Oshawa I was actually excited about the senior ACORN Canada organizer’s meeting in Oshawa, Ontario, an hour supposedly but much more in steady traffic from Toronto. This town of more than 100,000 now was the site of the famous auto strike by the UAW with General Motors that was so critical almost 75 years ago in organizing industrial unions in Canada. ACORN Canada is working on a joint project with the Durham Region Labor Council to build community organizations with sufficient power to act on their issues aggressively and serve as a partner to the more established, but beleaguered labor movement in the area. Where Oshawa had been ground zero in Ontario for a different deal breeding Ed Broadbent, the federal leader of the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) and industrial unions, meeting with Graham Mitchell from the Institute and Jim Freeman, head of the labor council, it was clear that there was recognition we were looking up at a harder road now, rather than looking down from those mountaintops.
Jim mentioned having gone to work at the plant 30 years before when 22,000 workers were under the roof. Three years ago there were still more than 12,000, now there were 3500 with 800 jobs on the Camaro line moving within the year to the US. We drove by the plant along Philip Murray Road, named after the legendary CIO aide to John Lewis, and first president of the Steelworkers’ Union. Windsheilding various neighborhoods in this working class city with the affluence of past pay packets competing with the uncertainty of current unemployment was fascinating. We would turn a corner past trimly kept bungalows and find ourselves gawking at a beautiful, but empty palace of a plant with a Pittsburgh, Plate, & Glass sign still gleaming over empty parking lots and abandoned buildings.
The talk everywhere was the recent merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP) only weeks ago forming the newly named 300,000 member supergroup, Unifor, which would be Canada’s largest private sector labor union. There was a new leader, Jerry Dias, and a new program. There was talk of going on the offensive with an organizing budget of $10 million that Dias was saying was 10% of its annual budget. That’s encouraging news, though it is worth remembering that SEIU in facing organizing challenges in the US had led the way first with a 30% organizing budget under John Sweeney and then a 50% organizing budget under Andy Stern.
Interestingly, Dias had also called for an additional part of his program, similar to the AFL-CIO’s recent advocacy by Rich Trumka, of reaching out to amalgamate somehow with community groups. According to Unifor official Fred Wilson heading the membership expansion committee in remarks he made to the Globe and Mail:
“We will have three categories of membership in the new union, one category will be members in bargaining units, the second are retired members and a third category will be members without collective units,” said Wilson. According to Wilson, the organization of groups of people without collective units will be done by new community chapters.
The notion of “community chapters” of unorganized workers is interesting and speaks to a lot of work we have done around labor/community partnerships and geographical unionism. Other reports and discussions though indicate that Unifor is moving very tentatively in this area. They don’t seek to really organize such chapters from what they have said, but are more treating the project like phone calls from “hot shops” and waiting for community chapters to self-organize and then call for help and affiliation. Clearly this is still a work in progress, since that’s certainly not the way workers are organized, and it is absolutely not the way community organizations are built.
But, Unifor and others like the project with ACORN Canada and the Durham Region Labour Council, are on the ground and trying to move in the right direction, and that’s good news for Oshawa, Canada, and low-and-moderate income working families everywhere.