COLUMN

A leader who can crown kings

Diane Francis January 18 1988
COLUMN

A leader who can crown kings

Diane Francis January 18 1988

A leader who can crown kings

COLUMN

Diane Francis

This fall, labor leader and New Democrat Bob White took to the hustings to hawk his autobiography, a book designed to enhance his political prospects. But quietly preparing last month for an election of his own was another powerful Canadian labor leader, Louis Laberge, head of the Quebec Federation of Labor, which represents half of Quebec’s unionized labor force. To no one’s surprise, he was acclaimed as president as he has been every two years since 1964, making him Canada’s longest reigning labor leader. And in a country where Quebec voting blocs can make or break federal governments, Laberge looms as an important—and virtually unknown—power broker outside his province.

To the man on the street, White is Mr. Organized Labor and White’s political beliefs are straightforward and four-square in support of the New Democrats. But although Laberge is far more influential, he may not deliver the kind of support from his union that the federal New Democratic Party will need in the next election. In essence, Laberge says that because of labor’s steadfast opposition to free trade he and his federation must pay lip service to supporting Ed Broadbent’s NDP. But he says that wholehearted support will be lacking until the New Democrats make crucial changes. And his criticisms point out the problems that the NDP is having in attracting Quebec workers—much less voters.

Laberge is frank about what his politics will be in the next election. “No doubt we will take sides with the NDPI will never support the Liberals federally,” Laberge told Maclean's. “But the NDP has a problem because its provincial arm is directly opposed to the Parti Québécois. Many of my workers who would work for the NDP federally won’t work for it provincially because they are also Péquiste.” The problem, Laberge explained, is that under the NDP’s current rules “you must join the federal and provincial parties. I was a member of the NDP for years but not now— for the same reason as many members. I won’t join the NDP provincial party.” Laberge added that he has met with Broadbent to discuss the problems. And with Laberge at the helm of 375,000 federation members in Quebec, compared to White’s 140,000 autoworkers, Broadbent and other politicians listen to Laberge. Of course, it would be in-

sulting to suggest that union members vote as a bloc on the say-so of their leaders, but Laberge is so respected and so sensitive to his rank and file’s needs that his opinions are usually the people’s opinions. Perhaps not coincidentally, when the PQ won in 1976 it was with the open support of the federation. When the federation refused to back the PQ in the 1985 election, the party lost to Robert Bourassa’s Liberals.

Still, Laberge acknowledges that even his federation’s endorsement of Broadbent will probably not be able to win the day for the NDP. For one thing, the Meech Lake accord engineered by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has helped the Conservatives at the expense of Broadbent. “To all those who voted non in the 1980 referendum [for sovereignty association for Quebec]—and that is more than half of Quebec— Mulroney must look like a good guy because he brought Quebec into the Con-

Laberge acknowledges that even his federa -tion’s endorsement of the NDP will probablg not be enough to win the dag

stitution,” Laberge said, adding that he personally has a high regard for the Prime Minister. “Mulroney is a sincere individual. He was a lawyer for employers, and I have always been able to work together with him,” he said.

As for the federal Liberals, Laberge says that he is cynical about the party. “Poor Mr. [John] Turner is having a hell of a time. If he knew on Bay Street how much trouble he would have, he would have stayed there.” And, Laberge added: “I would not endorse anybody in the federal Liberal party. They were in power too long. If Trudeau came back, I would have another chance to vote against him.”

Laberge’s powerful federation consists of Quebec’s steelworkers, civil servants and employees in such fields as auto parts, aerospace, agricultural implements, construction, rail, air and ports. Laberge, 64, began work as an aeronautical machinist with Canadair Ltd. and rose rapidly from shop steward to union business agent and finally to the executive suite. Along the way, he has gained business smarts by serving as a director since 1970 of Quebec’s

gigantic pension pool, the Caisse de dépôt et placements du Québec, which over the years has invested workers’ pension fund contributions to gain footholds in virtually every major corporation in, and outside of, Quebec.

That marriage of workers’ savings and capitalism inspired Laberge to set up the Solidarity Fund, by far the most intriguing union investment vehicle in North America. Since the federationadministered fund began in 1984, it has started or bailed out 40 businesses and created or saved 8,000 jobs in Quebec, fuelled by a tax shelter scheme devised by Laberge and then-PQ finance minister Jacques Parizeau. Under the scheme—which is open to all Quebecers, although about 60 per cent of members belong to the federation—workers invest their money and at the same time reduce their taxes.

The Solidarity Fund is run on a voluntary basis. Solidarity contributions currently average $10-$12 per week per worker, and Quebec and Ottawa each allow a tax credit of 20 per cent of whatever the annual contribution totals. For example, if a worker contributed the provincially set maximum $3,500, he would reduce his taxes by $1,400. Also, the $3,500 that was invested can be transferred into a registered retirement savings plan and deducted from income for tax purposes.

Initially funded by a 1984 $10-million provincial grant—which in 1985 was matched by a grant from Ottawa—the federation’s fund is now up to nearly $135 million in assets. Although European unions run similar funds, Solidarity is the only union fund that is based on an army of volunteers signing up as individuals. And although the fund in effect converts workers into capitalists, Laberge’s approach is typically pragmatic. “Profit is not a dirty word to me,” he said. “People who invest money and put effort into something have a right to expect profit, providing they don’t exploit people.”

Laberge is nearly as round as he is tall. Despite the trappings of power and a fancy salary rivalling those earned by his Anglo bosses of old, he still lives modestly and keeps in touch with his roots. His power is undisputed, and his form of people’s capitalism has garnered him the respect of the province’s moguls and professionals. But despite his influence, his lukewarm support for the New Democrats will mean that the man who could make kings may not be willing to next time around.