This ain't your grandma's NDP. If there were any last lingering doubts on that score, Darrell Dexter erased them Monday with one simple response to a question about whether an NDP government would repeal 1979 legislation that has made it virtually impossible for unions to organize workers at any of Michelin Tire's three Nova Scotia plants.
Said Dexter: "I have no interest in fighting battles that happened 30 years ago."
To understand the seismic shift that blandly unrevealing sentence actually represents, it's worth a brief history lesson.
During the late 1960s, then-Tory premier Robert Stanfield lured the giant French tire manufacturer to backwater Nova Scotia with a too-good-to-refuse goody basket of government grants, low-interest loans and tax incentives. Over the next decade, successive Liberal and Conservative governments not only opened the province's treasury for the company but also enacted a series of ever more lapdog labour laws specifically to keep Michelin's finicky owners---once rightly described as "anti-union by instinct and paternalistic by practice"---from simply swallowing our $80 million-plus public investment and disappearing to even more welcoming, less worker-friendly jurisdictions elsewhere.
In 1979, the then-Tory labour minister Ken Streatch introduced what would become known as the Michelin Bill. That infamous emergency amendment to the province's trade union act represented, in the words of a labour leader of the day, "a deal hatched under a slimy rock by a bunchof vipers."
At the time, the United Rubber Workers' Union was nearing the conclusion of a brutish three-year, million-dollar campaign to organize employees at Michelin's Granton, N.S., plant. Workers there, in fact, had already cast their ballots in a certification vote when the government stepped in to make the outcome moot. Its new law---which not only ran counter to a provincial labour relations board ruling but was also written to apply retroactively---required the union to win the support of a majority of workers at both of the company's then-two provincial plants in order to be recognized as the bargaining agent for either of them.
Not coincidentally---nothing was subtle back then---the day after the government introduced the made-in-Michelin bill, its beaming development minister called a press conference to announce that Michelin would build a third plant in the province and expand its two existing operations---all with, of course, more government financial assistance. Tic tac toe. Quid pro quo.
Perhaps not surprisingly, repealing that legislation, which the Canadian Labour Congress once rightly condemned as "a deplorable sham of democracy," has been a continuing touchstone for both trade unionists and their political allies in the provincial NDP ever since.
Does it matter anymore?
In practical terms, no.
Given all the many and various more pressing problems any new provincial government is bound to smack up against, changing decades-old legislation to make it slightly easier for unions---who haven't exactly been chomping at the bit---to organize workers---who seem, at best, lukewarm to the idea---at a company that not only pays its workers well in places where jobs are scarce but also is one of the province's largest, if least loyal, employers...hardly seems a priority.
Les Holloway, the current regional director for the Canadian Auto Workers, in fact, downplayed its relevance, not only making the quite logical point that his union has been absorbed with more pressing issues (like the fate of the Canadian auto industry) but also adding that "we don't own the NDP."
Symbolically? On that level, Dexter's declaration is one more important telling sign the new, middle-of-the-mainstream Nova Scotia NDP is no longer your grandma's NDP.
Will that turn out to be a good or a bad thing? That will depend less on whether the party promises to repeal decades-old, now-mostly-beside-the-point legislation and much more on how the party responds the next time a powerful corporation like Michelin comes demanding it rewrite the law for its benefit.
On that score, the jury is still out.
Stephen Kimber will provide The Coast's provincial election coverage. Email him at email@example.com.
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