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


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


Freezing Private Sector Exec Pay

SEIU Canada

SEIU Canada

Toronto Sharing the pain is taking on a new meaning in Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, where there are 1 million public employees now enduring a proposed 2-year wage freeze as part of the Liberal party government anti-recessionary measures, and recently the Finance Minister publically agreed that some of these same wage controls should extend to the private sector, specifically the for profit health and nursing companies that are reimbursed by the government for care.

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of private sector health care workers, like Jacob Leibovitch of SEIU Canada and Ken Lewenza, head of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) have jumped into the mess arguing that the pill would have to be swallowed at the top not just at the bottom.  CAW argues that private companies should be exempted, but when all of the dollars come from public reimbursements it’s hard to argue very long that private companies “should not be part of public policy,” as Lewenza told the Globe and Mail last month.  SEIU’s Leibovitch seems to be beating the drum more clearly that the private companies would have bear the brunt as well.

“The companies know if they refuse to get on board, it could sink one of the province’s flagship policies,” said Jacob Leibovitch, executive director of SEIU Canada, which represents 50,000 health-care workers in Ontario. He said that the idea of a suspension, freeze or cut of the payouts that the nursing home companies make to their investors has also been floated.

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Finding New Ways to Organize

 Toronto    Some of the most interesting meetings in my several days in Toronto were with our friends in the Canadian labor movement in Ontario, especially at the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), SEIU Canada, and the Steelworkers.  There’s a hunger to organize in most of these unions even though several of them are getting hammered by the current economic implosion and watching membership plummet.  Nonetheless the organizers are open and anxious to talk about new ideas, innovations, and other things that might work in the future.
    Our friend, Colin Heslop, who heads the skilled trades department of the CAW, was interested in developments in New Orleans where he and his people had helped us build houses, but it was also fascinating to catch up with him on the organizing developments in the unusual and groundbreaking deal that former CAW President Buzz Hargrove had made with Magma auto parts.  Despite the fact that the staff and national executive board had approved this very “different” kind of arrangement with Magma including the no-strike provisions in order to organize more than 30,000 workers, predictably this “concession” had been an issue in the election for Buzz’s successor.  All that was old news now, but the agreement with Magma had only netted about 1200 workers of the expected yield to date for various reasons.
    SEIU Canada continued to be heavily engaged in pulling together the building service sector with growing campaigns in Ottawa and emerging efforts in Vancouver.  We had a fascinating discussion about living wage campaigns that are heating up in both areas and how this could feed into service-based organizing, as well as the usual wide ranging discussion about targets and opportunities.
    With our friends at Steel, we visited briefly with Canadian USW president Ken Neumann, and then hunkered down with his EA, Ken Delaney, to continue another chapter in the discussions about new innovations in organizing that we had had with him over the years.  We caught up on the work with domestic workers which had interested us last year as well as other drives with taxi drivers and university workers which have solid legs.  Ken wasted no time recognizing that the last six months had been a blur where most of the time and energy had focused on stopping the membership losses in the mounting recession and blunting their impacts.  This had been like the classic “lost weekend,” where time had stopped since our conversations last summer and only now were our friends focusing on organizing again.  
    Saying all of that it was exciting to start making plans and brainstorming with our friends and allies again in Canada.  They were also interested and supportive of the informal worker organizing we are doing with ACORN International and the lessons we have learned from organizing along “majority union” lines in Wal-Mart.  I’m still predicting big things for labor in Canada in the months and years to come.