Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

What Do We Want? Union Support! What Do We Get? Nothing!

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Saturday December 3, 2005 at 12:32 am)

It’s not surprising that the Liberal party would be the second choice of union leaders.

What is surprising is that anyone cares.

The attractiveness of union support in politics has been around at least since Emma Goldman demonstrated how ready blue-collar workers were to follow an insipiring leader. But the conversion of that attraction into a real program for victory suffers on two counts:

One of the most interesting arguments in favour of union support is that unions consist of large numbers of blue-collar workers, ready to be mobilized for a cause. But even if the theory that union members have common interests holds true, it doesn’t suggest that they support these common interests. Differences of political opinion among union members are common; and whether they’re explained by “false consciousness” (the condescending assumption that the member doesn’t really know what’s best for himself) or genuine interest (the self-righteous assertion that the member has expressed his true preference, however limited his choices may have been) doesn’t much matter.

The point is: union members don’t vote in a block, and don’t go where union leaders tell them to (apart, perhaps, from primary elections in the US, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). If anything, nearly even splits in the Bush/Kerry election suggest that union members are amenable to persuasion other than either their perceived “workers’ interests” or union leadership’s calls.

One of the major lessons of the British Conservatives’ victory in 1979 was the “shocking” revelation that blue-collar workers didn’t simply stand with Labour — many supported the Tories. Indeed, the idea that labour supports their “natural” leftist partisan allies is belied by real figures. Union membership in Ontario is close to 28 percent of the workforce, yet the NDP took 18 percent of the vote. Considering that at least some NDP voters were not union workers, or considering the possibility that some union workers’ non-unionized family members voted the same way as their unionized kin, it seems unlikely that the NDP received much benefit from its close historical association with unions.

The assumption that union members naturally support left-leaning causes and candidates is foolish. Many blue-collar workers, more likely unionized than others, are more likely to be concerned with law-and-order and taxation questions, traditional strengths of the right, than with social programs and progressive equality approaches favoured by the left. This is one of the main reasons why a 32% unionization rate in Canada has failed to produce comparable support for the NDP. Union support has been little-aligned with leftist parties since the early days of the Labour movement.

And there’s only one thing more worse than a foolish assumption: reliance on a foolish assumption.

2 comments for What Do We Want? Union Support! What Do We Get? Nothing! »

  1. While it may certainly be irrelevant today, I’m not sure I agree that labour movement support has *always* been irrelevent… it was the bedrock of the King governments, certainly. In fact, I’d argue that the Liberals have always been the natural “labour party” in Canada - the CCF-NDP were always a farmers’ movement. It’s only as Big Labour has become calcified and complacent that it’s leaders have become irrelevant - and only since the Liberals started ignoring them that they became a wing of the NDP.

    Big Labour may never have really supported the left, but for a while it did something much better: it made the left the centre. That’s missed.

    Comment by quetico — 12/4/2005 @ 3:54 am

  2. Couldn’t agree more.

    I need to be a bit more careful. The labour movement had a massive effect when it first began to act within the constraints of the electoral system. The emergence of “labour” parties in so many countries was only the most obvious effect.

    I do wonder, though, if the early successes had anything to do with the relative novelty of the vote to many of those represented by union membership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How much might be attributable to such a phenomenon would take a bit more research than I’m willing to do just now.

    Comment by JJ — 12/5/2005 @ 12:13 am

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