The Hard Green Line

The Canadian Green Party's fight against pro-union legislation shows the dangers of an environmentalism that's not rooted in the working class.

An Andrew Weaver campaign bus in British Columbia. Twitter

In May, British Columbia had its first minority government result since 1952, with the Liberal Party — in power since 2001 — falling one seat short of the forty-four necessary to reach a majority. The New Democratic Party won forty-one electoral districts, or “ridings,” and the Greens picked up three seats, the most it has won in any provincial or federal election since it’s founding in 1983 — leading to the BC Greens dubbing themselves the first Green Caucus in North America.

Though the regional Green Party fell one seat short of the four necessary to gain official party status in the legislature, the seats they did win were pivotal, given the minority result. Through those three seats, the Greens controlled which of the two major parties could push past the forty-four seats necessary to form a government.

The NDP is a social-democratic party, with labor unions’ backing. The Canadian Conservative Party is not on the map in British Columbia, which means that capitalists and conservatives have largely found their home in the Liberal Party.

Given these facts, a naïve observer might assume that the Greens would only consider entering a coalition with the NDP. After all, in British Columbia, the Liberals are the party of the business interests that put the bulk of “money in politics,” a key issue for Greens.

Not so.

“We would work with anyone,” said Andrew Weaver, the head of the BC Greens, during his campaign. Citing Green Party “principles,” Weaver suggested that they would work with Liberals — again, the de facto conservatives of British Columbia — or the NDP based on the particular issue at play.

It’s hardly good progressive politics to suggest forming a coalition with the party that has, for example, put a ten-year freeze on increases in welfare disbursements. But in fairness to Weaver, it also wasn’t strategically wise for his organization to hand over three votes to the NDP without entering negotiations — and the threat of exit undoubtedly provides leverage.

By June, the Greens ultimately did agree to a confidence-and-supply relationship — voting with the allied party on motions of confidence and on budget appropriations, but not necessarily legislation — with the NDP and not the Liberals. But the real measure of the party’s politics comes from crucial labor-law reform legislation they seem committed to tanking.

Canadian labor leaders are seeking a law change that would make it easier for workers to organize unions. As North American employers have become more sophisticated and ruthless at combating union recognition elections, some unions have responded by negotiating “card check neutrality” agreements directly with employers (a practice that UNITE HERE successfully defended in front of the US Supreme Court). But card check can also be enshrined in law as an organizing process to win union recognition across the board.

Card check avoids the secret ballot election, which is particularly easy to manipulate for employers willing to flout labor law and intimidate and fire workers. Under card check, once 50 percent of workers have signed union authorization cards, the employer must recognize the union. In the United States in 2008, the labor movement pushed for card check through the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation for which Obama expressed support while he was running for president in 2007 (but did not ultimately expend any political capital on passing).

Canadian unions seek similar reforms to labor law in order to avoid the sorts of employer manipulations that come from secret ballot elections. Such reform is on the NDP’s agenda, and the failure of the Liberals to maintain the majority in British Columbia presents an opportunity to make it happen at the regional level. Liberals and the business interests they represent have no interest in seeking such reform; candidate Andrew Wilkinson said, “It’s costly to the economy and will cost thousands of jobs.”

But rather than join with the NDP to pass card check, the Green Party has drawn a hard line against it. Again, Weaver: “It’s simply not going to happen. And no amount of convincing will ever convince me to do that.”

Weaver claims concern for workers who may “feel pressured” by the union during a drive, but makes no reference to the increasingly successful war that employers have been waging at the ballot box for the past four decades.

The NDP leadership holds out hope that they will convince Weaver and his caucus of three to change their stance; even after the Green’s public statements about card check, party leaders have continued to agitate for reform. But the fact that Greens have taken it in the first place should give the North American left pause.

Andrew Weaver does not represent the whole Canadian Green Party, let alone all North American Greens. But there is a lesson in the hard line he has taken against working people: We should be wary of nominally progressive parties that lack a firm base among the poor and working class and their organizations, namely trade unions.

Unlike the Greens, the NDP has labor in its DNA, forming as a merger of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. In British Columbia, for example, the United Steelworkers have literally taken NDP leader-organizers on to their staff during campaign season.

There is no doubt that the environmental issues to which the Greens seek to draw our attention are fundamental to the survival of our species. The whole planet is at risk. But unfortunately, the small coalition of left-liberals that both the United States and the Canadian Green Party represent, does not have the potential social power to transform our political and economic systems fundamentally. Environmentalism without the political might of organized labor is likely doomed to fail.

Labor unions are sometimes shortsighted, and, when jobs are on the line, they are willing to take the wrong stance on vital environmental issues. Their power is on the wane in both Canada and the United States. And yet, they are still the most potent, well-funded, independent political force in the game and are crucial to winning basic political reforms.

The political parties that trade unions fund are far from perfect. But be wary of parties that don’t seek their support, and of parties that claim the mantel of progressive with no base in the working class. Most of all, be wary of the parties that draw a hard green line to stop pro-labor policy. Those parties are not to be trusted.