Tripartism: A Dangerous Mix

by Christo Aivalis

Earlier this month, the benefits of the Good Jobs Summit were overshadowed by a return of tripartism as a strategy for Canadian unions and workers. In simple terms, tripartism is a system in which labour, business, and the state cooperate to address issues affecting the economy, including investment, wages, pensions, labour laws, immigration, and environmental protections. This cooperation could range from non-binding consultation to direct input on the drafting and revision of policy and legislation.

As Alex Hunsberger reported for, some of the major speakers at the Good Jobs Summit demonstrated a clear desire for a model of labour and industrial politics that emphasized a trend towards substantive alliances between Canada’s top politicians, labour leaders, and capitalists.

These tripartite proposals are by no means novel in the Canadian context. One need only look back to the 1970s for the last time these ideas captured the imaginations of labour leaders and policy makers, including even those opposed to the goals of unionized workers.

CBC covers the 1976 protests against Wages and Price Controls. At 3:35, the union activist speaks about the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s opposition to CLC tripartism.

Tripartism in the Trudeau Era
Pierre Trudeau, known in his younger years for ties to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (precursor of the New Democratic Party) and organized labour, was later quite hostile to the organized working class as Prime Minister. Most infamously, he favoured “Wage and Price Control” policies that sought to control wages by placing severe restrictions on labour’s ability to bargain collectively and right-to-strike. This was done through legislation that held wages below cost of living increases, and prevented public sector workers from being able to negotiate financial terms in excess of those found in the broader private sector. The goal here was to prevent workers from increasing their share of national income relative to profits, to increase Canada’s profile as a ‘business friendly’ nation, and to lower the expectations Canadians had for a better life, this hope being deemed unsustainable given increased international competition.

Yet, while all of this occurred, the Canadian Labour Congress clamoured for a tripartite regime, where they would sit at the national decision-making table alongside the state and capital. Labour, through a greatly empowered and centralized CLC, would make major economic decisions and consultations that determined investment, taxation, unemployment, wages, immigration, and prices. It was their view that labour could no longer be satisfied to react to capital and government, but had to play a more proactive role. If labour did not play such a role, they reasoned, wage controls and limits to collective bargaining would become permanent. As for the NDP, the CLC asserted that while they still supported them, they could not reject cooperation with employers and politicians of other parties if they were willing to cooperate on an equal basis to ensure both profits and good jobs.

The Critics of Tripartism
This viewpoint was deemed naïve by large sections of organized labour and the democratic left. The NDP was doubtful of tripartite arrangements made with the old-line parties, which they worried would lead to co-option, labour being repeatedly outvoted two-to-one by government and capital, and labour being forced to impose anti-worker tripartite initiatives upon their membership. Canadian historian and NDP supporter Desmond Morton argued that in tripartism, labour would be roped into a system where it would always be a loser, where opposition to state policy would be impossible, and where its independent political voice would be lost. In his view, the movement was best when it was oppositional to the old-line parties; it may not always sit at the table, but it was always a threat to the status quo.

the focus of tripartism was not the democratization of production and distribution, but the discipline of workers, their goals, and their expectations

Sam Gindin, one of Canada’s leading labour intellectuals, characterized tripartism as a capitulation to a Trudeau government hostile to the very basic rights of organized labour. He also argued that tripartism crystallized both labour’s subordinance to capital, and accepting capitalist property relations. Simply put, Gindin felt any form of tripartism strengthened capital and weakened labour because the focus of tripartism was not the democratization of production and distribution, but the discipline of workers, their goals, and their expectations.

Leaders from CUPE like Lofty MacMillan stated that the CLC was “attempting to dupe the workers of this country” by pushing for closer ties to anti-labour forces – rather than organizing the 66% of workers outside a union. In his view, cooperation with corporate power would never lead to the kind of socio-economic progress possible under a militant and broadly-organized movement. Tripartism would only be acceptable, in his mind, when a “federal socialist government supported by the workers of Canada comes to power in this country.”

Tripartism today
There are striking parallels between the debates of the 1970s and what just happened at the Good Jobs Summit. You have sections of organized labour asking for deeper, more committed relationships with the very employers and governments that are assaulting the labour movement. You have major labour leaders, Jerry Dias of Unifor first among them, cavorting with Liberal politicians like Justin Trudeau and industrial magnates like Jim Irving asking them to create good jobs.

Like the 1970s, we see labour leaders in a state of desperation, reeling from changing economic environments and hostile labour relations, resigning themselves to a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Tripartism as conceived by the CLC and advanced at the Good Jobs Summit are in no way amenable to a democratization of the economy. If anything, they signal a shift in the goal of union from fighting for a better society, to ensuring that workers collaborate in lock-step with government and employers. In the words of a young P.E. Trudeau, labour would be “nothing more than one institution among many in the service of capitalism.”

The alternatives for good jobs are not easy, but are essential.

  1. Labour needs to commit to organizing as many workers as possible; labour’s power will not expand as a junior partner in capitalism, but through the working class itself. The path towards better jobs won’t be found through the Irving family or Van Jones, but through workers and their unions. The Unifor effort towards community chapters is an innovative one, but is not compatible with tripartism.
  2. The NDP, while in desperate need for a return to its socialist foundations, must still be the party of labour. CLC and Unifor tripartism, based on support of the Liberal Party, will never lead to good jobs or economic democracy. Labour cannot resign itself to a campaign of “stopping Harper” when the Liberal Party has often be the progenitor of anti-labour policies.
  3. Class conflict must continue to be a reality of the labour and democratic left. While some policies do offer both good jobs and higher profitability (universal childcare being a timely example), the path towards a democratic economy is only traversable when we challenge the concepts of profit and private property. Even in the 1970s was this a goal of many within organized labour and the NDP. The tripartite pursuit of good jobs, as Gindin noted, is a capitulation to the current way things are, not the ways things could be.

Christo Aivalis is a union activist with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and is conducting his doctoral research on the relationships between Pierre Trudeau and the labour movement.

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4 thoughts on “Tripartism: A Dangerous Mix

  1. I attended the horrible Good Jobs Summit and share many of the criticisms of the class collaborative strategy that infused the entire exercise. I don’t understand why Chris would continue to repeat the mantra about the NDP as either a labour party or as a political vehicle that can offer the working class an alternative to the mainstream bourgeois parties. It is time we broke with them and worked to build towards an alternative that rejects neoliberalism and can begin to build a movement that unites the various segments of the working class (not only the union movement) in opposition to the business class.
    It is wrong, I think, to automatically assume that breaking with the NDP must inevitably reflect (or lead to) a lurch to towards the Liberals or worse. We need to build towards another political option.

  2. Obviously this writer learned nothing from the experience of the NDP government in Ontario from 1990 to 1995.
    I recommend he read Gerry Caplan’s Globe & Mail online (never in print edition) article of Oct. 8, 2010 titled, “The hidden history of Bob Rae’s government in Ontario.”
    In a capitalist democracy political economic power resides with capital and not in any parliament or legislature.
    The NDP has been moving to the right since the CCF’s Regina Manifesto in order to appeal to the majority of voters in order to form a government which is every capitalist political party’s prime directive.
    And make no mistake, the NDP is a “capitalist” party.It is not a “socialist” party. It does not advocate for the elimination/removal of capitalism and for socialism. It believes capitalism can be managed or reformed to benefit working people.
    Totally naive and delusional.

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