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Labour Grapples with Harper's Surge

Ignoring Hargrove, BC union leaders push the NDP.

Tom Barrett 19 Jan
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When Buzz Hargrove sent the federal Liberals into damage control mode Wednesday, the Conservatives weren't the only ones smiling.

Plenty of people in the B.C. labour movement took pleasure in Hargrove and the Liberals' discomfort.

Strange bedfellows, it seems, beget strange bedfellows.

Hargrove, the leader of the Canadian Auto Workers union, kicked off the January 23 election campaign by publicly hugging Prime Minister Paul Martin and endorsing the Liberals. He got into trouble Wednesday, however, when he suggested while campaigning for the Liberals, that Conservative leader Stephen Harper is a separatist.

Hargrove dug himself in deeper when he said that Quebecers would be better to vote for the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, rather than the Conservatives.

Martin immediately distanced himself from Hargrove's comments and was forced to call Harper a patriot. Hargrove issued a partial retraction.

Layton or Martin?

The furor - and the quiet satisfaction of B.C.'s New Democratic Party-supporting labour movement - highlights tensions within labour as well as the unconventional dynamics of this campaign.

Traditionally, in English Canada, labour has backed the NDP. But Hargrove, himself an NDP member, has been increasingly critical of the party.

Wednesday, he attacked NDP leader Jack Layton, saying that Layton's been over-critical of the Liberals "as if undermining Liberals was going to strengthen the NDP."

And Martin, hoping that Hargrove will help him attract NDP voters, defended his new ally Wednesday, even after the separatist comments.

"When Buzz Hargrove comes here with some of his other union leaders and essentially says to the progressive forces - to NDP voters 'I believe that all of these [Liberal] people should be elected,' that is a very powerful statement," Martin said.

While the B.C. Federation of Labour is backing the NDP, Canada's national labour federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, isn't formally supporting anyone in this campaign.

CLC Vice-President Barb Byers said earlier this month that workers don't want to be told how to vote: "What they want us to say is, 'Here are the issues that affect working families.'"

To that end, the CLC is running what it calls the Better Choice 2006 campaign, designed to explain the issues to union members.

The campaign focuses on eight issues: health care; pension protection and retirement security; post-secondary education; child care; job quality; anti-scab legislation; international trade; and worker training.

The CLC is passing out information that details the parties' policies in these areas, along with fact sheets on issues such as free trade and "labour's strategy for jobs."

'Disastrous moment'

In B.C., however, the B.C. Fed's Count Me In campaign is overtly pro-NDP.

Here in B.C., "defeating the Tories and Liberals is voting for the NDP," said B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair.

A Conservative majority government, he said, would be "one of the most disastrous moments in Canadian history."

Said Sinclair: "In British Columbia, the labour movement has decided that the strategic vote is for the NDP. That's because they are the ones who can actually beat the Tories in most ridings."

B.C. labour has a long list of issues it wants the federal government to address, Sinclair said.

That list includes general issues such as health care and taxation - both Liberals and Conservatives "give money away to the corporations … banks and oil companies don't need help" - and issues that have a specific impact on the labour movement, such as anti-scab legislation.

In 2004, a Bloc Quebecois member put forward a private member's bill that sought to ban the use of replacement workers in labor disputes that fall under federal jurisdiction. The bill was defeated last year by a margin of 12 votes.

Although private members' bills rarely become law, Sinclair said that a stronger NDP presence in the commons might have kept the bill alive.

The bill would have given unions in federally regulated industries the same protection against replacement workers that unions in B.C. and Quebec have, Sinclair said. Such a law would have increased the bargaining power of the union in last year's Telus dispute, he said.

On Tory chopping block

Sinclair said the B.C. labour movement would also like to see some action on recent amendments to the federal Bankruptcy Act. The amendments, which protect the employees of bankrupt companies, were passed by parliament but have not yet been proclaimed into law.

Currently, in the event of a bankruptcy, "as a wage earner, as an employee of the company, you're an unsecured creditor," Sinclair said. "You go to the back. The banks are first. So the banks get all their money and you might not get anything."

Labour is also hoping that an ongoing review of federal labour standards will result in improvements for workers, he said.

Under the Conservatives, he said, any improvements recommended by the review will likely be killed.

"There is no question that the ideology of the Conservatives is much more laissez-faire," said Sinclair. "Alberta has some of the lowest standards for everything. B.C. has some of the lowest standards, like child labour laws. We don't want that same precarious position for our workers being translated to the federal level."

Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at the Sauder School of Business at the University of B.C., said Harper's Conservatives would likely be less sympathetic to labour than the current Liberal government.

The National Citizens Coalition, which Harper once headed, is "a right-to-work outfit, basically," Thompson said.

"To the extent that he [Harper] has views, they're probably not friendly to organized labour."

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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