Labour and the Ballot Box in Saskatchewan

Learning, or not, from history’s lessons

By J. F. Conway

September/October 2006

The NDP is on the cusp of forgetting—-not for the first time—-how crucial the support of the province’s labour movement and the working-class vote are to maintaining its hold on power.

The Saskatchewan NDP is nearing the end of its fifteenth year of continuous power, and faces an election in 2007 or 2008. Premier Lorne Calvert has begun to equivocate in his support for labour, most recently bowing to the right-wing Saskatchewan Party and an aroused business lobby to repeal labour legislation of benefit to part-time workers. Further, Calvert, like his predecessor Roy Romanow, has dragged his feet on responding to the labour movement�s demands for more progressive, pro-worker labour laws. Accordingly, disillusionment has grown within the labour movement towards the NDP government. In the June 19 Weyburn-Big Muddy by-election, the NDP was defeated by a two-to-one margin by the Sasatchewan Party, placing third behind the Liberals. There�s a growing mood of defeatism in the NDP, and among its electoral supporters. Unless the government makes some dramatic moves, it seems likely that Calvert will lose the next election. It appears the NDP is on the cusp of forgetting—-not for the first time—-how crucial the support of the labour movement and the working-class vote are to maintaining its hold on power.

Early alliances, a junior partnership

“Labour in Saskatchewan became a loyal and reliable junior partner in the CCF electoral coalition.”

Labour’s ambivalent relationship with the CCF/NDP has evolved through a number of stages over the years. In 1932, the United Farmers of Canada (Saskatchewan Section), a militant, left-wing farm organization and the dominant voice in agrarian politics, decided to enter politics and form a coalition with labour. The Farmer Labour Group (FLG) was then established to contest the 1934 election. Labour’s response to the call to join the coalition was initially cool. Indeed, most militant union leaders did not attend the meeting, or were not invited since they were considered tainted by the Communist Party. Active and militant union leaders and rank-and-file union activists viewed the new party with suspicion, and this showed in the 1934 election when the FLG won five rural seats while trailing the old-line parties in the cities. Throughout the early period of the FLG/CCF (the FLG adopted the name of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1935), labour was suspicious of this new political creation of the organized farmers, and reluctant to embrace its political leadership. For a decade, the FLG/CCF worked to establish a solid electoral base among progressive farmers and to fend off the Alberta Social Credit invasion, while failing to win significant working class support.

In the early 1940s, however, the CCF began actively courting the labour movement, presenting a comprehensive pro-labour program that won enthusiastic support among working-class voters, resulting in election victory in 1944. Once in power, the CCF government delivered unprecedented gains to labour, including policies they had been fighting for fifty years. Accordingly, from 1944 to 1964 labour in Saskatchewan became a loyal and reliable junior partner in the successful CCF electoral coalition comprised of farmers, workers, teachers, and a smattering of progressive professionals and small business owners. But when Ross Thatcher’s Liberals beat out the CCF in the 1964 election, labour paid a price for this close relationship. Having subordinated itself to the CCF government and party, and having thereby put the brakes on the organizational militancy and combative development of its trade unions and rank-and-file membership, the labour movement had to relearn how to fight a two-front war against both a hostile government and a variety of employers emboldened by a pro-business regime.

The Thatcher years therefore contributed to the political maturation and toughening of the labour movement. As a new generation of leaders came to the fore in a new, less labour-friendly environment, labour asserted its political autonomy and affirmed the relative independence of its collective bargaining agenda. Nevertheless, the Saskatchewan labour movement faced the reality that the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP had become the natural governing party of the province�contingent, of course, on organized labour’s support and the working-class vote.

Professional politicians and popular alienation

Allan Blakeney’s election as leader of the NDP in 1970 was a watershed moment in party history. A former government bureaucrat and professional politician, Blakeney was the first party leader without movement roots. For Blakeney, in common with professional politicians in the old-line parties, the party was primarily an electoral machine for winning power. As a result, a process of alienation of the government from its base set in, and nowhere was this more damaging to the NDP’s prospects than the looming battle with labour.

Labour played a key role in electing Blakeney as premier in 1971, and expected significant progress in return. Though Blakeney returned to the labour-friendly laws and policies of the former CCF government, labour wanted more forward motion, including laws making organizing the unorganized easier, an anti-scab law, higher minimum wages, the extension of labour-standards coverage to wage labour in the agricultural sector, a more aggressive public ownership strategy, and more rapid advances in social and health programming.

Blakeney, for his part, took the traditional view of professional politicians in the parliamentary system. As premier, regardless of who elected him, he was required to provide good government for all the people, not just respond to special interests—-including labour. While this is common enough required rhetoric in a parliamentary democracy, movement politicians like Tommy Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd knew that such an affirmation had to be accompanied by a real commitment to the movement’s vision and expectations. It was the leader’s task to justify and defend the movement’s program as being in the public interest.

Blakeney seemed able enough to do this on matters close to his heart, like public ownership of resources and the expansion of the social wage in certain areas. But he was unable to do so on behalf of labour’s key issues.

Given his ideological limitations, Blakeney could not see how an anti-scab law, or measures to speed up the organization of the unorganized, could be justified as being in the general public interest. Labour disagreed, arguing that if Douglas had embraced such attitudes back in 1944, progressive labour laws that had become standard fare across the industrialized world would never have been passed. Relations between labour and the Blakeney government accordingly deteriorated.

Blakeney’s fall from grace and Romanow’s recovery

Despite these differences, labour loyally worked to re-elect the Blakeney government in 1975 and 1978. But in the 1982 election, Blakeney miscalculated, convinced that labour remained the political captive of the NDP regardless of the deepening differences. Faced with a militant strike by hospital workers in the spring of that year—-when Blakeney and his advisers saw a window for re-election before growing economic problems got worse—-Blakeney abruptly ordered the strikers back to work and called the snap election that led to the worst defeat of the party since the 1930s. Grant Devine’s Tories reaped the rewards.

Even the NDP’s working class vote collapsed in ’82, as angry hospital workers and their supporters picketed Blakeney relentlessly throughout the campaign. Even though organized labour officially supported and worked for Blakeney, the continuing estrangement between labour and the NDP government led to a spontaneous protest vote among the working class over which neither the NDP nor organized labour had any control.

Once in power, Devine’s Tory regime slashed spending on social, education and health spending, privatized billions of dollars worth of public assets, cut taxes, increased grants to business, and launched a savage attack on trade unions.

With the NDP crushed and disoriented, and unable or unwilling to provide effective leadership in resisting the new right agenda, the Devine regime met its strongest resistance outside the legislative system. The formidable Coalition for Social Justice formed in February 1987 to oppose Devine’s cuts and his privatization agenda, uniting labour and social activists with the engaged rank-and-file of the NDP. Labour played a pivotal role in its success, providing funds and full-time organizers. Even before that, however, the resistance to Devine was so effective, and won such widespread support, that in 1986 Blakeney only narrowly missed re-election. By the end of the Devine years, organized labour had lost some ground in trade union membership numbers, but it emerged politically and organizationally stronger.

When Roy Romanow’s NDP won power back from the Conservatives in 1991, labour expected little. Romanow was a fiscal conservative, who rejected traditional social democratic principles, and had ideological doubts about public ownership. During the Romanow years, the NDP government viewed labour with considerable distrust, and sometimes even saw labour support as a political liability for the government. Nevertheless, labour loyally worked to elect Romanow in 1991, and to re-elect him in 1995 and 1999, but with declining enthusiasm each time, especially after Romanow ordered striking power workers back to work in 1998 and striking nurses back in 1999.

Disaffection with the Romanow government was expressed less dramatically by labour’s rank-and-file than it had been against the Blakeney government, largely taking the form of lapsed NDP memberships, refusal to work for the party, and, in many cases, abstention from voting. When Romanow was humbled at the polls in 1999 and forced to form a coalition with the Liberals in order to hang on to power, it had a great deal to do with declining labour support and a fall in the working-class vote.

Calvert’s gambit and the road ahead

“Labour, if it plays its cards right, could become the senior partner in a new, emerging coalition of social forces.”

When Lorne Calvert replaced Romanow as NDP leader and premier in 2001, it was clear that he had learned some lessons from the defeat of Blakeney in 1982 and the near-defeat of Romanow in 1999. Calvert’s leadership campaign was slightly left-leaning, promising a return to basic principles and a revitalization of the party’s traditional approach. Labour played a large role in Calvert’s leadership victory by calling lapsed members back into the fold and resurrecting labour activism in the party. And when Calvert, seeking his own mandate, called an election in 2003, he explicitly begged disillusioned party members and NDP voters alike to come back home, promising a return to moderate social democracy. It worked, and Calvert won an unexpected victory.

Given the relatively labour-friendly environment of the Romanow government, and even more so of the Calvert government, trade union membership began to grow rapidly once again, and by 2006, Saskatchewan, the most agriculturally based of Canada’s provinces, had the fourth-highest rate of unionization in the country, far ahead of Alberta and slightly ahead of British Columbia.

Looking ahead, labour’s continuing support for the NDP seems assured, especially in the wake of the modest left turn of Calvert in Saskatchewan and of Jack Layton in the federal NDP. Though some on the left have called, from time to time, for a new party of the left, and some labour militants have proposed independent electoral action by labour candidates, such views never won wide support in the labour movement. The wisest course appears to be to continue the bureaucratic affiliation with the NDP and to support the NDP electorally, while maintaining an independent political position in public debates. When necessary, the labour movement has continued to support direct, extra-parliamentary action, often even against NDP governments. Further, labour has continued to pursue aggressive collective-bargaining strategies, particularly in the public sector, even while the NDP is in power.

With an election coming in 2007 or 2008, it is highly unlikely that labour will break with the NDP and oppose it electorally. In that sense, labour remains the political captive of the NDP—-when assessed bluntly, in terms of working-class interests, there is just nowhere else for the working class vote to go that makes any material sense.

But the political topography of Saskatchewan has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, such that the NDP, as a viable governing party, is also increasingly dependent on labour. When Romanow was wiped out in rural Saskatchewan in 1999, it was the urban vote, largely the working-class vote, that preserved his tenuous hold on power. And when Calvert was defeated again in rural Saskatchewan in 2003, it was the urban vote, again largely the working-class vote, that gave him the seats he needed to form a majority government. Calvert, notably, enjoyed a dramatic increase in popular vote over Romanow’s showing in 1999. The fact is: the NDP needs the labour movement and the working-class vote to win, particularly now that it can win as the governing party without necessarily winning very many rural seats. Labour, therefore, can be expected to press this advantage in the years to come.

From 1944 until the 1970s, labour was told that elections were won or lost in rural Saskatchewan. Therefore, labour had to moderate its demands for pro-working class trade union laws and speedier implementation of social program and public ownership measures. Further, labour was instructed to refrain from overly aggressive strike activity. Failure to do so, the thinking went, would lead to defeat in the rural areas.

But now it is labour’s turn. Provincial elections are won or lost in the cities, and the working class vote is now much more crucial to victory than the declining farm vote.

Labour may also realize that the NDP is now open to a fundamental shift in a more pro-labour direction. As rural Saskatchewan continues to decline, and as the NDP’s political base in rural Saskatchewan continues to shrink and shift to the right, increased activity by labour in membership recruitment, nomination campaigns, and the grooming of future leaders could be much more effective than it has been in recent years. A clear case, both pragmatically and ideologically, can now be made that a more pro-labour set of laws that accelerates the organization of the unorganized can only help to consolidate the NDP’s status as the natural governing party of Saskatchewan. Labour, if it plays its cards right, could become the senior partner in a new, emerging coalition of social forces that supports the NDP and its brand of moderate social democracy. But if the NDP again fails to recognize the power of the labour movement, and again runs from the right in a desperate effort to appease the business lobby and the CanWest Global monopoly hold on the province’s daily newspapers, then Saskatchewan could see Brad Wall’s right-wing Saskatchewan Party marching to victory in the next election.

J.F. Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of The West: The History of a Region in Confederation.

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