Big Steel Bloc Blown


Rating: NNNNN

it’s saturday morning at the airport Hilton , and one of Canada’s largest unions is trying to figure out who to support in the NDP leadership race.The six candidates take their places before a crowd of Steelworker political action coordinators whose job it is to convince local members to vote for the NDP, and if things go well, to knock on doors for it.

For two hours, the union’s political experts ask questions — about Kyoto, Quebec and boosting NDP membership. But the applause is tepid and tentative, a sign that few in this room have made up their minds.

In fact, by the end of the closed door session, there is no meeting of the minds about which candidate Steel should boost. Now the conventional wisdom is that all-powerful Steel will enter the convention with members going in all directions.

This will be quite a different state of affairs from the last race, when the union put its muscle behind Alexa McDonough. This time around, one member, one vote seems to have rejigged the entire power puzzle, and now even individual unions members are less willing to take orders from the top about whom to support.

The guarantee of 25 per cent of the party leadership votes that unions fought so hard to carve out of the new system could very well end up giving them no extra influence whatsoever.

The ambivalence about who to endorse appears to have sidelined Steel District 6 political education director Michael Lewis, who worked so hard on the floor for McDonough at the last leadership convention. Lewis was spotted at the opening of Jack Layton’s campaign office last week, and his sibling and fellow member of the mighty Lewis clan, Janet Solberg, is supporting Layton.

But Lewis has no mandate to work for any candidate, and discreetly refers calls to Steel national director Lawrence McBrearty.

“It’s pretty well all over the map, I gotta tell you,” McBrearty says, with Steel members backing Layton, Bill Blaikie, Lorne Nystrom and Joe Comartin. “We want to be very careful there isn’t a split in the union over all this. Local unions can (endorse with) their local number as long as they discuss it with their membership. But with the national union, it’s the elected directors who are allowed to use the name of the union.”

McBrearty says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Steel will decide to back one candidate, but it appears that too many members have already committed to individual candidates to make that a viable option.

Pat Kerwin, political action director for the Canadian Labour Congress, says regional loyalties will rule the day in many other unions, too. It all makes for the most up-in-the-air convention in the history of the NDP, where cliques, slates and unions — not members — have always ruled the day.

The new spirit of freedom probably offers an advantage to Layton, says David Tones of the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA) — which represents many of the forestry workers in BC. It’s one of the few unions to have decided on a candidate. They’re supporting Lorne Nystrom but they’re worried Layton will win.

“Layton is totally about environmental issues and he’s very urban-focused,” says David Tones, a VP of the IWA. “He ignores the rural communities. The only thing he talks about on the social side is housing for the disadvantaged, which is very much a city issue for him. Everything he says is on the spending side. We don’t believe the public wants a government that is that narrow.”

As the leadership race begins in earnest and the party’s cross-country debate tour is set to begin this month, Layton is turning heads, but some delegates are wondering if they should go for the unflashy but safe Blaikie. Most observers think Nystrom trails in third at the moment.

Layton has a machine, but he also has something else going for him. NDPers, who despise the media as much as they hate not being covered, will take a chance if they think the master of the photo-op can do for the party what he’s done for himself.

That’s why the Barenaked Ladies concert last week was so important for Layton, not only for the 700 members signed up and for the follow-up e-mail that concert attendees are to receive from the Ladies’ frontman Steven Page urging them to get to work to make Layton leader. After suffering two leaders who were media duds, party members are looking for someone with a little pizzazz.

Still, there are those in other camps who are trying to make an issue of the fact that the price of admission was a $25 party membership. “What’s got a lot of new Democrats pissed off,” says Nystrom campaign manager Joe MacDonald, “is that they joined the NDP because of policy, and for many of them it’s a considered thing — they had to think about it. Now it turns out my membership is worth the price of a concert ticket. It may not be illegal, but it’s not in the spirit of the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, as the party has a race for leader on its hands, an unusual fight for the party presidency has broken out. With Layton in danger of taking the big prize in January, there’s a possibility that the party’s three most senior posts will be filled by people from Toronto. After all, party president Adam Giambrone, the 20-something who shocked the convention by defeating an old-timer, comes from the city the rest of Canada loves to hate. And so, incidentally, does the party secretary.

Even though the NDP has the least youth participation of any of the federal parties, there’s a move by unknown parties to replace the kid with a party stalwart from New Brunswick — Elizabeth Weir, the leader (and only elected member) of the New Brunswick NDP.

I ask Weir why — with an election expected in her own province in the next year — she’d waste her time on a job concerned with the minutiae of internal federal party matters. Weir says she’s running for a different reason — because there’s a need for senior people in the party who are attuned to Atlantic Canada.

She wants to be around when Layton (or whoever wins — she’s not backing anyone) makes decisions about the next federal campaign. I point out that with McDonough at the helm, her part of the country has had more say in the party than Canada’s largest city. Maybe it’s time for a little affirmative action for Toronto.

“Cry me a river,” Weir says.

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