by Goodwin Ginger

If you are anywhere near the centre, or left of centre, the big news in Canadian politics this last week was the announcement by the CAW that it is officially pulling support for the NDP and directing its affiliated locals to do the same. On the face of it this seems quite puzzling. How is that the CAW, the self-proclaimed, most progressive labour central in Canada is walking away from the NDP, the self-proclaimed, most progressive electoral party in Canada? It is tempting to explain this situation through recourse to the politics of a lover’s spat, which degenerates to the point of a very public custodial battle over who gets the cat. The parsimonious quality of this explanation is its main attraction. Indeed, “scorned lovers” seems to capture part of what is going on here. Basil “Buzz” Hargrove’s persistent and very public criticism of his lover over the years has lead many observers to wonder when, not if, the day would come to pass that the CAW left the NDP. But let us take leave of this trivial explanation. For when lovers do break apart it is rarely for trivial reasons, as all those of us who have ever loved and lost know very well.

It is impossible to know the mind of Buzz or his coterie of running advisors. As such, all one can do is take at face value what the players have said is the reason for their actions. As we all know the official story is this. The CAW came to believe that the greater good for working class families was a liberal minority, an NDP holding the balance of power and a Conservative party with a two time loser as its leader. On the surface, who would not want this on the left? There is another angle here however which rarely gets added into the analytical mix. Namely, the CAW has for some time been pushing the idea that the state should provide subsidies to entice large-scale corporate investment (by default largely in southern Quebec and Ontario). Keeping in mind that the political scene is almost always characterized by the dictum “friends get rewarded and enemies get punished” it follows that some public support for the party most likely to take power in Ottawa and which already held power Ontario had to be forthcoming.

From the point of view of the brass at the CAW it must have seemed like an incredibly elegant and clever plan. If they could become instrumental in the electoral success of the would-be ruling coalition they could preside over a double coronation. Not only would the CAW’s left credentials be secured, at the same time it would prove its worth to the Liberal establishment in Upper Canada (not to mention its own members who vote liberal which is not a trifle proportion). And here is the key; they would also be in a strong position at the bargaining table with the bosses because they would have real political leverage in the subsidies game.

Thus it was that the CAW, never short of a sense of its self-worth as force for progress and as a “real” player in the Canadian political scene, attempted to insert themselves as an indispensable player in the political carry trade between the NDP and the Liberal party. The rub for the CAW was that they needed the NDP to play along. By the time Basil was publicly admonishing Jack Layton, the leader of the Federal NDP, for refusing to continue to support the Liberals in the House and thereby bringing down the government, it was clear that it was going to be harder to make a profit on the carry-trade then he and his advisors had planned. The problem was of course that the NDP was not about to take political direction from the CAW.

The next move was of course the now infamous coronation of the leader of the Liberal party, Paul Martin, as a solid ally of working class families (jacket-gate). A motion followed this act of high symbolism on strategic voting that was debated and then duly adopted. At this point most observers knew that what started with a shot across the bow prior to the election had escalated into a declaration of war. It would be interesting to know how many delegates on the convention floor who voted for this motion were aware that they were indeed voting to go to war. As with the US congress, how many would have voted for the language “any and all means necessary” if they knew then what they know now? How many of the CAW delegates thought they were authorizing Buzz to jaunt around town with Belinda or authorizing Stanford to stump for a former Toyota exec? Both of these figures were senior executives of companies that continue to pose the strongest force against further unionization in the auto sector.

It was often said during the twentieth century that nationalism was the last refuge of scoundrels. In the twenty-first century democracy has become the last refuge of scoundrels. It can provide cover for wars of intransigence and even bring the boss home for dinner. The issue is not the democratic processes of the CAW, but, rather, when those with the power to manipulate the democratic process do so with a cynical eye toward subverting further democratic deliberation and twist the original intent of honest and hard working people against themselves.

In any case, many on the electoral left viewed “jacket-gate” as symbolic treachery and the CAW has since sought to justify this debacle on three grounds. The first line of defence has been to argue that it was the media’s fault. This line maintains that supporting strategic voting was not meant to be read by NDP supporters as an endorsement of the liberal party but rather as support for a minority government in which the NDP would hold the balance of power. The line that Jim Stanford gave at a conference recently in Toronto was that unfortunately the press choose to emphasize the moment of the “intimate embrace” to the exclusion of all else. As one presenter asked: “how naïve do you have to be to think that this would not be the frame the press choose to run with?” Headline reads: “Dog bites man”. “What else is new,” you say. Headline reads: “Most progressive union in Canada invites the boss home for dinner”. “Come again,” you say. Predictably like a shooting star, the image blazed across the heavenly space of the national and international media.

The second line of defence has been to argue that it was the NDP’s fault. You see, explained Stanford, to a stunned crowd at Ryerson, “we invited Layton to share the stage with Martin at the convention but he declined to join us”. You think. Lets get this straight. The CAW approached the NDP with the idea of strategic voting and the NDP said they were not interested. So when the invitation went out to Layton to join Martin on stage at the CAW convention it was hardly surprising that it was declined. The important point is this. The CAW knew Layton was not coming and had this really been an honest disagreement about electoral tactics the CAW would have quietly passed the motion, directed its affiliates to follow suit and rescinded Martin’s convention pass. That the invitation to Martin was not rescinded when Jack turned his down, either suggests it truly was political amateur hour at the CAW as the first defence suggests or that both of these defences are disingenuous.

The final defence has been to argue that democracy and responsibility to the membership made the CAW do it. This defence argues that the CAW conducted a broad review of its political positions to date with considered input from their locals and members. One of the things they discovered through this audit was that their members wanted to move away from the broad support of any particular political party and concentrate instead on specific issues that were of aid to labour regardless of which party held those views. Perhaps not such a strange coincidence indeed that this political audit yielded just the room for manoeuvre the CAW executive needed in order to take up a position in the political carry trade.

In any event, it seems that the new political stance of the CAW is that they are an independent, autonomous organization that will support whichever party supports its issues. The executive issued the following statement as a rational for its declaration of independence:

“We’ve learned the hard way, time and time again, that we cannot blindly trust any party, no matter how progressive it says it is, to do the right thing. We’ve worked hard to elect NDP governments — and then watched them turn their backs on the principles, and the people, that got them elected.[1]”

Here, Here! Really, to this day who doesn’t Bob Rae piss-off with the exception of his new friends inside the Liberal party and at the Globe & Mail? And who can’t help but be offended when they vote for one thing and end up “democratically” authorizing something quite different? The more significant question, however, is where will this highly principled political pragmatism lead? The answer to this question cannot be known in advance but one possible scenario seems worthy of consideration.

Imagine that Bob Rae wins the Liberal leadership race and shortly thereafter an election is called. Once again the liberals have a shot at a minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power. Also imagine that those bright boys at the CAW have done their homework and that the liberals have agreed, once elected, to provide federal subsidies to autos and aerospace. Also imagine that, as with the previous election, the NDP refuses to play ball with the CAW on the issue of strategic voting. Now imagine the CAW convention where Buzz gives Bob a big hug and a beautiful new jacket. I am still laughing.

[1] The text of the CAW’s resolution and rational can be found here: “CAW’s NEB Encourages Withdrawal of Support for NDP”