Can the NDP grow up?

After an adult moment on Libya, party went back to roots with postal filibuster

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It was one thing for the New Democratic Party, even as the anti-war party, to support the Conservative government in a Commons vote extending the bombing runs over Libya.

After all, the allies own the skies over north Africa, the mission is sanctioned by the United Nations, there are no Canadian boots on the ground, and there are no Canadians in harm's way.

And there's a humanitarian goal to the NATO campaign, led by a francophone Canadian general, to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from making war on his own people.

Supporting the extension of the mission gave the NDP a grown-up moment, not only as the official Opposition, but also as a government-inwaiting.

But it was quite another thing to ask the NDP, as a party co-founded by and beholden to organized labour, to side with the government against a public-service trade union in a labour dispute.

Even a union as unpopular as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

If there's one union Canadians love to hate, it's CUPW, whose members have been at the barricades since the 1970s, and who apparently haven't heard of this thing called the Internet, which allows people to bank online rather than by snail mail.

Even so, Canada Post remains an essential service, particularly for seniors waiting for their monthly pension cheques, and small businesses that rely on the mail for payments from customers.

The more Canadians learn about the sweetheart deals of postal workers, the angrier they get. For example, Canada Post workers can retire at 55, one of the reasons the crown corporation has issues with unfunded pension obligations and wants to push the retirement age of new hires back to 60. This was a deal breaker for CUPW. What is this, Greece? Actually, it is, since workers are allowed to bank sick days, and are paid for a full day's work even if they deliver the mail in four hours.

This was not a winning hand for Jack Layton and the Dippers. But there they were last week running a filibuster in the House for nearly 60 continuous hours of sitting, before finally folding on Saturday afternoon.

For the NDP, this was a nobrainer, supporting the rights of unionized workers against the back-to-work legislation of the Conservative government, which included a wage settlement slightly lower than the last offer from Canada Post.

This was an incentive for CUPW to deal with Canada Post, but when talks broke off again after a half-hour meeting Saturday morning, the NDP finally threw in the towel in the House.

Apart from the issue of Solidarity Forever, the NDP filibuster was intended to buy time for CUPW to get back to the table. Absent which, having made its point, the NDP needed to cut its own losses.

And the losses were real. Outside the NDP tribe, the New Dems looked like they were in the pockets of the unions, defending vested interests as opposed to the national interest.

What did they get out of it? Well, Layton got to impersonate Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And the NDP got to make a larger point that they're a different kind of opposition from the Liberals. And finally, having made that point in defence of collective bargaining, they had the good sense not to drag the filibuser on past the weekend.

In fairness, we shouldn't expect the NDP to throw a trade union under the bus, not even one as unpopular as CUPW, perhaps the only union in the country with fewer friends than Air Canada customer service staff.

But at least the Air Canada employees, represented by the Canadian Auto Workers, had the good sense to settle, just two days after the government threatened them with back-to-work legislation. It looked very much like the CAW had phoned in a request to Ottawa to make it easy for them to settle by forcing them back to the table.

The filibuster was undoubtedly a good bonding occasion for the NDP caucus, uniting its 59 Quebec members and 44 MPs from the rest of Canada on a question they all agreed upon.

But the NDP has larger management issues that arise from its own success in the last election. At their policy convention in Vancouver two weeks ago, Layton's staff wisely hoisted a resolution declaring the NDP was no longer a socialist party when it became clear there would be a very divisive vote if it came to the floor.

Adult supervision. More needed.

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