Canada’s New Supergroup, Unifor, and Community Chapters

phillipmurrayaveOshawa   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.

Jim Freeman

Jim Freeman

 

GM Plant

GM Plant

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Bell Flaunts Corporate Commitment to Monopoly Profits and Damn the Divide

Toronto   The initiIMG_5558al response from Rogers, one of the big three telecommunications giants in Canada controlling internet and cable, was not all we needed or wanted, but it showed progress and a path forward for future discussions.  ACORN’s similar letters to Bell Canada and Telus were met with opposing corporate strategies.  Telus dug its head in the sand, didn’t answer at all, and has obviously adopted a strategy of pretending this is not happening, and praying that it will all go away.  Bell Canada elected to go on the offensive and strike a pose both arrogant and hostile, replying that if we thought internet access was unaffordable to lower income families, then we should get the government to make them do something.  Meet with ACORN, oh, hell, no, they seemed to be saying.

            After marching from Ryerson University to the Bell headquarters in downtown Toronto across from City Hall, and asking for a meeting with the company on the issue of internet access and reasonable pricing, no ACORN members who were part of the delegation now have any doubt about Bell’s response, since they adamantly refused all requests we made to meet with 150 people in their atrium.   A separate ACORN leadership delegation entered the building and sought to make the request for a meeting to CEO Cope, but found the elevators turned off to the 9th floor executive suites and all stairway entrances blocked by burly security guards.  Seeking to have a letter delivered concerning the meeting, one guard outside replied only that they would be with us all day and night until the police came.

            Bell has a reputation for this kind of robber baron mentality, ignoring the softer profiles that many huge companies, especially publicly regulated monopolies have tended to endorse.  The ACORN crowd found themselves outside with the elevator constructors union who had been on the streets on strike for 8 weeks, not trying for a raise, but simply trying to retain seniority in the face of Bell union busting.   Calls to several television stations before the action, led one of the stations to remind the ACORN organizer that they were actually owned by Bell Canada, so what did she think were the chances of them covering the rally and action?

            In campaigns like this ACORN doesn’t pick the issues, since they are so large we stumble over them every time we are talking to our members and hearing their endless complaints about these company rip-offs, nor do we really get to pick the targets.  Sometime companies like Bell are just itching for a fight, no matter how hard we try to be reasonable.  We’re in it to win it though, and the first round with Bell makes it obvious that this is going to be another one of those campaigns for our members where they have to win in order to have access to jobs, education, and the communications required by modern society, but it’s going to be a long, hard struggle to victory.

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