, and in most cases, supporting the election of NDP candidates.

Some people ask ‘why are unions involved in electoral politics?’ The answer is relatively straightforward. It is because we must. We must protect what the labour movement has achieved in the past and we must promote a future that benefits working people.

There is a famous Supreme Court decision from 1991 ‘Lavigne v Ontario Public Service Employees Union’ which speaks directly about this issue. Lavigne was a teacher at a regional college who objected to his union using funds to support among other groups and campaigns, the NDP, peace groups and striking coalminers in the UK. He was not a member of the union but contributed dues under the Rand formula. Interestingly the case was financed by Stephan Harper’s organization, the National Citizens Coalition.

In dismissing Lavigne’s case the Court stated ” to ensure that unions have both the resources and the mandate necessary to enable them to play a role in shaping the political, economic and social context within which particular collective agreements and labour relations disputes will be negotiated or resolved.  The balance of power between management and labour at any given time or in any particular industry or workplace is a product of many factors.  It is, in part, clearly a product of factors specific to the industry or workplace in question, such as productivity, and the existence or non-existence of a history of bitter strikes and sharp practice.  But it is also in part a product of more general factors, such as the prevailing public sentiment as to the importance of unions or the state of the economy.  

It is also a product of the state of government legislation and policy, most obviously in the area of labour relations itself, but also in regard to social and economic policy generally.  

Government policy on day-care, for example, will affect what a union can achieve for its members at the bargaining table.  If universal day-care is paid for by taxpayers as a whole, union negotiators in a particular workplace will not have to pay for it by making wage concessions as a way of convincing the employer to provide it.  Even if the government introduces certain taxes, the balance of power between workers and management may be affected.  Concerned to cushion their membership against a tax’s inflationary effect, unions may have to make concessions in areas they would otherwise have fought for, such as vacation time or worker safety.  This, then, is one of the principal objectives that lies behind the government’s willingness to force contribution to union coffers knowing that it will be spent on things not immediately related to collective bargaining on behalf of the workers making the contributions.” They go on to state “It is therefore for the union itself to decide by majority vote , which causes or organizations it will support in the interests of favourably influencing the political, social and economic environment in which particular instances of collective bargaining and labour-management dispute resolutions will take place.”

So if you accept the concept that unions can be involved in the political process you might ask ‘why do they always support the NDP?’ In some ways it is a process of elimination. Simply there is no other party that represents workers interests and values.

Conservatives are virulently anti-union, it is part of their DNA. BC Liberals are not really liberals in any sense of the word. They are conservatives without the cowboy hats. The federal Liberals as so aptly demonstrated by Justin Trudeau, like to whisper sweet nothings in our ears during a campaign but once ‘elected’ flees out the bedroom window to their well- heeled partner on Bay Street.

The Greens, as much as they have many good people as members, at best lack empathy for working people and in some cases are actually hostile. They believe solutions to climate change should be market driven. Their economic platform has far more to say about entrepreneurs than workers.

So that leaves us with the NDP. At times it has been an uneasy alliance between unions and the NDP. Ever since the Canadian Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress affiliates first got together to form the New Democratic Party in 1961 most unions have been wholehearted supporters, others lukewarm and some downright standoffish.

My union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers position is that we will only support individual candidates we endorse. Some unions have bylaws which prohibit partisan endorsements. Other unions have officers who are also members of the NDP Executive Council. A number of NDP MP’s and MLA s have come from the ranks of labour including Judy Darcy and George Heyman.

Under NDP governments more progressive labour regulations are passed, making it easier for people to form unions for example. Generally conditions for workers, for women, for people of colour and for others who are marginalized, improve. However most legislative plans fall far short of what Labour demands or that working people need.. The NDP in BC have ordered CUPE , teachers and woodworkers back to work in their time in office but that pales in comparison  to the 140 times, (between 1950-2002), other parties in Canada have used strike breaking legislation.

The main thing that NDP governments do is create space for groups like unions, NGOs and activists to operate. Whether it is making it easier for people to have safe work places or for poverty groups to get funding, the NDP does change the political climate for the better. That is essential for real change, so please get out and vote on May 9th.

Brian Charlton