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The pink paper problem

MAY 14, 1996 – One of the strongest poles inside the NDP is formed by the so-called “pink paper” unions.

Leaders of 12 major unions – a grouping nick-named “pink paper” because of the colour of the paper on which they printed a statement at the 1993 OFL convention[1] – co-signed a document August 30 last year titled “Toward the renewal of social democracy in Canada.”[2] These unions include the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA).

How well does this document deal with the issues facing working people today? What are its implications for the fightback?

Nuclear Winter

The pink paper group identify the enemy clearly enough. They argue that “Liberals, Conservatives and Reformers” are “poised to engineer the most abrupt political transformation in the history of this country.” Who could deny this, living in a world dominated by Chrétien, Klein, Harris and Manning?

The paper also clearly argues that to challenge this right-wing offensive, the left and the workers’ movement must embrace political action. To pretend that unions can restrict their activities to the economic front, as in the United States, would be a disaster. In embracing an “apolitical” stance, the union movement there has ended up in bed with the Democratic Party, the equivalent of Canada’s Liberal Party.

The pink paper also takes issue with those who see disconnected single-issue social movements as a sufficient vehicle for change. “The NDP has at least 100,000 signed-up members – that is, people who have explicitly chosen to join a left-of-centre, pro-labour organization. There is no coalition or single-issue formation that can point to the same level of sustained support.”

Finally, the pink paper acknowledges that, while political action is necessary, the principal vehicle of that action in Canada, the NDP, has at best a checkered record. The Rae government in Ontario in particular is targeted for helping “to usher in the political equivalent of nuclear winter.”

Learn from history

But these observations are used, not to point a way forward, but to understate the real crimes of social-democracy in office, and argue that the key to the future of the left is inevitably bound up with figuring out how to work with the NDP to make it avoid those crimes next time it is in office. The extent of this understating is stunning.

“We do not intend to dwell on the political events here in Ontario which provided the occasion for this review,” they argue.

But those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. They are trying to sweep under the carpet the destructive legacy of the Rae years.

In the name of the left, Bob Rae began the scapegoating of the poor by hiring 250 welfare cops.

In the name of the left, Bob Rae began the attack on the health sector, overseeing the downsizing of staff that is the immediate background to Harris’ closing of hospitals.

In the name of the left, Bob Rae with the ill-fated Social Contract, began the deficit hysteria so necessary to the right-wing. He also seriously disillusioned thousands of unionized workers who had voted for “their party” only to have it use its power to violate hard-won collective agreements.

The pink paper acknowledges that this “isn’t the first time the relationship between an NDP government and public employee unions has deteriorated, with disastrous results … It happened in B.C. in 1975.”

In fact, Barrett’s poor relationship with unions extended beyond the public sector. October 7 1975, the NDP under Dave Barrett, broke the strikes of some 60,000 workers, primarily in the forest industry,[3] ushering in the downturn in struggles that so demoralized workers in that province for years to come.

This understating of the sell-outs of the NDP has a purpose. It allows the pink paper group to construct an argument that blames the current disarray of the left on an uneducated and ill-informed rank and file whose lack of education makes them open to the right-wing arguments of the Reform Party and the Tories. The antidote of course is for the wise social-democratic union leaders to increase their effort to educate the poor ignorant rank and file.

We can agree with that on one condition – that the program of education address the following key questions.

When Bob Rae scapegoats the poor, should we be surprised that workers in union towns are open to the anti-welfare arguments of the Reform Party?

When the NDP in office in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia uses deficit hysteria to attack public sector workers, should we be surprised that workers begin to listen to the deficit hysteria coming from the parties of the right?

This program of education would have to deal with NDP premiers Romanow, Rae and Harcourt leading the charge, side by side with Chrétien, Harris and Manning, against Quebec’s right to self-determination in the run-up to last year’s referendum on sovereignty.

The Reform Party has a hearing in unionized areas of B.C., Alberta and Ontario. But what was the wedge that allowed the Reform Party to begin to grow? A sustained onslaught on Quebec’s “special status” demands in the constitution.

The pink paper group, like the NDP leadership, pays this issue not the slightest attention. It is as if the issue of anti-Quebec chauvinism is not an important factor in the current political climate. It is as if it is not important that the NDP is virtually non-existent inside Quebec.

Trapped by capitalism

The analysis of the pink paper group is based on a fundamentally flawed analysis.

They see a “golden past” when the NDP delivered reforms, improved conditions and pushed the movement forward. They think that with a few changes, this golden past can be revived. But there is no golden past. The NDP was able to deliver reforms as long as the capitalist economy was expanding.

But since the mid-1970s, the Canadian economy, along with the entire world capitalist system, has been caught in a downward spiral that has led to three deep recessions. We are staring in the mouth of a fourth sometime in the next few months or years.

And parties like the NDP do not set their sights on eliminating capitalism. They see their job as managing it.Managing a system that staggers from crisis to crisis forces the NDP in office to behave exactly as if it were a Tory party.

The pink paper, when it becomes a policy paper, turns blue.

The NDP can capture political office. But office is not the same as economic power. That power rests in other hands – and not just in hands based in the United States, as the pink paper argues over and over again. Economic power rests in the hands of a capitalist class that is comprised of full-fledged Canadian banks, and very Canadian right-wingers like Conrad Black and Ted Rogers. They make the key decisions. They open and close factories. They invest where they want. They run the system, no matter who runs the government.

That has to be the starting point for a real analysis of rebuilding the left and the workers’ movement.

We must begin by accepting no responsibility for an economic crisis created by the Conrad Blacks and the Ted Rogers, and a deficit crisis created by years of right-wing governments giving handouts to these corporate barons.

We need political action which refuses to scapegoat the poor, or the public sector or Quebec and challenges all who do so.

We need political action which sees the key not solely in counting NDP votes and seats but looks primarily to the fighting strength of our organizations on the ground.

We need political action which looks to building mass pickets in defence of every strike, that seeks to turn days of action in Ontario into province-wide shutdowns.

We need political action which fights always on two fronts – to wrest whatever gains we can from this declining system of banks and corporate robbers and build the fighting strength of our side for a challenge to the system as a whole.

© 1996 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] United Steelworkers of America et al., “Political Action and Ontario Labour” (Toronto: Ontario Federation of Labour, OFL 2nd Biennial Convention, November 22, 1993).

[2] United Steelworkers of America et al., “Toward the Renewal of Social Democracy in Canada” (Toronto: CLC/NDP review committee, August 31, 1995).

[3] Frances Russell, “Work Bill Passed by 45 to 3 Vote,” The Vancouver Sun, October 8, 1975; “Unions Huddle to Map ‘betrayal’ Response,” The Vancouver Sun, October 8, 1975.

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