After seven rancorous years of feuding, the federal government and a key renegade chunk of organized labor abruptly revived their courtship last week with an exchange of dramatic vows. The wooing commenced when the fledgling Canadian Federation of Labour lured the prime minister to its founding convention in Ottawa and promptly angled for labor posts on national government boards.
Then, charmed by the rare request, Pierre Trudeau challenged labor “to share the responsibility for governing.”
For the upstart federation, that invitation meant instant legitimacy. For the government, Trudeau’s pitch heralded a landmark turnaround in federal tactics—a bid to tug business and labor into a joint economic rescue mission after unprecedented rounds of ferocious confrontations with both groups.
The mere creation of the federation is an unexpected political bonus for the Liberals because the massive Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has shunned cooperative action since the 1975 imposition of wage and price controls. The new organization speaks for 200,000 workers in 10 vital building-trades unions such as the electrical workers. Nine of the 10 unions were part of a major breakaway faction that severed relations with the two-million-member labor congress in 1981. The mavericks objected to the CLC voting structure, to the creation of rival Quebec locals by a CLC provincial federation and to the CLC’s official support for the New Democratic Party. And although earlier CLC exiles, such as the Teamsters, maintained a frosty independence from the congress, nine of last spring’s 12 renegades promptly forged a competing national labor body.
The rebel band is a bizarre blend of old-style unionism and new-style politicking—and the members clearly sense that the Liberals need them as much as they need the Liberals. The federation is officially nonpartisan and firmly committed to a policy of persistent federal lobbying and participation in any government task force. “If we don’t get involved and take some responsibility to sit down and discuss, then the economy will probably grind on as it has—and that would be deplorable,” says federa-
tion President James McCambly, a 48year-old former heavy-equipment operator. “It could be said that decisions are being made behind closed doors... [but] in many cases it is the labor movement which has closed the door.”
Those sentiments ensured that Trudeau was the first prime minister invited to a national labor convention in 18 years. Handed a valuable platform that the CLC would never provide, Trudeau reciprocated with his stunning but vague invitation. The prime minister first mused that nations such as Swe-
A bizarre blend of old-style unionism and new-style politickiny —and a sense that the Liberals need them
den and Germany have managed to forge co-operation between labor and business and government. Then he insisted that “there is no way in which the state alone . . . can ensure economic recovery.” And finally Trudeau suggested that all three parties must become involved.
Trudeau’s sudden burst of co-operative zeal took place at the same time as Finance Minister Allan MacEachen launched a cross-country tour to garner the views of major business organizations. And while the prime minister insisted late last week that he merely wanted to “heighten the level of under-
standing,” Maclean's has learned that the government is specifically working toward a tripartite approach to the country’s mega-projects. The 227 major undertakings represent $440 billion in investments up to the year 2000 and a major task-force report in 1981 maintained that labor-management co-operation is essential for their success. The task force called for the creation of a tripartite “maj or - proj ects - assessment a. agency” to promote the a development of such major schemes as oil sands | plants. And the new fed5 eration members, in addition to such renegade unions as the Teamsters and the Iron Workers, constitute the majority of workers required for these projects.
Trudeau’s conversion delighted the business community and infuriated the CLC. Stan Roberts, president of the 135,000-member Canadian Chamber of Commerce, marvels that Trudeau is finally admitting that the government cannot single-handedly change the economic order. “This is fascinating—his philosopher mind is working again. It takes a catastrophe to bring these three groups together and if we’re in as much trouble as I think we are, it may happen very soon,” said Roberts.
For his part, CLC President Dennis McDermott insisted that the federation founding convention “was stage-managed by the Liberal party since they need someone to share the grief with. It’s an absolutely cynical and phoney ploy to shift attention away from high interest rates. The federation and the Liberals need each other—and they deserve each other,” he declared.
McDermott’s inflexible attitude dramatized the fact that Trudeau faces an uphill battle in his sudden desire to make peace with the frazzled business and labor communities. The CLC president pointed out that Ottawa can scarcely forge bargains without the cooperation of the massive labor congress. In turn, McDermott may face some pressure to co-operate from his own membership since confrontation has clearly not improved economic conditions. Although the Trudeau turnaround deserved some skepticism, it also held out the hope that familiarity could breed content. -MARY JANIGAN in Ottawa.
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