Canadian Labour Congress Turns Left — Reaffirms Support for Labor Party

by Barry Weisleder


The largest ever convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) opted for mass job action to defend Canada’s public health care system, reaffirmed support for Canada’s labor party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), and defeated a conservative challenge in elections for top officers.

The gathering of 3,263 registered delegates, representing some 2.5 million affiliated members at the CLC’s 23rd Constitutional meet, was held at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, June 10–14, against a picturesque backdrop of harbor, cruise ships, and mountains. Delegates soaked up the beautiful scenery and warm, sunny weather, but clearly they were in the mood for militant action after years of labor setbacks and retreat.

A composite resolution presented by the outgoing CLC leadership and adopted by overwhelming vote of the convention calls for “escalating our actions to include nation-wide protest actions and general strike if necessary, to defend our public health care system.” The many delegates who spoke for general strike action, during the course of five days of varied discussions, in each instance received strong applause.

A hallmark of policy statements and resolutions on “Building A Stronger Movement At the Workplace, In the Community, Across the Country, [and] Around the World” (the four sections into which discussions were organized) was a strong emphasis on the need for ongoing mass action, in alliance with grass roots social movements. Even the business-union candidates for executive office paid lip service to the ideas of social unionism and mass job action to challenge the neoliberal agenda of the ruling class.

The paper and discussion on “Labour’s Political Activism” reflected this perspective, at least partially. The adopted statement insists on activism that is “Broader than a Political Party,” but at the same time “Must include a Political Party”— namely the New Democratic Party. It celebrates labor’s “common cause with the women’s movement, human rights advocates, injured workers, lesbian and gay activists, anti-free trade and globalization groups” and criticizes “governments, of all stripes, (which) have contributed to (a) loss of faith” because of a failure to keep promises made during election campaigns. Delegates understood this to include NDP provincial governments that have executed social cuts, undermined public services, plied business with financial subsidies, and attacked workers’ collective bargaining rights.

In reaffirming CLC support for the NDP, the paper endorses the NDP “renewal” process adopted at the party’s federal convention in Winnipeg last December, and highlights labor’s “commitment to parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action, year round activism in issue campaigns.” It asserts: “A political party on the left must reflect a linkage between its values and policies and those of the labour movement”— a sore point for many workers who’ve seen the NDP adapt to the neoliberal agenda and mimic the procapitalist politics of Tony Blair’s British Labour Party.

The right wing of the CLC, centered on the so-called “pink paper” unions, tried to use the debate on the NDP, and a separate discussion on a Protocol to deal with interunion jurisdictional disputes, as a forum to attack the president of the Canadian Auto Workers’ union, Buzz Hargrove. Hargrove is accused of being too critical of the NDP leadership and of raiding the members of other unions. The Vancouver commercial media promoted this theme throughout the week of the convention, but to no effect.

Candidates supported by the business-unionist-led “pink paper” unions (chiefly the UFCW, CEP, SEIU, IAM, NUPGE, Steelworkers, and Teamsters) were soundly defeated by soft-left candidates supported by the CAW, CUPE, PSAC, CUPW, OSSTF, HERE, UNITE, and others.

Hassan Yussuff of the CAW was elected CLC Secretary-Treasurer, defeating James Clancy of NUPGE by a vote of 1,968 to 1,102. Barb Byers, President of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, and Marie Clarke Walker, of CUPE, were both elected Executive Vice-Presidents of the CLC with 2,086 and 2,306 votes respectively, defeating François Laporte, a Quebec Teamster backed by the “pinks” who received only 996 votes. A moment of jubilation seized the convention, followed by thousands of delegates heading for the exits.

Incumbent CLC President Ken Georgetti was unopposed, but his acclamation was greeted by the proverbial sound of one-hand clapping, and much grumbling at the microphones. One inquiring delegate, upon being informed on Thursday morning that it was then too late to submit another nomination for president, said “Oh shit” to much laughter and applause.

Lack of quorum was noted on late Thursday afternoon and at the Friday morning final session, but not before a number of progressive policies were adopted. These include the CLC call for Israel to cease its military aggression and withdraw all its forces from Palestinian areas, as well as demands for an end to U.S. intervention in Colombia and the Philippines, and a statement of Canadian labor’s opposition to so-called “anti-terrorist” laws which curtail civil liberties and target Arabs, Muslims, and people of color for discriminatory treatment. Adopted resolutions also call for putting a “stop to the expansion of the WTO and the FTAA, and to laying the groundwork for ultimately rolling back these institutions and developing progressive alternatives to them.”

The convention took a strong stand in support of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. It endorsed the struggle of Mark Hall, the Durham Catholic School Board high school gay student who won an injunction against the Board that enabled him to take his boy friend to his school prom. Unfortunately, the resolution stopped short of demanding an end to public funding of institutions that discriminate for religious or ideological reasons.

The CLC resolved to create a number of credentials exclusively for youth delegates from affiliates to the next convention, which will be held in Toronto in 2005. This decision was the product of a floor fight, led by young delegates, and again reflected the mood of the gathering for change in the practices of the CLC.

The convention marked a modest turn to the left, including a commitment in words to mass action in alliance with broad social forces, to challenge the capitalist agenda. It’s now up to labor’s ranks to hold the new leaders to their promises, and to mobilize the movement to defeat the bosses and their governments at all levels.

Whatever comes of the decisions taken at the CLC, they can only strengthen the fight of socialists to turn the NDP sharply to the left.