Social Struggles & the NDP

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

interview with Judy Rebick

JUDY REBICK, a longtime activist in the movement for the right of Canadian women to have access to abortion, ran for president of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) last summer. Despite the fact that the provincial NDP leadership perceived her and her supporters as a threat, and moved against them, she received 31% of the vote, with some of the other members of the slate receiving more than 40%.

Although the Canadian pro-choice movement began even before the movement here in the U.S., Canadian law maintains that women must have abortions in hospitals, not free-standing clinics. As a result, women in Canada find it difficult and expensive to have an abortion, and a great many cannot obtain them in their first trimester.

Larry Cooperman interviewed Judy Rebick for Against the Current. This is one of a series of articles ATC will be running in an attempt to concretize the discussion over how revolutionaries committed to independent political action seek to advance those goals.

ATC: In your campaign for the presidency of the New Democratic Party, it has been clear that your visibility as a leader of the pro-choice movement has been a major factor. How has that movement attained such prominence in Ontario?

Rebick: The choice movement has been through a period of sustained mobilizations for three years and, as a result, the leaders of our movement have a very strong influence, not only in the women’s movement as a whole, but now even outside the movement. The issue has been at the center of political life in the province for a number of years. The example of a fighting movement-winning at least a partial victory-has had a powerful influence on people’s consciousness.

ATC: Ontario has had its own unique development of the feminist movement. Could you explain its history?

Rebick: In Ontario, we’ve had a very particular development of the women’s movement because of the strength of the socialist-feminist current. Socialists, both independents and from political organizations, have been in the leadership of the women’s movement almost from the beginning.

Every year, nearly seventy-five women from a variety of women’s groups come to organize a march on International Women’s Day that, at times, has brought out close to 10,000 people in the streets. Last year, there was a very important women’s strike against Eaton’s, a big department store. The International Women’s Day march went right through an Eaton’s mall.

The labor movement plays a big role in organizing contingents on International Women’s Day. In fact, the relationship between the women’s movement and the labor movement in Ontario, because of the role of feminists in the labor movement, is very strong.

The equal pay [comparable worth] coalition, consisting mainly of labor and women’s organizations, has been fighting for equal pay legislation for years. And labor has led the fight for affirmative action and is in an alliance now with women’s groups on that issue as well.

Obviously, the fight for choice is led by the women’s movement-with support from the labor movement. But labor support has been not as strong as it could be due to the controversial nature of the issue and the pressure on the labor leadership from anti-choice groups.

In Canada, the labor movement is more socially active than it is in the United States. It supports the peace movement and, of course, gives huge financial support to the NDP.

Now there are several court cases that challenge the constitutionality of a union spending dues on social issues with which a given union member might not agree. These suits were brought by anti-choice people in the labor movement who wanted to stop union support of the choice movement.

As a result, the labor leadership doesn’t want to spend any money supporting women’s right to choose. But of course, one of the key things the labor movement can do is give resources to the social movements.

ATC: In Ontario, the abortion rights issue has been more prominent than in the United States. Is that because of Canadian law outlawing abortions performed out­ side public hospitals or is it because of the consciousness of the feminist movement and its ability to reach out toward other forces?

Rebick: It’s a combination. Part of it is the deterioration of access to abortion, but you also have to realize that, while our law is worse than yours, we don’t face anything like the attacks that you have faced, the violence. So in some ways the situation in the U.S. seems more threatening to women.

A couple of the people who were involved in the women’s health movement were very well-respected socialist-feminist leaders of the women’s movement. In my view, the central role played by socialist­ feminists is one of the reasons that the pro-choice movement has been effective.

There’s another reason: the role Dr. Henry Morgentaler plays. Having Morgentaler, who is a huge star in Canada, makes the issue very popular and on center stage immediately. It galvanizes people, both for and against.

This media attention, focused on a “star” like Dr. Morgentaler, has contradictory effects. The importance of the movement and the collective action of individuals is not something the media feature. On the other hand, our struggle has much greater access to the media than most left or feminist issues, and the media is more sympathetic than not.

The first Ontario clinic was initially opened by a women’s group with Morgentaler’s help. It became known as the Morgentaler Clinic. Now it’s been open almost two years-the result of an enormous struggle to keep it open, including a jury acquittal of Dr. Morgentaler. The acquittal was won despite the fact that the judge virtually instructed the jury to convict.

Then an appeals judge set aside the jury verdict (which a judge cannot do in the United States). The case went to the Supreme Court on October 8.

Recently Dr. Scott, who used to work in the Morgentaler Clinic, has opened his own clinic in Toronto and despite threats there have been no further arrests.

In Quebec, this struggle took place in the 1970s. There Dr. Morgentaler was ac­ quitted by juries three times, but still had to spend eighteen months in jail.

At that time, a judge could convict a defendant even after a jury acquittal. Because of the outrage over what happened to him, there is now a Morgentaler amendment to the constitution. Now a judge can only set aside verdicts, not reverse them.

Today there are fifteen publicly-funded community clinics that operate in Quebec. The struggle there was a success because of the combination of Dr. Morgentaler’s challenge to the law and the mobilization of the women’s movement and the labor movement.

Now there is a new government in Quebec–the Parti Quebecois was defeated by the Liberal Party in the last elections–which wants to stop abortions from being performed in the clinics. So there is a coalition of over 100 organizations, with the three labor federations playing a central role. As a result, the Liberal government has backed down, at least temporarily.

Part of the weakness of the clinic struggle has been that it has been very localized and provincially oriented and, while we’ve been able to get tremendous popular support for Morgentaler and raise a lot of money, we haven’t been able to mobilize across the country. We’re trying to change that.

It’s important to remember that Canada has the highest rate of second-trimester abortions in the world after India. There is an average six-week delay between the time a woman goes to her doctor and gets an abortion. So obviously there is a tremendous amount of health risk, humiliation, and anxiety.

ATC: Earlier, you mentioned the impact of the choice movement on the labor leadership. How has the issue been received by the rank-and-file of the labor movement? Has there been a hostile ideological reaction to it?

Rebick: The struggle for choice has further increased the influence of feminism inside the labor movement. In 1983, at the convention of the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL), we brought an issue that was not a workplace issue in any way, shape, or form into the center of a labor congress.

Even a lot of the women or feminist leaders of the labor movement were very nervous about it. Yet we won that debate by a very large majority.

A lot of delegates said “This has nothing to do with unions. It just divides us. We can all work outside our unions on whatever side we prefer.”

We responded that this is a union issue because it’s a women’s rights issue, it’s a democratic issue, and it’s a fight against the right wing. And we won. Maybe some labor leaders would say that it hurts social activism. But I think that, because we waged that battle, because we’ve insisted that it is an issue that we’ve increased the commitment of the labor movement to social activism and we’ve increased the weight of feminism in the labor movement.

Movements and the NOP

ATC: In the United States, many people on the Left are discussing the idea of a third party, although there are a lot of different versions of what that would mean. Yet in Canada, you have an actually existing minority third party, the New Democratic Party. Could you explain what this party is all about and why you are running for its presidency in one of Canada’s most important provinces?

Rebick: The New Democratic Party is a social-democratic party with links to the labor movement. Programmatically, it tends to be the most progressive major party, but, when in power, it often fails to implement these policies and begins to look a lot like the other parties.

But it is different because of its ties with labor and its democratic character. At NDP conventions, for example, some delegates are chosen by riding [district] associations or constituencies, and others are chosen by the unions.

So there is an organic link which makes it much more susceptible to influences from the unions and social movements. Moreover, NDP leaders are supposed to be accountable to policy passed at the conventions.

Almost every social movement in Canada, especially over the last few years, has realized that if they want to do anything in relation to the legislature provincially or parliament federally, they have to work with NDP members. And there are certain NDP members-very few-who work closely with the social movements. The party as a whole tends to work with the social movements on a leadership level.

However, if the demand of that particular movement is not electorally opportune for the party, as is the case with the choice movement, they abandon the movement. Every social movement has to grapple with the problem of its relationship to the NDP.

The majority of activists have solved that problem by ignoring the party except when they need help. At best, they work in the election campaign of a particular candidate that they like.

The Campaign has been arguing that activists should work inside the party to make it more accountable to social movements and to labor struggles. It’s not enough to just work for an individual in an election campaign; that doesn’t give you any influence inside the party.

The function of The Campaign is to try to begin a debate and discussion within the party that will change the whole strategy of the party and the orientation of the riding associations so that the party becomes based on social movements and labor struggles.

In the last couple of years, there has been a resurgence of activism, which would provide a natural base for the party. But, right now, the base units of the party, the riding associations, are just electoral machines, collecting membership and money.

Inside the party, our platform is attractive to the majority of activists who are not linked to the party hierarchy, who may be, let’s say, riding association presidents. It’s a totally grassroots campaign on that level.

We have no support whatsoever from the [parliamentary] caucus. In that sense, it’s different from the Labor Left [in England] which has a large number of leftwing MPs.

There are some left-wing MPPs [Members of Provincial Parliament] in Ontario, but because of a number of controversial issues, particularly one that we are taking a stand on, we are not getting any support from the caucus. They’ve closed ranks against us.

ATC: What was the issue that caused them to close ranks?

Rebick: The issue of separate religious school funding. For a century, we’ve had a publicly funded Catholic school system. In Ontario, it has only gone up to 11th grade; we have thirteen grades. About a year and a half ago, the Conservative government brought in legislation to extend separate school funding to grade 13 and the NDP supported it.

There was a huge debate over Bill 30, because all three parties agreed to it while the vast majority of the population opposed it.

The public debate took up the question of what it means to publicly fund religious schools; what it means to the public school system. We have tremendous cutbacks in education and one of the reasons is that we’re funding two parallel systems. It’s ridiculous, not to mention the fact that millions and millions of dollars are going into teaching kids anti-women Catholic dogma. So the revolt against this policy is one of the biggest that I have ever seen within the NDP. We’re getting a lot of support as a result of that.

ATC: Are the NDP members of Parliament supporting party policy?

Rebick: Yes, they support party policy. Now the left wing-the so-called left, the center-left members-have their own rationale: extending separate school funding is the way to get rid of it ultimately. Everyone is for getting rid of it ultimately.

ATC: So, essentially, you see your campaign in the New Democratic Party as a platform for discussing a program of action?

Rebick: That’s right. We’re running to win, because if you don’t run to win in an organization like that, you don’t have any credibility. But the primary reason we’re running is to educate and to begin to build a more effective left in the party. It’s a long-term project.

The Campaign is, of course, a very strong feminist campaign. I’m seen as a militant feminist leader because of my work in the choice movement. That’s very appealing to people in the party because the party is terrible on the question of female leadership.

Out of the Ontario parliamentary caucus, for example, there are only two female MPPs. We’ve built very strong links with the feminists in the labor movement as well.

We are already having an impact on the way that they’re acting. For example, the leader’s office of the NDP just called together a coalition of disabled people, women’s groups, and minority groups on affirmative action. They’ve never done anything like that before.

Even if we have a small impact on the MPPs, we’re going to have a bigger impact on the consciousness of the members of the party in terms of discussion and debate. That will be a victory for us.

In Ontario, there has been an increase in social activism. Movement activists have a very different approach to the NDP today than they did five years ago, when they used to ignore the NDP.

Huge Maoist formations that used to dominate the left held the position that the NDP is just like the other parties. Now nobody on the left says or thinks that any more.

The NDP leadership says, “In order to get elected we must show the people we can manage the economy.” We all know what that means. It means that we can bring in austerity and act just like the other parties.

We argue that the NDP should be fighting for social change and that will bring more electoral successes as well.

ATC: Within the social movements, is there any reluctance on the basis of the disastrous experiences they’ve had with NDP governments in British Columbia and elsewhere?

Rebick: Oh, yes. The majority of movement activists and the majority of the left have the attitude that the moment the NDP gets into government they’ll betray us, so why should I spend my time working in this party.

People all the time say to me, “How can you work in the NDP after what the NDP did in Manitoba?” What happened in Manitoba was that there was a clinic that was raided and shut down, under an NDP government. The clinic is not open today. We suffered a defeat there.

Many of our strongest pro-choice activists in Manitoba quit the NDP whereas I think they should have stayed in to fight. Some people stayed in and fought, but we needed a much stronger base that would have been willing to go public with that fight and challenge the leadership publicly from the inside.

We might have been able to pressure them to back down. That experience is one of the things that convinced me to run in the NDP.

ATC: How does your campaign help bridge the gap between a less-than-attractive NDP and social movements that may be more vital than they are in the United States, but which have certain limitations as well?

Rebick: What we’re saying is that we have no alternative except to fight inside the NDP to make it more responsive to social movements. There is no way that there is going to be a new mass parliamentary party at this stage.

The NDP exists; it is a very important acquisition of the working class. We would be completely irresponsible and idealistic as socialists to ignore the NDP. I believe that the social movements and labor struggles are the motor force of social change, but they’re constantly running up against a brick wall, even more so when the NDP is in power than when it’s an opposition party.

The defeat of Solidarity in Vancouver is another example of that. Solidarity was a mass labor movement in alliance with all the social movements and it was challenging the power of the Social Credit Party [right-wing] government. [Operation Solidarity in 1984 was a labor coalition spearheaded by British Columbia public sector unions. The Solidarity Alliance linked this labor coalition to a network of church, community and progressive movements.]

The NDP wasn’t in power there, but it’s a good example of the problem you have when the left is sectarian to the NOP and the leadership of the labor movement is able to separate social struggle from political struggle. In my view, the central slogan should have been “Bring down the Social Credit government/NDP to power.

The leadership of the labor movement was not going to put that forward. The idea of bringing the NDP to power on the back of a mass mobilization was too radical for the labor leadership. Meanwhile, the NOP leadership distanced itself from and betrayed Solidarity.

All the left said in response was that we have to be more militant; it didn’t have a political perspective.

There were a number of riding associations that mobilized in support of Solidarity. There should have been a left in the NDP calling for a special convention, provoking a crisis in the party over the leadership’s betrayal.

If that had happened, in my view, there was a possibility of Solidarity moving farther than it did. Instead, its betrayal by the leadership of the labor movement and its defeat began a long period of demoralization in Vancouver.

I’m not saying that it would have turned the whole political situation around; would have given a political direction to Solidarity.

How much more militant could it have been? It was a huge mass mobilization of the labor movement and all the social movements. But it wasn’t time to go to the barricades; it wasn’t a pre-revolutionary period.

So you had to have a political direction. That didn’t happen because of the attitude of the left toward the NDP. The bankruptcy of the NOP leadership is a given. What we can change is the attitude of the left toward the NDP.

Postscript: On September 24th Toronto police arrested three doctors-Dr. Henry Morgantaler, Dr. Robert Scott and Dr. Nikki Colodny–and charged them with performing illegal abortions. It is the previous arrest of Morgantaler and Scott which is the case the Supreme Court is currently reviewing.

All three doctor have since been released by the Ontario attorney general, who had initiated the investigation. The charges against them were not dismissed, however, but are suspended, pending the outcome of the Canadian Supreme Court decision.

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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