Suppose someone came into your workplace, forced you to leave, locked the doors and hired someone off Craigslist to do your work. Would you be inclined to give that person the keys to city hall?
You are judged, they say, by the company you keep. Somebody should have reminded the membership of the Non Partisan Association of this old truism before they elected local businessman and notorious union buster Peter Armstrong as president this summer. That ill-advised decision may well come back and haunt the NPA.
Once considered Vancouver's natural ruling party, the NPA, which did very poorly in the last election, may do even worse if voters come to identify it with Armstrong's draconian approach to labour relations.
Armstrong chaired the campaign for the probusiness city party in the last election, helping it raise more than $2.5 million. All that money did not translate into success at the polls, with the NPA winning only two council seats, three school board seats and two positions on the park board.
Maybe the poor results in 2011 had nothing to do with Armstrong's high-profile involvement in union busting activities at his company, the Rocky Mountaineer. There were certainly many reasons for Vancouver voters to keep NPA hands off the levers of power at 12th and Cambie, but Armstrong's unsavoury treatment of the workers who created his company's success could well have been a factor for some voters.
The on-board attendants at the Rocky Mountaineer (the Teamster-represented staff who provide direct services to passengers on the luxury train trips operated by Armstrong's firm) were locked out more than a year ago. By Aug. 10, they will have been denied access to their jobs and wages for 415 days, while Armstrong's company takes advantage of a legal loophole that allows railways, under federal jurisdiction, to lock out employees and hire replacement workers (AKA "scabs") to do their work.
The attendants, many of them single parents and veterans of years of service to the company, have been frustrated to see Armstrong's company operating its luxury tours using scabs recruited on Craigslist.
The company ignored a letter from Vancouver councillors more than a year ago urging it to negotiate a fair settlement, a letter signed by nine COPE and Vision councilors but not by the NPA's Suzanne Anton or Mayor Gregor Robertson. It has also ignored more than a year's worth of picket lines and demonstrations outside its Cottrell Street depot.
And business has been good enough, despite calls for a boycott, that the Great Canadian Railtour Company, which owns the Rocky Mountaineer, was able to donate $50,000 to the NPA during the last election, matching the $50,000 that Armstrong personally gave to the party.
But Armstrong's 50 grand almost shrinks into insignificance when compared to the generosity of the NPA's most lavish sponsor, local developer Rob MacDonald, who gave nearly $1 million to the party in 2011 and provided it with campaign office space. MacDonald was elected to the NPA board at the same AGM that gave Armstrong the nod as president this summer.
If Armstrong brings a whole train load of questions about labour relations and fairness along with him to the NPA, MacDonald could be viewed by some cynical voters as posing similar questions about the self interest and motivation of the organization's key supporters-real estate developers and speculators. Some voters will want to know what benefits, if any, MacDonald and other well placed real estate figures hope to procure from the NPA if it returns to power. Surely, as responsible businesspeople, they must view their political donations as investments. Vancouver voters may worry about just what return on investment they might expect from a renewed NPA council majority.
(To be fair, the current ruling party, Vision Vancouver, is also well supported by the development industry, and no one can accuse Vision of ignoring the needs and desires of the business class. So Vision can be viewed as somewhat less in thrall to business agendas than NPA, but not entirely freed from those malign influences.)
But even granting Vision Vancouver's compromised relationship with big business, the Rocky Mountaineer saga suggests the NPA is far more willing to forgive anti-worker tactics than any of its electoral competitors. At the next election in 2014, Vancouver voters will get a chance to decide whether they share that indulgent attitude.
firstname.lastname@example.org (Allen Garr is on vacation.)