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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Walter Reuther’s Lesson from Autoworkers to Nurses: Harder to Bargain is Worth the Lift!

Walter Reuther speaking at a large labor rally

Toronto  The other day I was having lunch with a friend and colleague, Colin Heslop, who has been the skilled trades director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union for the last decade, and worked with us to rehab a number of houses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  It was a Sunday in Little Italy and all around us were the cheers and groans of fans plastered to the widescreen televisions pointing towards the streets.

Somehow we started talking about the difficulties of collective bargaining in these hard economic, concessionary times, and Colin reminded me of the unique bargaining structure for skilled trades within the auto unions that went back to Walter Reuther’s leadership in the mid-1950s.  Of course Reuther and his brothers had been skilled tradesmen and excellent tool-and-die makers, so they knew both the values of the trades and the potential difficulty of keeping elite workers happy in an industrial union.  They also knew how critical skilled trades workers were to an organizing drive.  They had more access and leeway in the plant without interference of supervisors, they could get around, converse, carry messages, and just plain organize where others couldn’t go, which made them invaluable.  There may not be as much plant-based organizing, but this same organizing phenomena is still true for maintenance people in some drives and nurses in healthcare facilities for example.

Homer Martin, another early UAW leader, had tried to pull the skilled trades out of the industrial model and take them separately into the AFL as the disputes between the CIO and AFL hardened in those days.   In keeping the union together and beating the automobile companies, Reuther, Wyndham Mortimer, and others fashioned a collective bargaining structure within auto that was unique.  They established a skilled trades council and then gave it more than simply an advisory role.  During bargaining, the skilled trades council could express disagreement with the terms of the contract as it impacted their trades.  They were also allowed to vote separately on ratification, so that a situation could develop where the general vote approved the contract and the skilled trades rejected.  If they rejected, they would – and this still exists – meet with the bargaining committee and present their issues.  Obviously these issues couldn’t be trivial single-plant matters, but had to be specific to the trades and have companywide impact.  If they prevailed in their arguments, the bargaining committee would have to bring the company back to the table on their concerns.   If the committee came back and said they had gotten their best, they could ratify separately or companywide.

Reuther used to argue that yes it was harder, but worth it to build the strongest union.  Sure the skilled trades were a minority, but this way they got more from the process than without such a bargaining structure and if they were alone.  Colin mentioned how Leonard Woodcock used to defend the structure by advocating the importance of each worker and their concerns no matter how much they were in the minority, and that the union was built on how well it represented the least of the workers as well as most of the workers.

Only days before, I had been reading more reports of the California Nurses leadership “declaring war” on SEIU because of some issues or perceived slights as their peace agreement winds down.  SEIU still has many nurses in its membership and this argument between the aristocracy of labor in healthcare and the trades model of unionism versus the industrial model in hospitals could benefit from remembering these lessons from Reuther’s era and the skilled trades council with the UAW and CAW.

Were unions like SEIU willing to “take the extra trouble” to satisfy their nurses not with just a nurses’ council meeting that visited annually or some such, but with a real voice, veto, and process at bargaining, then the better model, an industrial model, in hospitals could still prevail.  It would be more than worth the work to keep workers united in bargaining and resolve the issues internally, no matter how difficult or complex, than allow everyone separate seats at the table where it is the bosses calling the shots and not the workers themselves.

Reuther taught that lesson well, and it’s worth remembering.

Walter Reuther (second from right) at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

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