Why is the Manitoba Left Struggling?

Photo by Terence Faircloth,

This is the second piece in a three-part blog series. In the first post, I provided an overview of Manitoba’s activist left. In this second piece, I explore reasons why the Manitoba activist left is in its current state. In the final entry, I offer some modest proposals on a way forward for Manitoba’s activist left. This is all written in the spirit of building a collaborative, activist left that can fight to win.

The activist left in Manitoba is weak and on the defensive while the Progressive Conservative government continues to implement its regressive policy agenda pushing austerity in the province.

It is important to understand why the Manitoba left is struggling. The first article in this series provides some context about where the Manitoba activist left stands. This second piece aims to explain how we got here.

I identify five key reasons, derived largely from conversations and interviews I conducted with local union and community organizers.

1. Neoliberal Onslaught

The low level of struggle within the activist left exists not only in Manitoba, but across Canada and indeed most of North America and western Europe. There are historical reasons for this.

Levels of union militancy and social struggle were fairly high in the 1970s and into the 1980s in Canada, with high levels of strike activity, protest, and social gains.

But the “neoliberal” onslaught of the 1990s and into the present day have seriously weakened the left. Neoliberalism is a political economic project implemented by the corporate class in order to serve their interests.

The introduction of neoliberal economic and social policies in Canada and Manitoba were a direct response to the rise of working class power. Unions were deliberately attacked, the private sector was strengthened, and policies were introduced that have seriously weakened the activist left.

“It is obvious that levels of social struggle generally, in the Canadian state, are lower now than at any time since written records have been kept,” wrote Steve D’Arcy in a 2014 piece.

This is a structural factor that weighs heavily into understanding the current state of Manitoba’s left.

2. Complacency Under the NDP

Neoliberalism can be challenged, but when the Manitoba NDP returned to power in 1999 under the leadership of Garry Doer, its core elements remained intact at the provincial level.

Neoliberalism was not introduced as aggressively in Manitoba, nor was it substantially challenged. For example, successive NDP governments have retained the Filmon PC government policy of balanced budgets.

A critical factor here is complacency among the activist left under successive NDP governments. Reluctant to organize protests and campaigns against the NDP for fear that it would only strengthen the Tories, union officials and community organizations opted for closed-door meetings with government officials, extended bargaining, phone calls, and lobbying.

“After 16 years, we’ve forgotten how to do grassroots organizing. There’s truth in that,” said one long-time union organizer and NDP member. “If labour had a really big problem bargaining, generally we could work something out [with the NDP]. Everyone knew we had someone to turn to. When that no longer exists, you suddenly have to rethink the entire way that you organize.”

Having a receptive government in power could have been an opportunity for the broad left to go on the offensive, continuing to build its base and make greater social gains.

Instead, a lengthy lull in experience of mass activist struggle occurred between 1999 and the present day. There was limited strike activity and public protest, but this was secondary to quiet diplomacy.

Union and community organizers developed particular organizing habits and approaches under the NDP that are hard to break under new circumstances.

It’s clear that the existing repertoire of union strategies employed under the NDP will not suffice, as the political landscape has radically changed. It follows that union politics and tactics have to transform as well - and urgently.

Image from Solidarity Winnipeg Facebook page

3. Lack of Generational Transfer

Combined with a level of complacency under an NDP government was the vacuum created once the NDP were elected in 1999.

Several long-time activists say that the activist group Choices! was a central pillar of popular opposition during the Filmon years, but that Choices! packed up shop once the NDP were elected.

Several key activists went on to get jobs within unions, the party itself, or with the province’s growing social infrastructure in the early 2000s (community organizations, NGOs, etc.).

A critical lesson must be learned from this demobilization. It is necessary to maintain an independent and organized left that mobilizes regardless of who is in power. Failing to do so leads to atrophy, a loss of organizing capacity, and a failure to transfer skills and knowledge. Independent left organizations that are not afraid of mobilizing against the NDP are necessary in Manitoba.

Having to subsequently rebuild everything that the activist left walked away from—as we are painfully learning now—takes a very long time.

“Groups are trying to find ways again, but it doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like,” one union organizer said. “That’s been part of the reawakening and reorganizing ourselves.”

4. Labour on the Defensive

The three points above have combined to create a precarious mix when faced with an ideologically motivated PC government.

The Manitoba left is struggling amidst a long historical grind of neoliberalism, coupled with nearly two decades of relative complacency under the Manitoba NDP and subsequent lack of activist knowledge-transfer.

“We’ve had to rethink how we do basic organizing to face this new reality,” says one union activist.

If that were not enough, the Manitoba left is now squarely on the defensive.

The Pallister government has enacted Bill 29, the Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act, which cuts the number of bargaining units from 183 to seven and gives a commissioner power to challenge the role of labour in health care. This pits unions against one another for membership, forces unions to focus on restructuring efforts at a time when they are under political attack and puts unions at risk of losing thousands of members.

In addition to this is Bill 28, the Public Services Sustainability Act. This Bill imposes a two-year public-sector wage freeze and modest wage increases in subsequent years. Some 25 labour bodies have created the Partnership to Defend Public Services and are fighting this law in court.

These are just two bills among a swathe of budget cuts and legislative changes that have the labour-movement on their backfoot.

5. Electoral Politics No Replacement for Organizing

Decades of neoliberalism coupled with limited fightback by unions in Manitoba have helped create a culture in the prairies and other parts of Canada where unions place the bulk of their “political action” on parliamentary and electoral politics.

Conversations with elected union leaders in Manitoba confirmed this. One elected union leader said a core means to get rid of the Tories is “being active and being engaged and involved in the Party [ie. Manitoba NDP]. Volunteering and working for them and encouraging others to do the same.”

The problem with this approach is that there is virtually no non-electoral mobilization taking place outside of fragmented protests and small advertising campaigns. (There are some positive exceptions to this.)

The absence of an effective popular campaign that is waged through collective political action in workplaces and communities is giving the PCs a free pass. As stated in the first post in this series, popularity for the PCs is actually rising.

It’s time to build popular fightback against the PC agenda and there are plenty of good building blocks to work with. In short, it’s time to organise.

Matthew Brett is community organizer who helped create campaigns and organizations including Communities Not Cuts (Manitoba), People for Posties (Winnipeg), Solidarity Winnipeg, and Stop the Cuts (University of Manitoba). Read his website here or follow him on Twitter @mattbrett_1984.

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