Chapter 10 - Building is Everything
|CAW at CLC demonstration for jobs, Ottawa, May 15, 1993. The bottom photo shows an aerial view of the demonstration. |
Courtesy of the CAW collection.
A strike is a peculiar time in a working person's life ... workers rarely confide in one another about what's really going on with them ... But walking the picket line side by side, having coffee together in the trailer, freed of the necessity of chasing a production piece on the assembly line all day, they form friendships and become philosophers.
- Bob White
We are building a labour movement not to patch up the old world so you starve less often and less severely; we are building the kind of labour movement that will remake the world ... - Walter Reuther ... we've lost ... No. We just haven't won yet.
- Rick Salutin
As the CAW approached the end of its first decade as an independent union, it faced the most threatening period since its birth as part of the UAW in the thirties. The steady increase in corporate power had intensified pressures on workers in the workplace and, by way of governments, dismantled progress made over more than half a century. Now the establishment was beckoning workers and unions to accept that there was no alternative and that it was time to give up.
The reality of the "no alternative" argument is, however, that workers have no alternative but to resist and fight. Acceptance of the right-wing arguments simply invites further demands to give up more. Acceptance would also mean that workers' organizations would quickly wither. The choice, as American socialist Eugene Debs once said, is agitation or stagnation. It's this latter concern, of letting the union stagnate and therefore losing it as a vehicle for resistance and change, that is the most threatening. As a consequence, the trade union issue of the times is to consider struggles from the perspective of their impact on building both the union and the capacity of workers for future struggles. Building is everything.
Building B locks
I n the spring of 1994, the CAW established a task force to determine the state of the membership and to obtain its input into the direction of the union. The results were presented to the fall constitutional convention, along with a discussion paper which asked ifthe union was "just getting bigger and more diverse" or whether there was "a logic to where [it was] heading - a logic that could be built on."
Interest i n the task force was extremely high. People appreciated the executive board coming into their communities to listen, and they did not hesitate to make strong criticisms or put forth ideas. Criticisms generally had a positive spirit ("this is my union, I'm proud of it, but some things need changing"). An overriding issue, in the task force meetings and at union gatherings, was that the mergers and diversification seemed to be moving the union away from the traditional model of industrial unionism. Was this direction good or bad? Did this shift happen by design or accident? Should it be halted, accelerated, or modified?
|The CAW task force consisted of two teams that travelled to CAW communities to hear what activists/members had to say. Each team consisted of three NEB members and a rank-and-file member. Senior board members Cheryl Kryzaniwsky (Local 2213, airlines) and Frank McAnally (Local 200, Ford Windsor) each headed up one of the teams. The presentations took any form people were comfortable with, and even the local preparations for the meetings were very creative (e.g., a mini-conference to decide the focus of any presentation; a lottery amongst the membership so the task force wouldn't just get expected activists). The task force members insisted on not just presenting the report to the president, but making recommendations based on what they had heard. The response of the union to every recommendation would be reported and updated at future meetings of the CAW Council.|
The rapid and complex change, along with the danger of creeping demoralization, gave an urgency to such questions: activists and members needed a clear sense of direction to keep going. But no one - in Canada or elsewhere - had complete answers to the problems working people were now facing. The best that could be said was that some of the necessary building blocks of any effective response were being assembled, and others had been placed on the agenda of the executive board and at other union forums. The development of appropriate structures, policies, directions, and ideas required experimentation, widespread input, and involvement from all levels of the union as it struggled for change. That difficult process of rediscovery constitutes no less than working people "making history."
As the CAW addressed its future, the following issues were critical.
Back to the Workplace
When industrial unionism first emerged, its base was in the workplace. The union would be built in the workplace, and it would live or die there. Once unionism was established, companies paid to retain their authority at the point of production. The companies consented (under pressure, of course) to wage and benefit increases in exchange for limiting workers' access to management rights. But increased international competition and squeezed profit margins pushed the companies to regain even the limited rights they had earlier surrendered. With unions weakened by high unemployment and job insecurity, the companies were even more aggressive. This aggression often included a corporate smile and invitations to a new partnership. But the less subtle threat of denying new investment and taking away jobs was always there. The CAW's response was not to reject all workplace changes but to reject the notion of partnership and the false equality it implied. Workplace change required negotiation between two groups - management and labour - that had some overlapping interests but also clear conflicts. The first priority of the union was therefore to put forth an independent workers' agenda on workplace change to provide the focus for mobilization and bargaining, and it was essential that this agenda was backed up with adequate resources.
|At CAMI, a GM-Suzuki joint venture, the union had direct experience with the Japanese production system. The CAMI workers, in their first complete bargaining round, went on strike for parity with GM and to change certain aspects of how production was organized. That strike, the first in any major Japanese-style plant, was rooted first and foremost in the reactions of the workers at CAMI. But it also reflected the broader CAW context in which the CAMI workers and leadership lived. That environment, passed on through staff, educationals, policies, and conferences, expressed an ideology, demands, and culture that supported challenging the "new" systems of work organization.|
In 1993, the union created a department for work organization, a structure unique amongst unions on this continent. The department produced educational programs, pamphlets, and films on the nature of the changes the companies were introducing, and possible worker responses. It developed a cadre of rank-and-file trainers who could lead local discussions and educationals. In addition, the department conducted research on the impact of the current changes and advised local leadership in negotiating workplace change with management. And it linked that research to broader issues of health and safety, the ergonomics of workplace design, work schedules and hours, and training programs geared to developing the capacities and needs of workers. The successes of the union were uneven and in many ways limited, but the fact that the union was confronting the issue was significant. It left workers with a clearer understanding of management strategies and greater confidence in fighting to limit the attack on their working conditions. And the union emerged stronger for it.
|McDonnell-Douglas worker descending into wing.|
Courtesy of Jim Littleton.
Time to Control Our Time
The organization of work includes control over the organization of time. In its early days, the union created its base workplace by workplace. However, control over work-time was the issue that historically united workers across those workplaces and was therefore so crucial to making it into a movement.
Although current work-time concerns range from part-time workers demanding more time to other workers wanting more flexible schedules to deal with family responsibilities, the primary issue in the earlier days of the labour movement was how much of the workday - and therefore their lives - the workers surrendered to the bosses. Twelve-hour days left little time for relaxation and family or little energy for workers to develop themselves by reading and learning or to engage in politics. For this reason, Karl Marx supported the ten-hour day as a crucial reform in the mid-1800s. May Day, celebrated internationally as labour's day (though only in isolated communities in North America) emerged out of the struggle at the end of the last century for reduced work-time. And the nine-hour movement in Canada, led by the skilled trades, was a historic period in the development of the Canadian working class because of its role in uniting workers across communities and regions.
|In Oshawa, 15,000 people lined up for applications in response to a rumour of job openings at GM. Job openings were few, and decent union jobs even fewer, but this didn't prevent the alleged unwillingness of people to work from becoming a major issue in the 1995 Ontario election. |
Courtesy of the Toronto Star.
When the UAW was formed, the dream of reduced work-time was sufficiently important to be included in its first constitution. In the first agreements, negotiated lay-off procedures included, as a measure of solidarity, the sharing of existing work before lay-offs occurred. At GM, there was even a ban on overtime ifany probationary workers were still on lay-off. The war brought steady overtime, but once the war was winding down, the Canadian UAW lobbied for standardizing the forty-hour week and ending overtime in order to create job openings for returning veterans. By itself, this solidarity with unemployed workers implied a significant decrease in take-home pay at a time when prices were expected to rise rapidly. The union's solution was to mobilize workers for a major wage offensive to make up for the controls on wages during the war.
In the postwar period, autoworkers made major gains in holidays and vacation time. But overtime returned. From the late fifties through the seventies, there were repeated wildcats over compulsory overtime. The Canadian UAW lobbied for at least voluntary overtime ("Ask me. Don't tell me"), and the union unsuccessfully extended the long 1970 GM strike simply to fight for what workers allegedly won in the forties and fifties: the right to work no longer than forty hours per week.
By the eighties, however, the growing economic insecurity and the increased level of dependence on overtime income virtually eliminated overtime as a rank-and-file issue in the Big Three auto plants. Even the in-plant representatives, historically the leaders in fighting compulsory overtime, were neutralized - in part because many reps were themselves dependent on overtime pay. The Big Three contracts stipulated that, as long as even a few workers in any department worked overtime and therefore needed representation, their rep received credit for overtime. Many stewards were therefore getting credit for at least twice the amount of overtime of an average worker.
At the same time, the companies favoured overtime because it gave them more flexibility and because it allowed them to hire fewer workers and therefore save on benefit costs. As governments cut back on social programs such as unemployment insurance and coverage for health and drug plans, the union ensured that the negotiated plans compensated for the differences. These rapidly rising benefit costs reinforced the companies' determination to maintain overtime rather than increase the workforce and therefore add more benefits to their costs.
The danger of sustained overtime is that it is a conservatizing force. Overtime becomes an individual solution for a social problem. Confronted with cut-backs in education or future public pensions, and cynical about politics, workers don't join the fight against the erosion of these past commitments or consider direct action, such as taking over government offices in protest. Instead, they turn to overtime. And solidarity=replaced by resentment at the fact that they must pay taxes to support others who aren't "willing" to work as hard as they do. When autoworkers protect themselves in these ways, they isolate themselves. When the private solutions they seek eventually fail, it may be too late to rebuild links with others and fight for alternatives that might succeed.
|Workers at Griffin Canada went on strike yesterday in a dispute based partly on an issue [overtime] that caused a high profile battle in the 70's.
A calculation made by CAW research concluded that ifeach hour of overtime worked had to be offset by an hour of time off, and iflegislated standards provided each worker with the right to one paid week of education/training, roughly half of a million full-time job openings would be created. Whether or not the actual number is lower, the potential for job opportunities through the redistribution of work-time is great.
In the 1993 bargaining round, with Chrysler considering a third shift in the Windsor mini-van plant and wanting to switch to ten-hour days to implement it, the union insisted that workers share in the benefits of the greater utilization of equipment through jobs and more paid time off. The outcome was a breakthrough in the eight-hour day; the new schedules would include eight hours pay for 7.5 hours of work. Although overtime would still occur on weekends, the new schedules implied some decrease in overtime. This decrease raised resistance, especially from the skilled trades. But to its credit, the local leadership went ahead with the change, and though some criticism persists, it=now generally accepted. The new shift, the shorter day, and an additional compulsory vacation week created 1,300 new job openings in the Windsor community. At Ford, the negotiating committee added the principle of all vacation time being compulsory. Some workers had become accustomed to working through their vacations and therefore doubling their pay for those periods.
In spite of such moves, popular support for fighting overtime in the auto majors does not presently exist. The first step may be to fight for voluntary overtime, which the companies will fiercely resist, given the need for a minimum workforce to schedule overtime shifts. Another possibility=that, having become accommodated to the longer hours, Big Three workers will refocus on improving the working conditions they face for that extended time. Or perhaps, the leadership role in the struggle over hours of work will shift to other sections of the union.
Inherent to the issue of hours of work and overtime=the potential for both weakening and, as the past has shown, rejuvenating the union and the labour movement.
From Sectoral Bargaining to Jobs
Industrial unionism was based on the workplace, but its bargaining strategy focused on a sectoral approach. The emphasis was on preventing workers in one workplace from competing with and undercutting workers in another. Such sectorwide bargaining over wages and benefits remains a crucial underpinning of union strategy, but workers are becoming increasingly concerned not only with the price of their labour but with job security.
The problem is that unions can't directly provide jobs. (One important exception is the ability of unions to create job openings through the reduction of each individual's work-time.) Moreover, a focus on job creation usually gets translated into the need to strengthen the companies so they will retain or expand jobs. This strategy is often only a stone's throw away from weakening the workers and introducing concession bargaining.
|[The difference in the sectoral approach to jobs is that it] rejects the competitive game in favour of taking advantage of the levers we have as a relatively rich society - our resource base, our individual (consumer) and collective (government) purchasing power. Such approaches move us away from concessions towards democratically set rules and regulations on corporate behaviour. They shift the focus from individual companies to the structure of overall sectors ... [and] from how to strengthen companies (who have no commitment to stay) to strengthening the productive capacity of our communities.
- 1993 CAW Bargaining Conference
At its 1994 convention, the CAW responded to this strategy by arguing that any overall job strategy would have to be sectoral rather than company based. And it suggested the policy question: what institutions and regulations will ensure that Canada strengthens its productive capacity in a particular sector? For example, in auto assembly, the union fought for strengthening content legislation; in aerospace, the union argued that the government should use its purchasing power as a buyer of planes or its direct ownership to guarantee an integrated industry; and in rail, the essential factor was a national transportation policy. In other sectors, the focus might be coordinated training: in auto parts, an industrywide training program is underway. In certain communities, the key might be research centres grouping selected firms to develop products that would replace imports while keeping the expertise in the community. Or it might be conversion centres that shift the equipment and skills in facilities that are or will be closed to providing products and services crucial to environmental concerns: the Brampton area CAW locals have been leading the fight to build a "Green Work" alliance to mobilize such initiatives.
Since none of these strategies could be introduced solely by the union - they involved lobbying governments and negotiating with management - the union would have to analyze these sectors, develop credible policies, fight for them through lobbies or on sectoral committees consisting of both labour and management, and above all mobilize public support for this direction. The CAW therefore hired an economist to prepare a series of sectoral profiles that could be developed by local leaders and activists working, with the staff and research department, through newly created sectoral councils.
This course of action would not automatically or immediately solve the complex problem of jobs and job insecurity. But, by expanding the scope of industrial unionism and sectoral bargaining to include sectoral job strategies, the union was creating resources and structures that would educate and train its activists, while establishing an agenda that could be fought for. The union was working towards providing that crucial sense of direction.
Diversification: A Union Not a Federation
Diversification has been crucial not only to avoid the decline of the union, but also to growth. Diversification also brought to the union the relative stability of support from more than one sector, and the energy and momentum of the new sectors. A potential problem arose as to whether, in the spirit of solidarity, the CAW was diversifying without focus, overextending its capacities, and merging with units to which it had little to offer. The union held internal debates over this issue, and while it reached no consensus, it seemed to be heading towards a balanced resolution.
The more fundamental issue focused on whether the union's goal of establishing itself in a number of specific, though different sectors, was leading towards the union becoming essentially a labour central of various unions operating in their own sectors with little control, cohesion, or solidarity. The last thing the CAW wanted was to become such a federation.
Industrial unionism had emphasized bringing all workers in a sector under one umbrella and isolating one company to win an industry pattern. As the CAW diversified, it tried to spread that basic orientation to key sectors outside of industry such as the private service sector. The key to preventing the union from becoming a federation of relatively autonomous sections was affirming the collective bargaining role of the union's central office. The union's strong service departments - especially the pension and benefits department - played a vital role in this regard. But the union couldn't retain that focus without the involvement of the political leadership of the union. This reinforced the president's direct involvement in major negotiating rounds.
|Workers discussing issues at CAW education camp in Port Elgin. |
Courtesy of the CAW Collection.
This heavy dependence on the president was not, however, sustainable in the long term: the demands on the union were simply becoming too heavy and complex. Others in top leadership positions would have to develop the confidence and authority to take over more of those duties. Furthermore, while the national office's bargaining role would establish its authority, developing a strong sense of unity throughout the organization would have to include broader steps, such as building a common overall ideology and greater interaction at the base between formerly different groups.
To some extent, the need to develop a common ideology was alleviated by the fact that the diversification in the union wasn't random; in general, the groups that joined the CAW came because they understood and supported CAW positions, and its direction. Nevertheless, the CAW was itself searching for an effective ideology for the times.
The issue of the base was addressed by emphasizing the need to keep moving smaller units into amalgamated locals in each community. This flow would assemble diverse groups within one structure, giving each group greater collective capacity. Amalgamation would also create and develop workers' common experiences in spite of the range of their different sectors and histories. Units in a particular local who shared interests with units in other communities could cooperate through national councils - as GM workers, for example, now do.
With such strategies, the hazard of over-diversifying could be overcome. Diversification could therefore strengthen the union and spread, rather than undermine, the basic strengths of industrial unionism.
From Social Unionism to Movement Unionism
The UAW (and then the CAW) always rejected business unionism - a unionism that limited itself to the price its members got for their labour. In contrast, the union espoused social unionism - a unionism that considered workers as more than just sellers of labour, that was sensitive to broader concerns, and that contributed to those in need in the community and internationally. This philosophy was reflected in a wide range of activities at the local level that ranged from sports and music camps for kids to shelters for battered women, health clinics, and child care established for union members but open to the general public. A particularly ambitious and successful program involved the development of co-op housing, which started in Windsor, but spread to UAW-CAW communities across the country.
|Demonstration of men supporting end to violence against women and children, 1992. Bob White is in the centre and on his right is Frank McAnally, president of the CAW council. |
Photo by Rod Dennis.
A more powerful version of social unionism, which could more appropriately be called movement unionism, existed in the early days of the union. The distinction <> one of degree or commitment but of orientation. In the early days, when workers were struggling to form their organization, the community wasn't so much the needy recipient of union support as it was a necessary resource for the union in surviving and winning broader battles. The union needed the community. And the union's activities extended beyond a particular progressive position; they were directed at mobilizing and building. That mobilization was, in the minds of many activists, more than a matter of achieving certain reforms; it included the hope of more profound change in the nature of society with the workers themselves playing the leading role. "Talkin' union" was then also "talkin' movement."
The threats to social influence facing today's unions can only be overcome by drawing on that earlier experience of movement unionism, when workers surmounted even greater odds to build the union. Learning from that experience would mean, as Panitch and Swartz write, "opening the way for unions to become, as far as possible, centres of working class life and culture." It means making the union into a vehicle through which its members can not only address their bargaining demands but actively lead the fight for everything that affects working people in their communities and the country. Movement unionism includes the shape of bargaining demands, the scope of union activities, the approach to issues of change, and above all, that sense of commitment to a larger movement that might suffer defeats, but can't be destroyed.
The union has only recently begun discussing the issue in these terms, but concrete initiatives have emerged at various levels. In bargaining, the emphasis on reduced work-time was directly linked to creating job openings for others in the community. The union has been exploring the establishment of local committees, which could include spouses and teenagers, to address the experiences of working class kids in the school system. In April, 1995, a CAW conference in Windsor for young people interested in the environment led to the students' establishment of local environmental committes in their schools. In addition, over 5,000 students have completed the PEL program; these graduates have a background in movement unionism and offer immense potential for activism as the union expands its local activities.
Most recently, in response to the February, 1995, Liberal budget, which marked a fundamental turning point in all of Canada's social programs, the union set up locally based Action Groups. The initial purpose was to establish permanent structures to facilitate the distribution of information and analysis in the workplace, thereby strengthening the union's ties to its members. That base, linking CAW activists and locals in the area, could then be expanded into a wider community challenge to the power of Canadian and international financiers to undermine meaningful democracy in our society.
There=a parallel between social unionism and the trade union's past approach to politics. Social unionism emphasized the importance of electoral politics but the politics that emerged was in reality contracted out. Unions contributed bodies and money while party professionals determined the direction and strategy. The trade union movement needs electoral politics, but the cynicism of union members <> unfounded. Relative to the enormous task at hand - challenging corporate power - the politics being offered is meek and narrow. The strength of the CCF/NDP, when it was first formed, lay in the excitement it created as a movement (linked, not by accident, to labour as a movement). Electoral politics will only move people again if it is part of a broader notion of politics; if, as a document prepared for the UAW's 1994 convention stated:
... [it goes] beyond being just an electoral machine and becomes an integral part of a movement-building agenda that extends into every workplace and community... that takes on the competitive agenda and that agenda's narrow focus on what society is about ... and works towards developing ... the ideological perspective and alternative vision that can move and unite people ...
Democracy and Change
These building blocks of change in the union - strengthening the workplace presence of the union, creating structures that address workers' influence on the issue of jobs, managing the union's diversification, developing movement unionism - provide the foundation for a democratic union. They will help to build a union that is stubbornly independent and oppositional to the status quo while also being creative, inclusive, and open to self-examination.
Trade unionism and democracy share a special relationship - one that is often glossed over. Unions are democratic at the core, in the sense that their existence challenges the unilateral and undemocratic power that corporations wield in the workplace. And once established, unions are a force for countering the power of private business in society as a whole. Imagine, for example, the limited debate there would have been over the crucial issues of free trade and cutbacks in social services without the oppositional base of unions.
The goals of unions are rooted in democracy. But those goals aren't achievable unless the internal life of the union is itself democratic enough to mobilize its only resource: the will and collective actions of its members. Unions are voluntary organizations. Workers vote to join a union, and the ability of the trade union leadership to force workers to follow the line is limited. That leadership can't fire or discipline workers; on the contrary, it needs their consent and active support. So while leadership is always important, it draws its strength from workers' feeling that the union is truly theirs: that is, that the union reflects and fights for their needs.
|It is the search for fundamental human freedom and the extension of certain types of social solidarity within and beyond the marketplace that have rendered [unions] the vehicle for social change.
In good times, this active involvement of the members might seem less obvious. Workers might view their union as an insurance agent to whom they pay a premium in exchange for certain benefits. A comfortable union bureaucracy could make deals with companies that apathetic workers accept. But good times are never permanent and in bad times, when the corporations tear up old deals, a union with such a limited vision of itself would be incapable of mounting an effective response.
Three particular issues form the core of the CAW's internal democracy. First, all members are equal. Second, the union places a high priority on increasing the number and furthering the development of the activists who take the responsibility of running the union's daily operations. Third, the union must balance the internal democratic process with effectiveness in democratizing corporate power in the workplace and in society.
No member should face discriminatory barriers to participation; the union must, as industrial unionism emphasized from its earliest days, be inclusive. Removing such barriers=a matter of addressing a fundamental union right, drawing on the potential talent and commitment of the membership and demonstrating to minority workers that the union welcomes them. In this regard, it=significant that, in his first address as CAW president, Hargrove chose to focus on fighting the issue of racism and sexism not just outside the union, but within it as well.
Nine of the twenty-one staff members hired since the 1992 convention were women and/or workers of colour; this initiative was part of the union's attempt to correct for obvious underrepresentation on staff. While the proportion of women and people of colour amongst the union membership had risen dramatically (as was particularly evident to those who watched the CAW demonstrators marching up Parliament Hill in the 1993 CLC demonstration for jobs), they were not yet represented in the leadership face of the union. Programs were therefore established to develop the confidence and skills of this group and remove participation barriers. Child care has become standard at all CAW functions. When the Big Three negotiations in 1993 left a healthy strike fund, the executive board voted to divert a portion of future strike fund contributions to a unionwide educational program on human rights. That program would start with the education of local leadership, stewards, and other activists.
The regional nature of Canada, and now the union, has added another dimension to the issue of equal access. Sensitivity to regional concerns=fundamental, yet the union doesn't want to risk regional fragmentation. For example, at 600 delegates, the Canadian Council was becoming so diverse and large that some leaders suggested breaking it up into regional councils. But this idea was overwhelmingly rejected by delegates both within and outside Ontario. Delegates reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the Canadian Council and keeping it in Port Elgin. They supported the expansion of the education centre in Port Elgin so it could accommodate the expanded council, continuing transportation subsidies to representatives from distant locals, and supplementing the council with other structures and measures. (the expansion in Port Elgin has, however, been postponed until the union's financial situation improves).
|There is no issue more pressing for our union than the recognition and rights of visible minorities, and the problems of racism and sexism in our communities, in our workplaces and in our local unions and national union.
The supplementary steps included establishing regional conferences (e.g., there=now an annual western regional conference); decentralizing certain educational programs (e.g., basic courses such as Workers' Compensation Benefits (WCB), which depend on provincial legislation); and extending the sectoral councils. In most cases, the sectoral councils actually united the union around nationwide, as opposed to regional, concerns (e.g., the aerospace council brings together workers from Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg). In other cases, the structure of the union and the nature of the membership meant that the new councils were essentially regional (e.g., the hospital council in Nova Scotia).
While equality of access to participation =a principle and a goal, the degree of actual participation in the union varies widely. Only a relatively small minority of workers can be called activists; i.e., workers involved in the daily decisions and administration of the union. This dependence on a relatively small cadre was true even in the early days of the union. The expansion of union democracy necessitates increasing the number of such activists, developing their commitment and capabilities, and reinforcing their role as essentially "organizers of the organized" - that is, as building the membership and introducing more workers to union life.
The strengthening of the activist base and the expansion of the number of potential activists - workers with a growing interest in the union - would result in more effective checks and balances to the power of both the local and top leadership of the union. (Bureaucratization can occur at both levels.) These two goals are also vital simply because the number of demands on the existing activists is disproportionately high. Building that cadre of activists and activists-to-be is achieved by expanding educational opportunities, by establishing the widest range of forums and conferences, and, above all, by maintaining the union's constant involvement in campaigns and struggles. Activism creates activists.
|Participation of Former Members
The union has also tried to extend the principle of participation to include laid-off members and retirees. The success in keeping permanently laid-off members involved has been very limited and isolated to a few locals (e.g., McDonnell-Douglas). The link to the union's retirees has been much more successful.
One reason for the success with retirees=that, in major agreements, the union continues to negotiate pension improvements over and above indexing (some unions bargain special lump sum improvements but very few negotiate additions to the basic pension benefit). The second element of the successful mobilizing of retirees=that they remain structurally linked to the union by way of their participation in elections for local officers (they cannot, however, vote for in-plant representations, for convention delegates, or on tentative agreements). The retirees are therefore an important political force in some locals. Furthermore, the national office of the union provides them with staff assistance in organizing themselves into effective local chapters with their own dues provisions.
These retirees now number close to 25,000. Given their experience, organizing skills, time, and access to some resources, the retirees have made an important contribution to community and national campaigns around issues such as medicare and public pensions, and individual retirees have also moved into leadership positions of other national organizations of retirees. Since the peak hiring in auto was in the mid- to late sixties, the ranks of the retirees will grow significantly over the next decade, increasing their potential role.
For the CAW in the nineties, additional activists were coming from the PEL program and the leadership schools for women and people of colour, from the new unions that had merged with the CAW, and from the attempts to launch a broader attack against the financial institutions that had, essentially, taken control over Canada's social programs and services.
Democracy is about process but also about results. Democratic procedures won't carry much weight ifthey are ineffective in the achievement of goals. For unions, that effectiveness is shaped by the power and resources of the companies and state institutions that workers confront. The union must therefore be sufficiently centralized to balance the centralized power of the other side, yet decentralized enough to permit local initiative and mobilization. The risk=that centralization will reach an overwhelming level and that the union will consequently become bureaucratized.
In the earlier years of the union, the existence of an organized left was one check on over-centralization. It brought particular activists together around specific issues and demands and challenged the top leadership of the union. This raised the level of debate throughout the union and often pushed the CAW in more militant directions. The left-right conflict at times degenerated into destructive factional fights; however, at least in Canada, the survival of that left opposition into the seventies strengthened the union. Its absence places an even greater responsibility on the activists in the union and on the role of the union's democratic structures.
From the Past to the Future: It Depends
During the twenties, when unions were floundering and corporate power and social inequality were growing - a time with some parallels to today - few would have predicted the explosion of industrial unionism. When the depression first hit and unemployment climbed, the prospects for a union breakthrough seemed to slip even further. Yet the persistence of the few and the growing anger of the many lead to a movement of protest and reform, out of which industrial unionism grew and spread its roots.
The UAW emerged in the United States during the "worst of times." Its spread to Canada wasn't based on formal or institutional internationalism, but on the powerful example of international action. American workers held sit-downs, and Canadians were inspired by the new possibilities of unionism. But even with this exciting breakthrough, union membership dwindled as the economy began to decline again and corporate intimidation increased. Unions remained fragile until the relative shortage of labour during the war and the stability and prosperity of the postwar years provided a chance for working people to consolidate and make steady material gains.
Ironically, the "best of times" included the seeds of the problems that would eventually undermine the American union. The weakening of the locals and the destruction of the left opposition removed both safeguards against union bureaucratization and a source of future dynamism. In the sixties, the resulting American union couldn't tap into the energy of the new movements. By the end of the seventies, the American UAW had lost the confidence and spirit to fight concessions.
The Canadians were "the same but different." They faced a different economic and political context as they moved hesitantly towards the American model, and they didn't get to the full basics of that model until the end of the fifties. By then the sixties were near and, unlike the Americans, the Canadians had retained a legacy that could be rejuvenated to become a part of the social rebellion. When the corporations demanded concessions in the late seventies and into the eighties, the Canadian UAW resisted.
|Democracy and Consensus
Some union decisions are made through direct democracy, such as a vote to strike and the ratification or rejection of a collective agreement. Many others are delegated to elected representatives. At CAW constitutional conventions, the highest decision-making body of the union, decisions are formally made by the votes of the delegates. But controversial votes at this level (and at the bargaining convention) have been rare because of the attempt to establish some consensus on potentially divisive issues before the convention.
This only works, in democratic terms, because of the depth of other union structures that can debate the issues on the way to a consensus. Controversial issues can, for example, be raised - without resolution but only to get a sense of where people are - at regular meetings of the Canadian Council or through regional and sectoral conferences. In addition, preparatory meetings are held before the convention to discuss policy papers and resolutions and the local delegates and staff brought in for such meetings are chosen to ensure representation from all sections of the union. (Such meetings now include some eighty people of which about one-third are staff.)
Though the number of speakers from the floor is high at the convention and criticism is unusual, conventions have involved less of a fight over policy and direction than an endorsement of those preconvention decisions, and a cultural event. As a cultural event, the convention celebrates the struggles and achievements of the union, establishes contacts, builds unity, and motivates participants to continue the fight.
Democracy is not supplied by a constitution. Nor can it be reduced to a mechanism for keeping leaders in line (as relevant as that need is). Union democracy is primarily about workers making changes: changing themselves, changing their immediate world, and laying the basis for eventually changing the larger world. Union democracy is built by workers in their struggles to build the union, which acts as their line of defence and base for progress. Democracy is therefore not separate from struggles, nor is it static; it must constantly be redefined, recreated, and reinvented.
The differences that had emerged between the American and Canadian UAW were rooted in a combination of factors: economically, in the delayed growth of Canada's manufacturing base; politically, in the later development in Canada of supportive labour legislation and the consequent longer struggle for union recognition; internally, in the persistence of a strong left based in strong locals; structurally, in the uniqueness of the Canadian Council; and culturally, in the differing role of nationalism in the two countries. American nationalism was the nationalism of the dominant power in the world, and it tended to tie the union to establishment goals. Canadian nationalism, particularly in the later years, was a response to that American domination. It was an expression of opposition to American-based companies and a rejection of the American vision of the good life.
In the early seventies, the capitalist economies adopted a radical shift in direction, particularly in North America. The postwar period of steady growth was over, and a transition began towards lowering the expectations of workers while strengthening the flexibility and power of corporations. The conflict over the best response to the new situation faced by workers, particularly in bargaining, led to the split of the Canadian union from its parent organization. The split was not easy. Like other national institutions, the Canadian section had long been dependent on the Americans for leadership and support. But the move to independence was tied to a new confidence and maturity; once the Canadians were on their own, they soared. Although the economic and political environment was increasingly hostile and many of the fights were defensive, the CAW experienced the most exciting and exhilarating period in its history.
Yet that culture of resistance could not, without other changes, continue indefinitely. Workplace closures, high unemployment, hostile governments that attacked established social programs, friendly governments that caused bitter disappointments, and divisions between unions searching for new directions took their toll. Mergers with other unions and an impressive degree of organizing gave the CAW some much-needed momentum, but by the early nineties, the crisis that was demoralizing and affecting the left internationally was also highlighting the vulnerability of the CAW.
|So thanks old friend for the songs and the stories Of all that we've been and all we might be And the next time the going gets tough I'll remember you stood here long before me
The split that had given birth to the CAW, and unified the membership and leadership around building the new union, was also the source of new divisions within Canadian labour. The example and profile of the CAW challenged the direction of other private sector unions, and left many of their leaders uncomfortable. Bob White had, soon after the split, raised the issue of uniting autoworkers, steelworkers, electrical workers into a Canadian Metalworkers Federation. But the timing was wrong: relationships were too tense and other Canadian unions would have to wait for their American parents to act first.
These divisions over the role of unions in the context of the new corporate aggressiveness also played themselves out in the relationship with the NDP. It was hardly surprising that, having severed its historical ties with its own union over the issue of concessions, the CAW would have trouble living with a social democratic government that used the power of the state to break collective agreements and enforce concessions on public sector workers.
These divisions were not just external. The issue of the relationship with the NDP also created internal tensions; relations between some of the staff and the national office remained somewhat strained after the staff strike; and more open disagreements surfaced within the union over social issues such as employment equity and gun control. But the one issue around which the union remained united, and which continued to be the key to building the union, was the issue that created the CAW in 1985: the determination to resist concessions and to maintain the independence of the union as a voice and structure through which to defend working people.
Like other unions, today's CAW faces the most threatening attacks in its history. The Canadian labour movement has maintained itself better than most movements around the world, but as the status of the American labour movement and especially of the UAW reveals, there is no basis for assuming the continued success of even the strongest unions. And for the CAW, as President Buzz Hargrove has emphasized, the issue is not only whether the union can survive, but also whether it can continue to play a crucial leadership role within Canadian labour and Canadian society.
At the same time, the CAW is on the verge of a generational change. The UAW emerged out of a generation living through the Great Depression and the war. In the sixties, a new generation flooded the auto plants and produced today's leadership and activists in the traditional CAW sectors. It must now prepare to pass the union on to the next generation - one that has not experienced postwar prosperity but instead grew up in an age of permanent insecurity that weakened the will to protest and the drive to reform.
We can hope that members of the next generation will simply say "We won't take it anymore"; that they are fed up with an economic system that produces so much more with so much less, yet constantly degrades their lives. We can hope that they will look around at the growing polarization of wealth and power, and at the international financiers that now determine the availability of jobs and what we can and cannot do, and ask: "What happened to democracy?" We can hope that they will reject the continual demand that Canadians must be more productive when their own skills and the skills of their friends are unused and unwanted. And we can hope that this generation demands "a common sense that makes sense."
But that next generation, like our generation, will rely on what the previous generation built and left, what it has passed on. That previous generation, in this case, is us; the issue becomes what we will now leave behind.
The labour movement and the CAW today face one of those historical moments when the only answer to questions about the future is: "It depends." People and their organizations make their own history. They don't, of course, make history without constraints, nor do they make it from scratch. The CAW confronts this challenge with an impressive cadre of activists, staff, and leadership. It=rich with opportunities for participation and equipped to accommodate the ongoing development of the union. It has a legacy going back to the thirties that was renewed with great excitement a short decade ago when the CAW was born. That legacy tells the inspiring story of working people's efforts to constantly stretch the limits they faced, expand their options, learn from defeats, and build on successes.
In the nineties, the challenge=to translate all the uncertainties into a wide-ranging debate in the CAW to develop the self-confidence that asks not ifthe union can do it, but how. And the development of that confidence will rest, above all, on the commitment of activists, staff, and leadership at all levels to take the individual and collective responsibility for building the capacities, and leading the struggles, that will shape the future.