The NDP’s recent announcement that Quebec union leader Jean-Claude Rocheleau will run for the party in the federal election has some New Democrats cheering about the party’s improving fortunes in Quebec. However, it’s far too early to be celebrating. Although the NDP leadership would like us to think that unions and their members are drifting away from the BQ and into the arms of the NDP, there is little concrete evidence to suggest that this is occurring in any significant way.
Gilles Duceppe has solid trade union credentials as a former union staffer and most of Quebec’s labour leaders are solidly in the sovereignist camp even if their unions are not officially backing the Bloc. For example, recall that While Buzz Hargrove was calling on his members in English Canada to vote Liberal to stop Stephen Harper Harper in 2006, the Quebec section of the CAW was endorsing the BQ and actively working to unseat Liberals. The BQ has also been the key player behind repeated attempts to have a federal anti-scab bill passed into law and several of its MPs come from union backgrounds.
The relationship between the Quebec Federation of Labour (the largest trade union central in Quebec) and the NDP is virtually non-existent. The political outlook of the FTQ often conflicts with the centralist policy agenda of the NDP. Although on paper the NDP advocates asymmetry in Canadian constitutional matters, in practice, the New Democrats tend to sway with the political winds on this issue (witness the party’s flip flop on the Clarity Act in 2006). Organized labour in Quebec has had difficulty in embracing the NDP because of fundamental ideological and philosophical differences which exist as a result of constitutional issues. The Quebec labour movement's strong support of decentralization and limits on the federal spending power stands in sharp contrast to the NDP's economic nationalism and preference for a strong central government to set national standards. These contradictory policy preferences were slightly blurred during the Charlottetown Accord talks when the NDP negotiated away many of its core centralizing policy positions, but the NDP compromise did not come close to fulfilling the aspirations of the Quebec working class.
The FTQ’s 2004 convention, in a policy paper entitled “Présents sur tous les Fronts”, reaffirmed its commitment to operating with complete political independence in the realm of electoral politics. After amending its constitution to sever its official ties to the NDP in 1971, the FTQ has chosen to endorse parties in elections on a case-by-case basis. Since 1988, the FTQ has required a special convention resolution in order to endorse a political party in a provincial election campaign. In the 2003 Quebec provincial election, for example, the FTQ chose not to endorse a party and instead ran a third party campaign against the upstart ADQ. In 2007, the FTQ backed the PQ and has generally been supportive of the BQ at the federal level.
The argument is often made that labour parties like the NDP and unions are united through a common ideological commitment to social democracy. In Quebec, the common ideological commitment between unions and parties revolves around the national question, not social democracy. Whereas the PQ and BQ see sovereignty as the ultimate goal, the labour movement in Quebec views sovereignty as a means to an end, namely, social democracy. Until the NDP can come up with a consistent position on the national question (which is acceptable to Quebec nationalists), it is unlikely to win significant trade union support.