Elaine Bernard


[Excerpt] Political humorist Barry Crimmins recently remarked that the Perot phenomenon in the last Presidential election showed the depressing state of U.S. politics. "Who would have thought/' shrugged Crimmins, "that the development of a third party would reduce political choice?" Many U.S. union progressives have envied their Canadian counterparts' success in building an enduring labor-based political party—the New Democratic Party (NDP). They look to Canada and the NDP as proof that labor and democratic socialist ideas can win a wide hearing and acceptance in North America. As U.S. activists learn about Canada's more progressive labor laws, the national system of universal publicly funded single-payer health care coverage, and the more generous and extensive entitlement programs, they naturally look to labor's political power and the role of the labor-supported New Democratic Party in winning many of these reforms and promoting progressive social change in Canada.

Yet most activists in the U.S. know little about the 33-year history of the NDP, the struggles that took place within the Canadian labor movement over the party's creation, and the continuing evolution of the relationship between organized labor and the party. Americans tend to be particularly puzzled by Canadian labor activists' critical attitude towards Canada's "labor party." News of developments from north of the border over the last few years has been particularly confounding.

The NDP is currently the provincial government in three out of 10 provinces —Ontario, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan —which together account for approximately 50% of Canada's population and more than half of the country's gross domestic product. Yet in spite of this powerful provincial base, in last fall's federal election, the party suffered its worst defeat since it was founded—polling a mere 6% of the popular vote and dropping from 43 to nine seats in the House of Commons. This dramatic dive in the federal party's fortunes also reflects growing labor dissatisfaction with NDP provincial governments. For the first time in three decades, the Canadian Labour Congress and many of the provincial labor federations are reconsidering their relationship to the NDP. For Americans interested in labor political action and the role of labor parties, these Canadian discussions have great relevance.