2003 November Speech Alberta New Democrat Convention

Les Steel, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, November 2003

Good morning.

I probably don't have to tell you that it has not been a banner year for labour or for working people in Alberta.

That's because there has never been a banner year for labour in this province since the Socreds took power in 1934. That's a whole lot of bad years for anyone who's counting.

Alberta still has the worst labour laws in Canada. We still have the lowest minimum wage and the lowest unionization rate in the country.

Workers still cannot get their most basic rights to overtime or holiday pay actually enforced. And if they actually overcome all of the barriers and get a union, all too often they end up in vicious employer-driven first contract disputes like the one currently going on at A Channel in Edmonton.

Health care workers have had their right to belong to the union of their choice stripped away by Bill 27. And it is looking like the government is going to take a run at the nurses next year.

It's pretty obvious that working people in this province desperately need a New Democratic government. But, I can honestly say that we are no closer to one today than we were in 1971.

That's why I think it really is time for us to take stock of how labour and the party work together.

The relationship between the New Democratic Party and the labour movement is going through profound changes across Canada.

Originally, the NDP was the consequence of an alliance between the Cooperative Commonwealth and the Canadian Labour Congress. Labour was not simply a supporter of the NDP - we were a founding partner.

There were many benefits to both the labour movement and the party from this partnership.

The Party received substantial and sustained funding from a dependable source and a cadre of volunteer workers during elections. The Party also received the inside track with union activists and leaders - a sort of pipeline into the organized working class.

The labour movement received substantial legislative support protecting the rights of workers and unions in those jurisdictions fortunate enough to elect New Democrat governments.

Even at the federal level, labour got some sympathetic legislation and programs as a direct result of the popular support for the NDP and its platforms during elections.

But, as with all political alliances, there were also some problems with labour's traditional alliance with the NDP.

Many New Democrats felt that 'big labour' had too much influence on party policies and party affairs - both because of dependency on labour funding and because of the allocation of convention credentials to labour affiliates.

Further, there was a criticism that labour could not 'deliver' its members' votes in the ballot box. Finally, some New Democrats worried that the connection with unions hurt the party electorally.

From labour's perspective, there were significant problems arising from feelings of betrayal when New Democrat governments passed back-to-work legislation or failed to live up to our expectations of a 'labour' government.

There was also some suspicion that the Party saw us more as a cash cow than a partner.

I believe that the tensions between organized labour and the Party have, if anything, been increasing over time.

The breakdown of our traditional relationship is nowhere more evident than in Manitoba - where a New Democrat government basically prohibited labour funding. And I know that Alberta and other provinces are looking at similar policies.

New federal legislation has also put an end to the old style labour support for the federal party.

So, the question before us is: where do we go from here?

In the labour movement, we are seriously looking for new ways to express our political programs and principles. We are trying to find ways to mobilize labour support for the NDP in this new climate.

Right now, the Alberta Federation of Labour has politically committed itself to a program of action based upon the very successful Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Issues Campaign.

The idea is straightforward. The trade union movement will poll our own rank-and-file members to find out exactly which issues they consider to be of paramount importance.

We will then run focus groups to find out the most effective messaging for putting forward those workers' issues as policy and program demands. Following that we will run a public campaign to place these issues at the forefront of public debate.

In Saskatchewan, the issues campaign focused, among other things, on the critical importance of provincial crown corporations to peoples' quality of life.

Interestingly, the key issue upon which the election in Saskatchewan turned, was the debate over crown corporations.

In essence, we, in labour, are no longer trying to deliver our vote. It just didn't work for union leaders to 'tell' members how to vote. Our members resented it and just refused to listen.

Now, we are identifying workers' real issues and in effect creating political space for these issues.

It will be up to the New Democrats to take advantage of that space before and during elections - just as they did in Saskatchewan.

We are very excited about this new political action program. We are already stating our issues campaign in Alberta - and I believe that this will result in a real and impressive increase in support for the Party in the next election.

Moreover, I believe that the CLC will also be following suit at the national level.

I believe that labour - by running a more independent political action program - will renew worker support for the NDP.

We will see more trade unionists joining the NDP and working for the party during elections.

So to answer to my question: where do labour and the New Democrats go from here?

We go forward to a more effective, healthier relationship - one that will inevitably lead to the first New Democrat government in Alberta.

Thank you.


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