On the face of it, Buzz Hargrove was a most unlikely keynote speaker at a farm convention.
Here is one farmer narrative.
For 16 years, Hargrove was president of the Canadian Auto Workers union and a strong New Democratic Party supporter (since expelled).
For years, he bargained higher wages for workers at auto plants and vehicle manufacturers that make products farmers buy and carry goods that farmers produce.
Contracts he helped negotiate raised the price of goods for farmers.
Hargrove strongly advocated the right to strike, even if it meant railways couldn’t carry goods or port workers wouldn’t unload them.
When there is a strike or lockout that has affected farmers, farm groups often are among the first to demand government intervention to end it.
Farmers and unions often have been at odds. In fact, it became the first major rift in 1961 when the NDP was formed at an Ottawa convention.
Hazen Argue, veteran rural Sask-atchewan MP and last leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, opposed T.C. Douglas for the leadership because Argue did not want to see unions and urban intellectuals take over the CCF at the expense of farmers who formed the base of the party.
He lost and quit the party to join the Liberals, where he was richly rewarded with a seat in the Senate and a cabinet post.
But he predicted the future.
It took a few decades to prove Argue’s analysis prescient, but by the 1990s, unions were the main financial supporters of the NDP and its rural voter support had dwindled.
In the rural Prairies, the party is a ghostly figure of eras past.
Unions and farmers are oil and water, right?
Yet there was Hargrove as a keynote speaker last week at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture annual meeting, and his message was hardly out of place.
He argued that the strength of the union movement, now under attack, is the obligation of any worker who benefits in a union shop from contract provisions to pay dues, even if he chooses not to join the union.
So why not in farming, he wondered. If the lobbying of a group like CFA produces better policies or benefits, shouldn’t farmers have to support the group whether they want to join or not?
Hargrove appeared to misunderstand the “herd of cats” mentality that identifies much of agriculture these days and the multiplicity of farm group voices, but his basic premise made a point.
It is reflected in legislation in several provinces that require farmers to pay a checkoff, not to one chosen farm group but an approved farm group of their choice. It provides stable funding and diminishes the free riders who benefit from farm group lobbying without contributing.
Then there is Quebec, where since the 1970s all farmers must contribute to the Union des Producteurs Agricoles, the government-designated farm lobby voice. It was and is controversial, but Quebec’s farm lobby power cannot be denied.
Hargrove’s message was simple.
Farmers need to be more united to face the changes that are coming. “You need a national organization to be ahead of events that are coming at you.”
Of course, there are various “national” farm organizations, but the “strength in unity” message was something for farmers to ponder.