...The best of me is sucked out and wasted.
I forget.
Everything but Death comes to me
and makes me work and give up what I have.
And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and sputter a few red drops for history to remember.
Then - I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember,
when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
who played me for a fool -
then there will be no speaker in the world
say the name: "The People," with any fleck of sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob - the crowd - the mass - will arrive then.

- Carl Sandburg

Historical information about employers is non-value-added information so we destroy it.

- A General Motors manager

When you come right down to it, history is the only teacher workers have.

- David Montgomery

This is my faith. For all these years we have advanced because we, the people, do learn.

- George Burt

Two historic events marked 1985: the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the formal breakaway of the Canadian section of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to form its own union.

Linking Two Stories

The first event, the emergence of the CIO in the mid-1930s, was a response to the failure of the existing labour movement to deal with a critical new development within capitalism. National and international corporations, organized on a multiplant basis, had come to dominate rapidly growing and increasingly important mass production industries such as auto, rubber, electrical, and steel. These powerful corporations were revolutionizing the organization of the workplace, the economy, and society. But the main form of trade unionism at that time, craft unionism, was incapable of dealing with the new challenge.

Craft unionism had emerged in the mid-1800s, when skilled workers came together to form the first significant and lasting unions in Canada. These unions established a sense of mutual aid and pride in manual labour, and in the early 1870s, they engaged in a historically crucial fight for the nine-hour day. Although unsuccessful, this struggle established links across communities in southern Ontario and Montreal and thereby represented the first stage in the establishment of a Canadian labour movement.

This form of unionism organized workers according to their specific skills; for example, a toolmaker belonged to one union and a pipefitter to another, even if both were in the same workplace. But more important, craft unionism was exclusive. It limited itself only to skilled workers and essentially ignored the rest of the workforce - what one Teamster official of the time called "the riff-raff." Industrial unionism, by contrast, welcomed all workers in any particular workplace, across national companies, and even attempted to bring workers within entire sectors into one organization. This type of unionism was democratic and universal, reaching out beyond skill level, gender, colour, and accent.

Attempts to launch industrial unionism had been made in earlier decades, by the Knights of Labor in the last quarter of the 1800s and by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") in the decade before the World War I, but neither group had endured. The 1930s signaled the explosion of a new and, this time, lasting movement for industrial unionism. It was led by the CIO.

Toronto factory (Steel and Radiation Ltd.), c.1905.
Courtesy Toronto Archives, SC416.

Five decades later, the split of the Canadian UAW from its parent organization exposed an American failure and Canadian potential. By the early 1980s, it was clear that over the four decades since the CIO's breakthrough, American labour had failed to build a movement that could effectively respond to the new era of restructuring and corporate aggressiveness. The American leadership of the UAW chose to sell concessions, and their demoralized membership acquiesced. The Canadian section of the union rebelled, and that rebellion ultimately led to the formation of a new union - that of the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers).

In the thirties, the Canadians had welcomed, with little or no controversy, the American-based UAW to Canada. At that time, it was obvious that the UAW would be not only helpful, but also necessary. In the eighties the membership rejected the UAW with remarkably little controversy within the union. This time, the Canadian workers knew that they could no longer be defended, nor their labour movement built, from within the UAW.

The Knights of Labor was a labour central established in the U.S. in 1869 and in Canada, primarily in Ontario and Quebec, in the early 1880s. The uniqueness of the Knights lay in their inclusion of the unskilled as well as the skilled, and their acceptance into the organization of women and blacks - though not Asians. By the end of the century, they had lost out to the craft-based American Federation of Labor. The Industrial Workers of the World, known popularly as the Wobblies, emerged in the early 1900s and had their main influence in the period before World War I. Their goal was to organize all workers into One Big Union - not just to fight the boss, but to prepare workers for one day taking over and running the economy. In Canada, they were most influential in the West, especially amongst miners and forestry workers.

At one level, the Canadian rebellion was conservative. The stubborn Canadians simply refused to change the traditional role of the union in collective bargaining. But at a more meaningful level, something radical was happening. Somewhere along the line, Canadians had developed the confidence to take on both their parent union, previously held in awe, and the new conventional wisdom of competitiveness and management-labour partnerships, which was sweeping the Western world.

The Past as Present

When we identify these events - the formation of the CIO and the formation of the CAW - as "historic," what do we really mean?

At the most obvious level, we mean they were important. They had a crucial impact not only on the union, but also on the establishment of a Canadian working class and on broader developments such as the emergence of the welfare state and the nature of our politics.The formation of these groups is therefore significant in terms of their relationship to the present, to the story of how we arrived where we are today.

On 5 December 1984, Bob White, alongside his two assistants, Bob Nickerson and Buzz Hargrove, left a UAW executive board meeting to announce that, since the UAW could not accommodate the Canadian demands, the Canadians would go their own way. That same day Brian Mulroney was in New York to tell the world that "Canada was open for business." For autoworkers, fighting the corporate agenda and coming of age had meant moving towards Canadian autonomy and Canadian sovereignty. For the Canadian èlite, it meant dropping any pretence of a Canadian perspective and launching the free trade campaign to formalize continentalism; free trade was to be their North American constitution for corporate rights.

That story may be interesting in and of itself, but it's only really alive if it's linked to the story of what we are striving to become - if it's about the future as much as the past. From this perspective, these two particular events are exceptionally important and may be termed historic. They are significant stories because they reveal and symbolize the potential of workers, not only to be part of history, but also to take steps to collectively shape it.

From the early days of the emergence of a wage-earning class (stretching back roughly two hundred years), working-class families fought against the destruction of former values and methods; they opposed, resisted, rioted, went on strike, and formed unions. But these protests were always fragmented. They occurred sporadically and on a regional rather than national basis. In addition, they involved only particular sections of the working class. The protests were defeated because, while they kept certain ideas alive, they were unable to build the institutions and capacity required for a sustained response to capitalism.

Industrial unionism held out the hope of finally creating that permanence and that capacity. The movement for industrial unionism called forth a vision of a new kind of working class institution that was independent of its bosses and that had enough staying power to win immediate demands, move towards broader reforms, and possibly even transform society. This movement was distinct in its scale, scope, and breadth: it reached out to all workers, established a base in each workplace, and participated in other movements emerging in the turmoil of the times.

The 1930s witnessed an upsurge in working class politics: workers' study groups were established; co-ops formed; alternative newspapers linked themselves to a new readership; municipal elections saw independent farm and/or labour candidates step forth; and new parties, such as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) entered the national political arena. This upsurge awakened a new creativity amongst artists: literature, plays, street theatre, posters, and especially songs reflected popular struggles.

It is sometimes difficult for Canadians to appreciate that in the mid-1930s the United States was more socially progressive than Canada. While President F.D. Roosevelt was introducing unemployment insurance, massive job-creating public works programs, and labour legislation supporting unions, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett was setting up forced work camps which paid twenty cents per day to single young workers. While the governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, was refusing to use the National Guard against the strikers in Flint, the premier of Ontario, Mitch Hepburn, was threatening to establish his own army ifthe federal government wouldn't provide troops. And it was in the United States rather than in Canada that the largest demonstrations of the unemployed and the most militant actions of those fighting for unionization took place.

For a brief moment in the thirties and again immediately after the war, working people were living and breathing one of those rare and glorious historical moments when so much seemed truly possible. It was a time when, with some exaggeration, but reflecting the growing public legitimacy of unions in the United States, union posters quoted the American president as saying, "if I worked in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union." It was a time when the American Senate actually passed - even if it later sidetracked - a bill to establish a thirty-hour week, and polls in the bastion of capitalism showed that forty-one per cent of the American population supported nationalizing the banks. It was a time when the working class was present not only in the sense of reacting and defending, but also in the sense of actually flexing its potential and daring to think about making history.

At the beginning of the thirties, the level of unionization was actually slightly higher in Canada than in the United States. But the new mass production industries, such as auto, rubber, and electronics, had developed faster and further in the United States. In these sectors, the American labour movement was ahead in numbers, resources, legislative recognition, and momentum. Nevertheless, Canadian workers directly shared in the excitement and cross-border solidarity of the times. During this period, Canada faced tough and heroic labour struggles, showing creativity in inventing effective tactics and making tangible gains.

In retrospect, the Canadians still had an additional step to take, one that would overcome the dependency on their American "older brothers." For the Canadian autoworkers, that step, tied to both the Canadians' growing self-confidence and the Americans' growing resignation, would come fifty years later. While the American-led movement for industrial unionism certainly accomplished a great deal, it eventually faded and fell far short of its promise. That failure was linked both to changes in the economy and society, and to the concerted efforts of companies and governments to weaken unions. But crucial to that story were decisions made and opportunities ignored that were internal to the trade union movement: issues of democracy and bureaucratization; attitudes towards the independent role of unions in the workplace and society; and responses to past successes and openness to charting new directions and energizing new members.


Auto machine shop, c. 1905.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.

These problems, it must be emphasized, are not simply the result of a trade union leader "selling the union out" (though anger at some leaders is not misdirected). Nor did these failures suddenly emerge from nowhere in the late seventies and early eighties, when, perhaps, their existence became clearer. Their roots were laid much earlier and even included the "good times" - when the union was establishing itself and winning major benefits for its members. That's why these issues are so complex and why they currently challenge unions on both sides of the border.

The history of any union is the story of how, in spite of incredible odds, working people built their own organizations in order to have a voice. It's about overcoming bitter defeats and sharing sweet victories. It's the story of how these working class organizations responded to and effected change, thereby transforming themselves, influencing society, and touching the lives of distant others. When they are at their best, unions are in the vanguard of challenging the status quo and driving social change.

Out of such challenges grew a culture of resistance and a legacy that, while sometimes faint, still swirls around the halls, meetings, and picket lines of unions. The history of a trade union is about the creation of a vehicle through which working people can act to win immediate gains and thereby build a collective memory - a culture of struggle - to be passed on to new activists and new generations. The history of the CAW falls naturally into four interrelated stories:

Waiting The prehistory of the union: the crisis in the labour movement as it struggled directionless through the twenties and early thirties, and the challenge of developing a new kind of unionism to give voice to workers in the emerging mass production industries (Chapters 1-2).

The Union Arrives The establishment of the UAW in Canada and the U.S. as a stable and permanent institution: the early breakthroughs, growth in numbers, acceptance by both employers and the state, structural changes and innovative gains, and the carving out of a permanent space within society as a progressive social union (Chapters 3-5).

Limits The challenges to the institutionalization of the union: problems created by its successes, the demands of a new generation of workers in the sixties, and the counterattack by corporations and governments in the mid-seventies (Chapters 6-7).

Towards Movement Unionism The breakaway from the UAW: how and why the Canadians developed in a different direction, the direct events leading to the split, and the subsequent changes and problems in the creation of a new kind of union (Chapters 8-10).

Preface / Table of Contents