Hell hath no fury like a union scorned

The United Steelworkers of America is campaigning to stop provincial New Democrat leaders from dramatically changing the party's relationship with the labour movement, Public Eye has exclusively learned. In a letter sent to British Columbia MLAs, MPs and party officials on September 23, Steelworkers district three director Steve Hunt writes "we believe that such a change would in fact do great harm to both the New Democratic Party and the labour movement, not only in BC but across Canada."

Attached to that letter is a 14-page discussion paper in which the Steelworkers object "to any desire on the part of a social democratic party to pander to public anti-union sentiments" and point out "there is no compelling evidence anywhere that labour affiliations to the NDP are a decisive impediment to the party's electoral progress."

The letter follows the release of a New Democrat party committee report last month that recommended reducing union voting power at party conventions. Union leaders have criticized the committee that put together that report as being draconian and uncompromising.

But in a letter, also leaked Public Eye, committee chair and former president Ian Aikenhead rejects those accusations, contained in the committee's minority report. And he goes on to write that "referring the matter back to this Committee" rather than putting the recommendation up for a vote at the party’s November convention "will be akin to taking no action." The following are copies of Messrs. Hunt and Aikenhead's letters. A version of this article was originally published in today's edition of 24 hours.


United Steelworkers of America
District 3 Western Provinces and Territories

September 23, 2005

To: All B.C. NDP MPs, MLAs and Provincial Council
Re: Report of the Affiliation Committee of the BC New Democratic Party

Please find enclosed a copy of our union's response to the recent Final Report of the BCNDP Affiliation Committee. This is the so-called "Majority Report" whose recommendations would lead to disaffiliation of unions from our Party.

As you will see from our response, Labour and the BC New Democratic Party: a discussion Paper from the United Steelworkers, we do not support the Majority Report or its recommendations. We are proud of our affiliation to the Party and we see no good reason to change the relationship. We certainly do not believe that the authors of the Majority Report have successfully made the case for any change in the affiliation relationship. And we believe that such a change would in fact do great harm to both the New Democratic Party and the labour movement, not only in BC but across Canada.

We therefore urge you to read our response and to support our position on this matter, whether in Caucus, Provincial Council or Convention. Please feel free to contact me should you require additional information or wish to discuss this important matter further.

Yours truly,

Stephen Hunt

Labour & the B.C. New Democratic Party
A discussion paper for B.C. New Democrats from the United Steelworkers


The 'Final Report of the BC NDP Affiliation Committee' (struck by resolution C2003-02 at the 2003 provincial convention) proposes constitutional changes to the BC party's structure with the intended effect of ending local union affiliation to the party.

While the Report includes some fine words about the historic partnership with organized labour, the impact of the recommendations will be a body blow to the alliance between the labour movement and the New Democratic party. That impact will be felt hardest at the rank-and-file level and will have wide ramifications for our party across Canada

Other recommendations appear at intended to cushion that the blow -- such as "formal acknowledgement in the constitution of...labour" and changes to the numbers of labour members on the executive. But this tweaking does not disguise the fundamental break with labour that is the result of ending direct local union affiliations.

As committed New Democrats and trade unionists we hereby appeal to BC New Democrats to reject the step you are being asked to take. We appeal to you to work toward a constructive renewal of the bond with the labour movement rather than breaking that link in a manner proposed by the Report.

No decision before the party today is of greater importance.

The discussion to follow is a contribution to your debate in the weeks preceding the BC NDP convention in November. It focuses primarily on the Report, which reflects the views of the Committee's majority. But we also range across other issues that have been part of the debate, and try to take a wider perspective.

We appreciate the intense controversy and the occasional harsh words around various aspects of the process. And while we are very critical of the Report, the key document in the dispute, we want to make it clear at the outset that our overriding concern is the well-being of the New Democratic Party. Our union worked hard to help Carol James lead us to new credibility in this year's election; we will work equally hard to elect her as Premier of an NDP government in the next campaign.

In the meantime, we take serious issue with the Report of the Affiliation Committee. We will argue below the majority has not made its case.

1. Have we looked closely at our own history?

Ending local union affiliations outright is a huge step. It is not a straightforward change in the party's structures of governance and accountability. That is why it implications the man at least some minimal attention to history, and reflection on the origin of local union affiliations in the first place.

Indeed, direct local union affiliations were one of the central and most debated issues throughout the later years of the CCF, through the 'New Party' transition period, and after the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961.

While we don't believe that history is its own justification, we do believe that party members should be apprised of the background for the structures they've inherited. Among other things, they will find that many of today's 'objections' to union affiliation are not new, and have been fruitfully debated for years.

Besides what exists in the party and union archives, there is a large academic literature on labour's relationship with the CCF-NDP that specifically attends to local union affiliation, precisely because of its centrality in building Canadian social democracy.

This material is all relevant to the present debate. Was any of it gathered and examined by the Report authors? The Report's silence is its own answer.

There was no review of relevant literature undertaken and presented, no examination of similar previous debates, no attempt to hear from academic experts or from veterans of past debates - in short, no real effort to learn any lessons from the party's relief historical development.

2. What about more recent history?

Let's forget for the moment about the debates of the 50s and 60s. The fact is that the Labour alliance with the NDP is not a stagnant one-time event. It has been repeatedly reargued and we examined over the last thirty years and right up to the present. Some of those reviews have been formal affairs driven by party and labour convention decisions, some have been the work of ongoing groups like the National Political Action Committee of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC-NPAC).

All of these re-examinations have two points in common: (1) they demonstrate that Labour treats its commitment as a permanent 'work-in-progress' - constantly studying and renewing its political action programs in partnership with the New Democratic Party; and (2) all such re-examinations through good times and that have led to a fundamental commitment to direct affiliation albeit in altered forms as circumstances and statutory changes demand.

The key institutional player and unsung hero in this history is the Canadian Labour Congress itself and three generations of tireless parties in advocates on its political education staff.

Here's a very brief summary and some of its recent history:

(a) After the crushing Federal defeat at 1974, the defeat at the Barrett government in 1975, and the wage-controls the assault on working people the CLC reassessed it NDP linkage, rallied behind a Ed Broadbent and initiated a thorough revamping of its political action programs. This led to the 'on-the-job canvas' program of the late 70s early 80s. (BC unions, the BC Fed and the BC CLC staff were leading actors in this initiative). Affiliated local unions were the bedrock of the program.

(b) The O-J-C work morphed into a massive, sophisticated effort in developing phone bank technologies over the following decade -- initially for both the O-J-C and phone-bank initiatives were accompanied by newly-designed political education programs for internal union schools. Advocating the local union affiliation always played a role.

(c) After the defeat of 1993, and in response to the crises generated by the labour split in Ontario, the CLC at once another political rethinking exercise, sending a team of union leaders around Canada to re-examine the formal linkage with the party. The Task Force reported in the late 90s, and in spite of serious grievances with some sections of the party, recommended the restoration and strengthening of the formal linkage, again including direct local union affiliation. The CLC launched a similar process in the wake of the 2000 federal election, again reasserting it bond with the party.

(d) Most recently, of course, the Canadian labour movement, under the auspices of the CLC and the NDP, have grappled with the impact of Bill C-24 on the formal structures and financial arrangements linking the party and organized labour. BC NDP activists are familiar with the constraints imposed by that legislation, and we don't need to canvass them here.

But suffice it to say that, once again, the CLC sat down in partnership with the New Democratic Party to work through the implications of C-24; worked with the Federal Council's C-24 Committee to help re-align pretty structures; and in the meantime launched a capital program to support the purchase of a headquarters building that could this help sustain federal party finances well into the future.

We will come back to C-24 later. The importance of this summary, to repeat, is twofold, demonstrating (1) that labour's affiliation with the NDP -- from local unions to national political programs -- is a living thing undergoing regular review and refurbishing, even in the most difficult political circumstances. And (2), throughout this sometimes fractious history, the Canadian Labour Congress has played a pivotal role, in ensuring from the union side that labour's affiliation to the party is sustained, with the local union affiliations as the bedrock at the relationship.

None of this history is reflected in a report of BC NDP affiliation committee. There is no reference at all to the works of earlier task forces and special committees charged with reviewing party -- labour affiliation. The 'majority' appears not to have examined any of the relevant CLC documents and reports before recommending its draconian measures.

The Canadian Labour Congress is not even mentioned in the report.

3. What are the real objections to union affiliations?

The Report of the Affiliation Committee includes a section entitled 'Discussion of Affiliation' which presumably laid the ground for the ultimate appeal to do away with local union affiliation.

But given the stakes involved, the 'discussion' is surprisingly vague and hedged, and at times borders on the incomprehensible (eg, "Also expressed to the committee with the opinion is that there is a consensus within our party..."). Indirect quotes offer competing views, none of which are backed up with empirical or statistical evidence or even by a sustained logical argument.

One is compelled to ask 'what are the real objections?' and 'why the hesitation in stating them more clearly?' There are seen to be three themes, for want of a better word, that weave in and out at the 'Discussion of Affiliation' and which appear intended to support the 'majority's' case.

i) One theme is simple public antipathy to the labour movement, expressed in the view that disaffiliating labour "could be an advantage to us with the electorate" (although of this too is hedged by indirect quoting). ii) The second theme is the old chestnut about too much union control in the party, expressed in the view that the current structure of affiliation "fosters the perception that affiliates hold a disproportionately influenced over a Convention votes." iii) The third thing is related to the second, that is, that the practice of local union affiliation is somehow undemocratic and that all union involvement must be channeled through constituency associations. Again the language in a report is maddeningly indirect: the Committee claims to be dealing with "the perceived democratic voting rights in the perception of control of the convention and our party". But if we are only dealing with "perceptions" or "perceived rights", then there is no point in the Committee having made such dramatic recommendations. So we must assume and hence that the three 'themes' are really strong objections. We comment briefly on each below

The United steelworkers object in principle to any desire on the part of the social democratic party to pander to public anti-union sentiment. But principle aside, there is no compelling evidence anywhere that labour affiliation is it to the NDP are in a decisive impediment to the party's electoral progress. Nor does the Report present any such evidence.

Recent surveys taken in BC by Strategic Communications and by Viewpoints Research indicate that negative sentiment about the labour-NDP link grow higher with increasing income levels, and are most concentrated among the best-off voters. One summary of the StratCom numbers comments as follows: "there appears to be a little evidence that a change in the affiliation structure is likely to change the minds of a large number of those voters who oppose or are uncomfortable with the union ties to the NDP. The opposition to labour's involvement...is most heavily concentrated among those...least likely to vote NDP in the foreseeable future, not those the NDP has recently targeted".

The Report makes no case to support the argument that this affiliating labour makes our party decisively more appealing to the electorate. Indeed, the message it sends to the public by a decision to disaffiliates labour can only reinforce the knee-jerk anti-union sentiments in the darker corners of BC politics.

The argument that labour has too much control or a power in the councils of the New Democratic Party is equally without merit. It never had any. Indeed the architects at the NDP kept an eye on the experience of their British allies and consciously built a party “directly linked with the trade union movement but purged of such blemishes...as the block vote and overpowering trade union control."

Again, the affiliation relationship has never been static. Over the years, there have been various constitutional changes concerning affiliations. Supported by labour, to insure against laziness (eg, making sure affiliated convention delegates were individual members); or to expand involvement (eg., the provisions which created 'contributory organization credentials). And labour supports the provisional changes being currently developed by the Federal Party for the post-C-24 era.

None of these developments has ever resulted in a provincial or federal convention or council that is dominated and controlled by the labour movement. Labour has never sought such control and the statistics of Convention participation and all levels confirmed that it simply has not happened. At best affiliated union delegates can make up too close to 25% of the delegate body of a typical BCNDP convention -- hardly a recipe for a control.

The Report offers and not one piece of evidence and the affiliated Labour bodies wield too much clout in the NDP.

Thirdly, the Report sets up a false opposition between constituency associations and affiliated local unions, and claims that the involvement of the former is more a legitimate or a democratic than the latter. We reject that simplistic opposition. The reality is both more complex and more organic.

To cut to the chase, many labour New Democrats who are active enough to be affiliated convention delegates routinely involve themselves in local riding associations. Across Canada, affiliated local unions have not only been a source of NDP riding activists, but have also provided several generations of trained organizers, campaign managers, and E-day personnel -- all of whom are eagerly sought out or are recruited by local riding campaigns at election time in BC and elsewhere.

Many if not most of those activists received their first training in NDP politics through their union's involvement in, for example, CLC political education seminars, or in political-action training schools put on by their own union. The 'culture' of labour political action is based on the bedrock of local union affiliations to the party, and has always had its own rich life of conferences, campaign assignments, policy development initiatives, secondments to the party, CLC or Federation PAC debates, and much else. This activity does not run counter to riding involvement. It complements it. And it ensures the party's aims and interests are defended within the labour movement.

None of this 'culture' is acknowledged in the report. Indeed, one of the most patronizing and disingenuous sentences the report claims it is concerned "to improve the quality (and quantity) of participation at the rank and file level of the trade union movement within the party". It is simply impossible to see how ending local union affiliations advances that cause (just as it is difficult to see how this aim consorts with the concerns about negative union influence and electoral impact).

When at the message is delivered it to the locals it that they have been disenfranchised by their party, there will be no chance of joy. NDP loyalists in its Steelworker local unions will not suddenly feel liberated to redouble their riding activism. Rather, the impact of disaffiliation will be profoundly negative and demoralizing.

It will be seen and felt as a victory for those within the labour movement who are always opposed a their union's NDP and involvement and who support to other parties.

4. Why break with the Federal NDP?

Let us draw attention to another area of our concern.

We are not convinced of the committee's majority appreciate the significance of the sentence introducing the Report's recommendations (page six). It reads: "Unions affiliated to the federal NDP would no longer have rights to send delegates or resolutions to Provincial Constituencies, Provincial Council or Provincial Convention."

This serves notice that the constitutional rules which always governed labour's affiliation to the NDP are in a longer to be respected by the BC NDP. In broader terms, it is a break with the federal part that can only raise questions about the Report's motives.

First and foremost, the New Democratic Party is still Canada's only truly federal party and proudly so. If you join one provincial section, you are also a member of the federal NDP. Indeed many new party memberships in BC are the result of new excitement on the federal scene generated by party leader Jack Layton, and furthered by our newly elected BC MPs: Nathan Cullen, Jean Crowder, Peter Julian, and Bill Siksay joining Libby Davies in Ottawa.

Secondly, and more to the point of this paper, the Federal NDP has many useful lessons to offer in thinking about labour affiliations, as this paper has indicated. An exhaustive retooling of the party and labour relationship was necessitated by the passage and Bill C-24 in 2003. The Federal NDP Council struck a special committee to study all of the Bill's implications, make recommendations for a structural revisions in the party and its sections, and to explore and recommend specific changes to the nature of the labour representation on party bodies.

One result of the C-24 committee's work is the so-called 'Federal Model'. But in BC, the Federal Model appears to be no longer in play as a possible way out of the impasse. That is unfortunate because it provides yet another example of constructive collaboration among partners within the NDP, grappling in good faith with the issue of affiliation. The Federal Model is itself still a work-in0progress, but one in which the labour movement has been keenly engaged.

However, the Affiliation Report cites "practical and philosophical difficulties with the Federal model" (page 5) as reasons for rejecting it. But these difficulties are nowhere explained in the Report. Accordingly, supporters of affiliation currently see no incentive to argue for anything other than the status quo -- especially given the lack of substantive arguments from the 'majority'.

Our concern is that Report's authors are missing a real opportunity here both to reaffirm the BC party's linkage with the Federal NDP, and to promote a new affiliation model that could prevent the fracture that seems inevitable from the Report's recommendations.

A more immediate concern, of course, is what happens in the near future if the BC party votes to disaffiliate labour. We are approaching a federal election within the next five months. All of us are encouraged about our party's prospects, not least here in British Columbia. Our provincial breakthrough this spring under Carole James, following our federal resurgence last year under Jack Layton, have combined to create real excitement among New Democrats and all progressive Canadians. This is a rare opportunity in the life of the NDP.

Why any of us would choose this particular moment to send one important section of the party packing is beyond understanding, especially in the absence of any persuasive reasons for doing so.

5. Concluding comments labour and the question of 'modernization'

In our view, 'modernization' is a very elastic word, meaning different things to different people. Linking 'modernization' with the disaffiliation of labour, as the Affiliation Report does, is simply to claim that labour is a dinosaur from which the party must distance itself.

In our view, any true 'modernization' of the BC New Democratic Party should include greater scope in the democratic involvement of working people and their organizations. It should not mean shutting down one of the principal means by which our party has engaged the labour movement and, indeed, 'modernize'.

Labour organizations, both central bodies and local unions, have evolved and changed over time - demographically, occupationally, and in levels of political sophistication. Direct labour affiliation has insured that these changes come automatically into the heart of the politics, deliberations, and program development of the NDP at all levels.

Examples abound. Canada's labour movement has played a central role or at the past three decades in aiding the party with innovative policy development. From labour's capital and investment strategies, to worker ownership experiments, to sectoral agreements in several industries, to progressive changes in human rights and employment law, to growing accommodation of and collaboration with environmental initiatives - today's labour movement is far from being a narrow-minded bargaining agent with a social conscience tacked on. Labour's policy initiatives grow more complex everyday, have fuelled many NDP initiatives (and vice versa) and have often been inextricably interconnected.

Today's labour movement is also much more diverse in its social makeup than the stereotypes of the past would suggest. Our own Union, the Steelworkers, now embraces more service-industry workers than miners. Security guards, restaurant workers, university employees are among the growing components within our Union. The value of introducing key activists in new sectors to the NDP through attending and participating in a convention is immeasurable.

Today's labour movement is also increasingly female. Our Union, as well as other long-time affiliates of the NDP such as the UFCW and the CAW, having growing numbers of women in our ranks, and ever-stronger women's committees. More and more women are winning positions of leadership. Their impact on bargaining has been immense - from the pay and employment equity initiatives of the 80s to the anti-sexual harassment provisions of the 90s, to the ongoing struggle for approved family-responsibility and childcare language. Their impact on labour's priorities has been equally immense.

In the Steelworkers, the leading political-action staff are women - they supervise our political education programs, direct our lobbying campaigns, and put first priority on working to elect New Democrats at every legislative level, within the constraints of laws like Bill C-24. Steelworker caucuses at NDP and labour conventions are increasingly female, as are the organizers and activists that we train.

In short and there is nothing antique about labour's affiliation with the New Democratic Party. There is nothing 'anti-modern' about a politically engage, and partisan union movement.

In decades past, support for the aims of organized labour was as much a 'liberal' reflex as a social-democratic one. Unions were once seen as promoting the individual rights and well-being of workers and families through collective action. Middle-class progressives in Canada and the United States were proud to support the great organizing campaigns of the mid-century and later. The capital-L Liberal party once pretended to champion this quintessentially small-l liberal cause to the point of spawning regional parties called Liberal-Labour.

But the political spectrum in the entire Western world has swung so far to the right in recent decades that loud, proud, vocal support from non-unionists for the big, bad labour movement -- however much labour 'modernizes' itself -- is much harder to come by. When even the party of the left, the party labour helped to build, decides that 'modernization' means ending local union affiliation, there is something deeply wrong in progressive politics, not just in its small-l liberal variant.

This phenomenon was identified and described over thirty years ago, long before it attained today's dimensions, by a distinguished Canadian historian and political scientists, H.S. Crowe. He wrote:

In their association with labour unions, New Democrats are taking up a liberal cause, and one which contributes to the cohesion of Canadian society. Of course there will be fall-out from the anti-unionism falling on the party. If justice prevailed this criticism would be insignificant when compared to that which should land upon the Liberals for their intimate association with business corporations. However, justice does not prevail; but that is why the CCF and the NDP were born.

The United Steelworkers respectfully request that the BC New Democrats reconsider the course of action they are being asked to take, and that you vote down the Committee's recommendation at the Convention in November.

We further request that all avenues of dialogue with party activists be used to discuss a possible positive alternatives to the Committee's recommendation - alternatives that support the practice of local union affiliation, ensure that it confirms to changes in the legal context, and is responsive to the changing makeup of the labour movement.

Let there be no misunderstanding. The NDP's labour partners share the same goals as other New Democrats - the growth of our party's support and influence, and our return to power as the Government of British Columbia. We want to see Carole James as the Premier of that government.

But we sincerely believe that the course of action recommended by the BC NDP Affiliation Committee is the wrong one and must be set aside.

Together, let's find an alternative that does justice to the contributions made by working people's organizations to the New Democratic Party.

September 2005


Memo from Ian Aikenhead, Q.C., Chair, BCNDP Affiliation Committee
September 8, 2005

This Committee was struck by the 2003 Convention, and we have met on numerous occasions for the past 1 ½ years. For the entire time that the Committee discussed these matters, the debate was respectful and measured. Minutes were taken, and not only approved by the Committee, but what became the Minority requested (and obtained) changes to the Minutes. Every request of every member of the Committee was accommodated on procedural matters. When it became apparent some months ago that we were unlikely to obtain a unanimous report, there was lengthy discussion of how we would attempt to prepare a report that would be respectful to the issues, and raise the debate, avoiding unnecessary conflict and criticism.

Therefore, it was with some surprise that I read the Minority Report on September 8, 2005, when it was first provided to the Committee. The tone and content of the Minority Report came as a significant change from what transpired at the Committee. Earlier, the same 3 members of the Committee had prepared a very different draft report, based on the Federal Model. It was only at the very last meeting of the Committee that these members chose to drop advancing the Federal Model, and formally recommended the Status Quo. The reason given was that the affiliated unions whom they represent did not accept the Federal Model that these members had earlier outlined in great detail.

There are a number of innacurate statements in the Minority report which need to be addressed. I have not addressed the substantive issues, as I will leave those to Council and Convention, but I think it important for the party members to have an accurate history of the working of this Committee. For any member who wishes, they can obtain the Minutes from any member of the Committee.

What follows in larger type are statements from the Minority Report which need to be addressed:


The debate at the Committee was open and respectful, and at no time did I hear any of the members reject anyone else’s view "out of hand".


The "shocking" wording was presented to the entire Committee in several drafts of the report which was gone over line by line with the entire Committee. With respect, no one on the Committee could possibly be shocked by the comment. No member of the Committee stated any objection to this language when it was specifically reviewed. Further, there were lengthy discussions of what changes to the membership and the Party would occur with various options, and their philosophical implications for the future of the Party. The statements made here are inaccurate.


This is nonsense. The Minority Report does not support the Federal Model, but castigates the Majority for not understanding it. The Federal Model was discussed literally for hours, and a lengthy and detailed written analysis was prepared by the Minority as their intended Minority Report. Further, there was a designated person at the Committee meetings knowledgeable about the Federal Model, and briefings were made. If further briefings were requested, they could have occurred, and the Majority in no way stood in the way of such a briefing. As Chair I made extensive efforts to ensure that all members of the Committee had all the information available, particularly on the Federal Model. That task was complicated by the fact that the Federal Model has not yet been fully implemented, and has not been passed by Federal Convention yet.


There was a series of compromises which are clearly outlined in the Minutes. I can assure everyone that compromises were made within the Majority, who approached these issues with very different initial points of view, and some of whom are less than delighted with the final report, for various reasons. What is in fact clear is that the Minority is currently advancing no compromise whatsoever, and recommending the Status Quo.


The Majority would agree that it is unfortunate that the Committee could not find unanimity, but some would argue that a 6-3 vote is “consensus”. It was not through lack of trying. There is no question that this Committee would be unable to agree on a unanimous report, now or in the foreseeable future. It would be futile to send this back to this Committee. This decision will need to be determined by Council or Convention. The agreed-upon intention of the entire Committee was to raise the level of debate. Some observers might wonder how the Minority report raises that level.


I wish to thank all the Committee members for all of their hard work during our deliberations, and regret that these hundreds of hours of work has concluded with what appear to be unnecessary conflict. However, it is clear to me that this Committee will not be able to agree on a unanimous report, and referring the matter back to this Committee will be akin to taking no action.


Why don't we just have a show of hands to decide this..followed by a careful inspection of your car for bombs on the way out if you voted the 'wrong' way?

The preceding comment is meant to inflame those with huge anger management issues, tiny intellects and a fondness for antiquated voting procedures.

You know, if we had STV, the labour movement could split from the social activists without worrying about splitting the vote, and we would have to worry about any of these umbrella party shenanigans.

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