Challenging relations: a labour-NGO coalition to oppose the Canada-US and North American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA), 1985-1993

In 1987-1988, a national debate erupted in Canada on the desirability of entering into a free trade agreement with the USA and its potential effect on Canadian culture, society, and national sovereignty - as well as its economy. A national coalition of labour unions and civil society groups emerged to oppose such an agreement with the USA, and later its expansion to Mexico as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The coalition was hailed by members as a ground-breaking alliance between labour unions and civil society, as well as a new grassroots challenge to the neo-liberal economic policies of the government at the time. The experience led to a longer-term pattern of collaboration between unions and NGOs in Canada, but the coalition also experienced difficulties in reconciling the different approaches and goals of participants, which were resolved with varying degrees of success. This paper discusses the coalition in relation to gendered attitudes and practices; issues of representation and accountability; different approaches to organisation, hierarchy, leadership, and decision making; resource conflicts; class-based versus new views of challenge and social movements; and views within the Canadian labour movement on coalition work with civil society groups.