Editorial: Union shows NDP dilemma


In a striking turn of events, Ironworkers Local 97 has turned its back on the NDP and announced it will support the B.C. Liberals during the upcoming provincial election.

On its face, the change in direction was purely pragmatic. A spokesman for the union said NDP opposition to major construction projects such as the Site C dam and George Massey bridge was the deciding factor. His 1,800 members consider these projects critical for their future employment.

But the symbolism is powerful. Groups such as the ironworkers were once the bedrock of the NDP, provincially and nationally. Indeed, the party first came into existence to represent working-class families.

That was a time when physical labour occupied a dominant and respected place in society. Generations of British Columbians raised families and earned a living with their hands.

And a dangerous living it could be. On June 17, 1958, Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge collapsed during construction, and 79 ironworkers plunged 30 metres into the waters of Burrard Inlet. Eighteen died. A scuba diver drowned while trying to retrieve their bodies.

The collapse was one of B.C.’s deadliest industrial accidents. The bridge was subsequently renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, in honour of the men who lost their lives that day.

But today, the workplace is changing. Most Canadians now live in urban settings, and knowledge-based employment has gained the upper hand.

Another development has also diminished the political clout of traditional industries. In the early 1980s, nearly 30 per cent of private-sector employees in B.C. belonged to a trade union. Today, just 18 per cent do.

In contrast, 75 per cent of public-sector workers, such as teachers, nurses and government staffers, are unionized.

To a union-funded party such as the NDP, that matters. White-collar representatives on the party executive are much more likely to support green policies, and now they call the shots.

That poses a dilemma for NDP Leader John Horgan. How does he remain true to the labour movement’s roots, while satisfying the expanding environmentalist wing of his party?

It is, in every respect, a cruel choice. Blue-collar voters face a future of growing uncertainty. Their livelihood is on the line. Aren’t they deserving of the party’s support?

Ideally, there need be no choice. It should be possible to fashion a pro-environment platform that stops short of killing jobs. But the green, urban wing of the party is disinclined to compromise. A schism has opened up.

And here the plight of the ironworkers, and other blue-collar unions, comes into sharpest focus. The party that traditionally represented them finds itself increasingly at odds with their interests.

There are echoes in this political upheaval of the recent American election, when rust-belt voters who traditionally supported the Democratic party changed allegiance in a bid to be heard.

That is basically what the ironworkers have done. Theirs is not a vote in favour of Christy Clark and her Liberals. It is a protest against the changing priorities of an NDP in which they think they no longer have a voice.

Whether Horgan can woo the ironworkers back is not the question. For this election cycle at least, that option has been ruled out.

What does matter is whether NDP leaders can prevent further defections by placing the right to work at the forefront of their platform.

Instinctively, for a labour-based movement, that should not be a challenge. Yet unless an accommodation can be reached, the party risks a rerun of the 2013 election.

Put another way, does the NDP wish to remain the party of the working class, or is it prepared to cede that role to the Liberals?

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