Chapter 6 - The Other Sixties
|SKD striker arrested on picket line, August 23, 1969. |
Courtesy of Windsor Star.
think the movement's in better condition than it ever was ... We no longer march in the streets. We no longer have sit-down strikes ... Labour to some extent has become middle-class ... when you have no property, you don't have anything, you have nothing to lose by these radical actions. But when you become a person who has a home and has property, to some extent you become conservative.
- George Meany
Some people say I'm a dreamer But I know I'm not the only one.
- John Lennon
If I were a sociologist, I would take the wave of strikes in 1968, the black revolution to the south of us, student demonstrations here as elsewhere, the apparent consumer interest, the quiet revolution in Quebec, and the hippy movement, and I would place them all in the same sociological bag because all of them in one way or another are a clear manifestation of obvious dissatisfaction with the status quo.
- Dennis McDermott
The sixties have come to mean a time of generational revolt. Throughout the developed capitalist countries, young people who had never experienced the depression, who were born after the war and, uninspired by the fifties, refused to play the game by the old rules and challenged established authority. The public's memory of those times centred on student unrest, but those who entered the workforce were part of this same rebellion, and even when they were hostile to some aspects of it, they were still influenced by it. As workers, they expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo not by dropping out or participating in political protest; rebellion found expression in their attitudes to the workplace.
Yet even in the workplace, the issues were penetrated by the politics of an emerging English Canadian and a rising Quebec nationalism. In the United States, the antiwar movement fought against an aggressive American nationalism; in Canada, progressives saw nationalism as a positive force based on our role in the world, our specific relationship to the United States, and our history as a federation of two nations.
Gary Bryner, the young president of the Lordstown, Ohio, local which became a symbol for the "Blue Collar Blues," captured some of the changes in the attitudes of young workers in a 1972 interview:
... someone said Lordstown is the Woodstock of the working man ... long hair, big Afros, beads ... Fathers used to show their manliness by being able to work hard and have big strong muscles ... the young guy now doesn't get a kick out of saying how hard he can work ... Father felt patriotic about it ... obligated to that guy that gave him a job to do his dirty work ... the young guy believes he has something to say about what he does ... Hell, he may be ten times more intelligent than his foreman ... What I have to say about what I do, how I do it [is] more important than the almighty dollar. The reason might be that the dollar's here now ... I can concentrate on the social aspects, my rights ... That's how I got involved in this whole stinkin' mess ... Fighting every day of my life ...
The targets of the workplace revolt and anger often included the union itself, which had focused so exclusively in the fifties on wages and benefits and neglected working conditions. The report of the 1968 Royal Commission on Labour Relations (the Wood's Task force) commented: "The fact that worker dissatisfaction sometimes runs as deeply against the union and collective bargaining as against management is reflected in the rebellion of union members against their leaders."
With the economy on a roll and this growth providing workers with some power, this "other sixties" exploded in a wave of rebellion of young workers. In 1963, one-third of UAW local officials in the United States were unelected. An internal UAW poll of the American membership showed general satisfaction with the national leadership who successfully negotiated the economic package, but two-thirds of workers were disenchanted with the local leadership whom they held responsible for working conditions. In Canada, contract rejections became common, and the number of strikes grew rapidly. Companies lost more time to strikes in 1966 than in any year since 1946. A record number of these strikes were wildcats: during the sixties, roughly one-third of strikes in Canada were illegal work stoppages.
|There is a new breed of workers in the plant who is less willing to accept corporate decisions that pre-empt his own decisions ... there is a different kind of worker than we had twenty-five or thirty years ago.
We are in trouble because our values are all mixed up in America. We have been more concerned by the quantity of our gadgets and the brightness of the chrome on those gadgets than we have concerning the quality of life ... we have forgotten what is important and what is unimportant ...
The UAW responded by negotiating increases in relief time, more holidays, reductions in the amount of time it took to process grievances, and later, a substantial health and safety program. Some leaders were aware that the problem went deeper. Leonard Woodcock, then head of the GM department, talked about "gold-plated sweatshops," and Reuther, in the period just before his death, often suggested that there was a need to rethink basic values.
But the union remained unwilling and/or unable to develop a national challenge to the companies over the workplace conditions. The basic position remained: "Let them produce the golden goose and we'll share in carving it up." In the U.S., the potential of a revival of the union initiated by these young workers was soon lost. The deep recession and the energy crisis in the mid-seventies consolidated that loss and brought discipline back to the workplace. The revolt was essentially over.
Not so in Canada. Although the Canadian social protest movements were relatively weaker, the labour movement was stronger. The defiance of workers lasted longer, and the political influence of Canadian labour was actually more powerful in the seventies than in the sixties. In fact, the unions themselves became an important vehicle for placing social issues on the national agenda.
The economic climate in Canada and the deepening of unionization helped to sustain the movement. The Canadian economy benefited from both the growth in the United States and the devalued Canadian dollar, which lowered the costs of exports relative to imports. In the sixties, Canada's workforce grew faster than the workforce in any other major developed country, and unionization kept pace. Workers in manufacturing may have been rebelling against their union leaders, but it was equally clear that the workers wanted to sustain their unions. The Canadian UAW regularly led all other UAW regions in organizing during this period, and it also entered the new telecommunications sector by organizing Northern Telecom in 1967.
Led by the highly politicized public sector workers in Quebec, unionization in the Canadian public sector erupted in 1965 when most of these workers gained the right to strike. Postal workers and railworkers took on the fight over the right to negotiate the introduction, and not just the fruits, of technological change in the workplace. Such battles in the private and public sectors reinforced the confidence of the entire Canadian labour movement.
The assembly over,
Unlike the United States, Canada wasn't polarized - or paralyzed - around a dominating international issue. As a result, the door was open for significant social reforms. Those gains increased workers' security and therefore the strength of the Canadian labour movement. In the mid-sixties, the minority Liberal government, supported by the NDP, responded to the mood and pressures of the times by introducing the Canada Pension Plan and national medicare.
The situation in auto was particularly important. Not only was auto production running at a high rate, but the auto industry was moving towards an integrated market with the United States via the Autopact (the Canada-U.S. Automotive Products Agreement). Canadian plants had been designed for the domestic market and thus included a wide range of models. While management had always pressured Canadian workers to maximize production at minimum cost, the nature of the production process in Canada - regular model changes and diversity in jobs and work cycles - gave Canadian workers a relatively greater degree of in-plant bargaining power than workers in standardized single-product plants.
When the Pact went into effect, the corporate demands for tougher production standards and greater management flexibility, especially in terms of overtime, increased in Canada. This change was not surprising given the greater cross-border interdependence of production, the expensive investments, and increases in Canadian wages (wage parity) that accompanied the Autopact. New managers and consultants, who were more familiar with the organization of global-scale plants and were often American, were brought in to implement the changes. Their single-minded drive to recast production facilities along American lines added to the disaffection already brewing in the workforce.
In the American auto plants, many of the wildcats were led by workers who, while young, had been in the plants for a decade or more and simply refused to accept the never-ending speed-ups (almost two-thirds of the American workforce was over 30). In Canada, where the Autopact had led to a rapid expansion of the workforce, the popular stereotype of new workers leading the walk-outs - with the tolerance and often the support of the old guard - was more accurate.
The Canada-U.S. Automotive Products Agreement (Autopact) was a trade agreement between Canada and the United States introduced in 1965. It more fully integrated the auto industries of Canada and the United States, providing the Canadian operations a chance to benefit from larger and more specialized production runs. But it also recognized the need for safeguards to protect the Canadian industry because of its dependence on the U.S. in terms of both ownership and size. This was done by enforcing commitments on multinational corporations. Those commitments said that ifthe auto companies wanted to sell in the Canadian market, they also had to reach certain levels of production in Canada.
Under this managed trade, companies that produced 50 per cent or more of their vehicles in North America (Canada and the United States) could freely ship vehicles and components north or south across the Canada-U.S. border. On the Canadian side there were additional conditions that had to be met to get duty-free status: companies had to assemble roughly one vehicle for every vehicle sold in Canada, and for each dollar of sales in Canada, companies had to offset this with 60 cents of value-added production in Canada. (This last condition was accomplished through direct agreements between the Canadian government and the auto companies rather than legislatively.)
The restructuring brought on by the Autopact caused job losses in certain plants. But because the pact was introduced during a period of rapid growth, it resulted in the construction of ninety new plants and twice as many major expansions. Prominent examples include Chrysler car assembly in Windsor; GM truck assembly in Oshawa; Ford car assembly in St. Thomas; GM car assembly in Ste-Thèrèse, International Harvester heavy-duty trucks in Chatham; car and truck frames at Budd in Kitchener and Hayes-Dana in St. Catharines; and car trim at GM in Windsor. In these locations, thousands of young workers were hired. The UAW's American membership in 1969 was an impressive thirty-five per cent higher than in 1960; in Canada, the increase for the same time period exceeded seventy per cent. Autoworkers' recollections may exaggerate the mood, but they capture the confident shrug with which many young workers then viewed employment in auto communities: "In those days, ifthey canned you in the morning you could just go down the street and get another job before lunch. And ifyou didn't like it there, you could be working somewhere else that afternoon."
Although the pay in the auto plants was relatively good, the nature of the work was a shock to the young people flooding in. At the same time, the reality of the power small groups can exercise in assembly plants was well known, and jobs in the auto communities were plentiful. With the discipline of the market temporarily in abeyance and revolt in the air, the workers' readiness to take action against inhumane conditions, arbitrary management, and compulsory overtime was hardly surprising.
When, for example, Chrysler tried to establish compulsory overtime as the norm, members of Local 144 wildcatted for overtime to be voluntary after eight hours each day and forty-eight hours weekly. At de Havilland Aircraft, Local 112 had a wildcat to limit overtime when other workers were laid off. In St. Thomas, wives and girlfriends picketed the Ford operations on Saturdays to challenge the weekend loss of their partners. One particular Saturday, the St. Thomas workers threatened job action ifmanagement didn't let them off early so they could cheer for fellow workers in a local hockey tournament.
The workers got to the tournament. The resistance to overtime was, however, increasingly ambivalent. In fact, while workers disliked being forced to put in overtime, their growing dependence on it was becoming a matter of concern. In February, 1965, George Burt observed: "Workers have established brand new standards of living based on overtime and I'm afraid persistent overtime is going to endanger their health."
This period was crucial to the history of the Canadian UAW in that many of today's top leaders and activists were introduced to the union at this time. They surfaced at a time of shop-floor militancy and social protest, and this atmosphere shaped, even ifit did not determine, their future attitudes. In contrast, the first generation of American UAW leaders enjoyed a longer reign and passed the torch to the generation from the fifties, skipping potential leaders who emerged in the sixties.
|U.S. assembly plants operated on the basis of fixed shifts. The first thing young workers consequently learned about seniority and union principles was that it stuck them with night shifts. In Canadian plants (with the later exception of Ste-Thèrèse) workers rotated shifts every two weeks, removing that particular barrier to gaining union support from young workers.|
Within the union, women had fought alongside men for common workplace improvements like limiting speed-up and improved washroom facilities. Yet female members still faced the bias of separate seniority lists. The economic restructuring that followed the Autopact both aggravated and highlighted this inequity. Women with high seniority lost their jobs as departments were closed or cut back, while lower-seniority male workers remained. When expansions later occurred in departments that traditionally excluded women, companies often hired new workers, ignoring the women who had been laid off.
At that time, the Human Rights Code of Ontario prohibited discrimination on a number of grounds, but these did not include the sex and marital status of the worker. In 1970, the legislation was finally amended after a long and intensive lobbying campaign and the introduction of a private member's bill by member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Cliff Pilkey, the former president of GM Oshawa Local 222.
UAW women in Oshawa played a decisive role. No doubt, the emergence of a broader women's movement helped give them the support and confidence they needed to win seniority rights. That this amendment took so long to achieve was not simply a matter of corporate resistance, though corporations were the source of this discriminatory practice. It is also a reminder of the difficulty of changing broader social assumptions, especially those steeped in tradition. The powerful lesson was that sometimes change in the workplace occurs only as part of broader social change.
|Between the early sixties and mid-seventies, the number of women in unions tripled, increasing by over half a million.|
The expansion of unionization in the public sector, with its high proportion of women, and the emerging feminism of the sixties provided that broader context of change. With a base in the rapidly growing public sector and with links to the minority of women in the industrial sector, working women pushed the male trade union leadership to act, and, eventually, many did respond.
But Don't Forget Wages ...
Labour militancy in the sixties was generally based on both workplace and pay issues. Inflation was accelerating, the newly organized public sector was making up for lost time, railworkers and workers on the St. Lawrence Seaway were setting high standards, and Canadian autoworkers' discussions at the Big Three were finally turning to wage parity with the Americans.
The principle of wage parity with American autoworkers - the same pay for the same work - had been a demand by Canadian workers from day one. But the smaller Canadian market, with its less efficient production runs, remained a barrier to winning that equality. The Autopact integrated Canada into the same market and productive system as the U.S. (with some Canadian safeguards) and gave Canadians a clear rationale for demanding equal wages: they were now as productive as Americans. The pact also gave the UAW in the U.S. a good reason to insist on parity: it did not want to compete with an equally productive neighbour that paid lower wages.
After three decades of unionization, the implementation of wage parity with American Big Three workers was relatively straightforward. The policy was phased in during the 1968 agreement. Parity committees studied jobs on each side of the border, and workers performing the same tasks received the same basic wage in their own currency. Wages differed according to the inflation rates in each country, but this discrepancy was erased in 1973 by the introduction of a Canada-U.S. COLA formula which provided workers in both countries with identical cost-of-living increases.
Canada-U.S. wage parity in the Big Three, and especially the large wage increases that went along with it for the Canadians, immediately led to a series of wage-related comparisons and confrontations across the independent parts, aerospace, and agricultural implements sectors. Workers still confronted the occasional employer when the issue was a wage freeze or concessions (e.g., the 134-day strike at Dominion Forge, an auto components plant in Windsor), but the dominant issue in the union, especially in the auto parts sector, was matching the increases at the Big Three. The overwhelming majority of legal strikes in the late sixties occurred amongst these independent suppliers to the auto majors.
|McDonnell-Douglas workers on strike, October 1970. |
Courtesy of the Toronto Telegram collection, York University.
In aerospace, the issue was less direct. Of particular significance was the two-month strike at McDonnell-Douglas in 1971. The U.S. had introduced wage controls, and the American negotiators seemed to have reached a settlement within those guidelines. The Canadian bargaining team rejected the offer. When the continuing strike threatened to disrupt American plants, the union's international office - with the support of the Canadian director - eventually ordered the local to vote on the offer. The argument was that the Canadians had essentially achieved their objective of matching the Big Three pattern increase, and therefore no longer had a reason to continue the strike.
While there were grounds for debating whether the pattern was completely met, events and the locals' own wage demands had moved the confrontation beyond the technicality of how the pattern should be applied to McDonnell-Douglas in Canada. At the subsequent membership meeting, a group within the union stormed the stage and prevented a vote, arguing that the meeting should have only been informational. After bitter recriminations between the local and the national office, the members voted to return to work in defiance of the local leadership. But the local leadership in turn received a strong endorsement in the subsequent elections in defiance of the national and international offices. Hostility between the local and national union, not to mention the international union, didn't abate for almost two decades.
The significance of these events is not restricted to the internal conflict in the union; it extends to the many issues this conflict straddled and in some ways foreshadowed. This instance was the most visible of a number of postparity conflicts. Since the formation of the union, Canadians had tried to catch up to Americans in each sector. Now they were rejecting parity with their American aerospace counterparts and looking to Canadian comparisons such as the gains made in Canadian auto plants. This change in attitude was part of a more general trend in which Canadian workers were no longer viewing the U.S. as their role model. That trend was later a key factor in the mobilization of massive opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
|Dave Monie of the United Electrical Workers (UE) being dragged away by police at Artistic Woodworkers' strike in Toronto. |
Courtesy of the Laurel Ritchie collection.
The union involved was the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (CTCU). The main speakers at the rally included Andreas Papandreaou, then active in the Greek community and later Prime Minister of Greece, Jim Hunter of the Canadian Brotherhood of Rail and Transport Workers (CBRT), and Abe Taylor of Local 222 Oshawa. The CTCU, UE, and CBRT are now part of the CAW. One of the workers from McDonnell-Douglas who came to the protest was arrested. He and six other sympathetic Douglas activists showed up for work late and they were suspended. This led to a sick-in by the union membership; five of the key leaders of the local at Douglas were subsequently fired.
Furthermore, the readiness with which the Americans accepted voluntary wage guidelines was one indicator of the UAW's future readiness to accept concessions. Similar discussions between the Canadian government and the unions had been unproductive, and the Canadian labour movement fought controls even when they were mandated by law in 1975. In a sense, the McDonnell-Douglas fight was therefore also an early skirmish against such limits on bargaining. In terms of strategy, that strike was one of the few instances where a Canadian shut-down had a major impact on American facilities. It was therefore a precursor of later developments that revealed the workers' potential bargaining power in a system where the flip side of international restructuring is specialization and just-in-time production, which leave companies vulnerable to disruptions anywhere in the production chain.
Most important, however, the McDonnell-Douglas conflict was an indicator of a new surge of nationalism in the country which linked economic demands to political perspectives. The immediate tension may have been over the American leadership's response to wage demands, and the changing demands of the local's bargaining team may have been questionable. But the emotional side of this strike could not be understood without consideration of the intensifying debates over American domination of the Canadian economy. The arrogance of this American multinational company, the weakness of the American UAW's response to wage controls, and the apparent order from Detroit to end the strike fed into and reinforced a growing left nationalism in Canada.
Which Side Are You On?
The Canadian UAW, like the American UAW, did not easily cope with the social movements outside the union. In Canada, despite the conflicts accompanying those movements, the union itself eventually integrated much of the spirit of rebellion and moral challenge to the status quo which the movements represented. In the United States, the divisions grew deeper.
The two most intense and divisive movements of the decade were based in the United States: the civil rights movement, which began the slow march to citizenship for the black population, and the mobilization against the war in Vietnam, which led hundreds of thousands of young people to question what America stood for. It was in the civil rights marches and non-violent sit-in campaigns of the American South that young white students from the northern states got their first taste of activism. They returned to apply their new-found organizing skills at the community level and then in the antiwar demonstrations on campuses.
The songs of protest sung in the early sixties were often based on the labour songs of the thirties. This influence reflected labour's history as the most important and lasting movement of that earlier period, but also highlighted the extent to which labour's link to other movements was now only by way of its past. American labour couldn't comprehend the urban rebellions and black rage. It was generally absent from the civil rights protests and the antiwar demonstrations.
There were some exceptions, the most notable being the UAW and Walter Reuther. Reuther had joined the civil rights marches in the South, and in turn, Martin Luther King spoke at UAW functions. But this alliance never became permanent nor did it lead to sustained organizing breakthroughs in the South. As the black movement mobilized and became radicalized, the UAW faced several choices. The choices the union leadership ultimately made, within both the Democratic Party and the UAW itself, blocked closer ties to the civil rights movement.
Used to positions at the forefront of social change, labour leaders found themselves attacked by radical activists and student demonstrators as part of the establishment.
In 1964, the delegation from Mississippi to the Democratic Convention included blacks. When the nonracial Mississippi Freedom Party held its own statewide democratic convention to choose delegates for that same convention and insisted that it be seated in spite of the presence of the official all-white delegation from Mississippi, Reuther - concerned about internal party turmoil - supported the party establishment.
Later, when angry young blacks, influenced by the growing militancy in their community, fought management over workplace conditions in the Detroit factories and simultaneously challenged the union on the lack of black representation on staff and the executive board, they were branded "extremists." Frustrated young black workers watched Reuther marching on television with Southern blacks and asked, "Why isn't he doing that in Detroit?" They noted the eventual moves to bring blacks in as union officials and acknowledged that the UAW had gone further than other unions. However, they complained bitterly that those black leaders chosen were not based amongst the militants but were politically safe.
The ties to the student antiwar movement followed a similar path. In the first days of that movement, when the students were developing a broad challenge to the overall direction of American society, the UAW was directly supportive. The American student left even drafted its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, at the UAW summer camp. The UAW financed the first organizer of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and contributed to their community campaigns and other projects. The bridge between the movements was often labour families crossing the generational divide. Labour activists from the thirties were now in influential union positions and their sons and daughters who were now in "the movement" sought and received financial support.
Within the nationalist left in the union, there was overlap between the old left of communists and ex-communists (many of whom had left the CP after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1956), and a new left of independent socialists and left-CCF members who became active in the Waffle group in the NDP. The Waffle-sponsored conference on the Autopact in Windsor on 9 January 1971 was endorsed by the presidents of five of the six largest auto plants in Ontario. The speakers included well-known Waffle leader Jim Laxer as well as Ed Baillargeon, the president of the Windsor Labour Council, Charlie Brooks of Local 444 and president of the CAW Council, and Ed Broadbent, then the federal MP for Oshawa.
Reuther, concerned that the labour movement was being marginalized, eventually broke from the AFL-CIO to create a new, more progressive alliance of labour. But this attempt was also destined to fail. Quick to criticize the AFL's extreme integration with the American state department, but hesitant to break with the most important aspects of that policy (the Vietnam War), there was no basis for a relationship with the student movement. To the surprise of very few, the new alliance with the Teamsters, the main union outside the AFL-CIO, did not lead to new directions on social policy.
The Canadian left had the advantage of being energized by the American movements without having to confront, to anywhere near the same degree, the bitterly divisive issues of race and war. Canadian politics wasn't about the forceful capture of black slaves, the denial of the most fundamental citizenship rights to a large internal minority, the bombing of civilians in a country thousands of miles away, or the maimed war veterans who came home to tell the stories of those who didn't. While the American left fought against its country's aggressive nationalism, the defining issue for the left in both English and French Canada was the assertion of a defensive and emerging nationalism.
A Canadian Car?
The CAW council supported the principle of the Autopact, though it rejected the actual agreement because of its inadequate support for those affected by the possible restructuring. In addition to the official Canadian UAW brief, three other briefs - each taking a left nationalist perspective - were presented: Local 444 (Chrysler); the GM inter-corporate council (though they had divisions); and the Windsor Council of the Unemployed (linked primarily to Local 444 and Local 200). These alternatives to further integration with the American industry pointed towards building a Canadian car.
While Canadian nationalism had significant support in even some conservative circles, this support would go up in smoke once the radical implications of a Canadian car were spelled out. The legacy of dependency had left the Canadian industry without the industrial structure and skills to compete head on with the Americans. To keep prices reasonable we would have to limit imports in order to get economies of scale. But this meant limiting consumer choices in the face of options which readily existed across the border; risking retaliation which might impact on other sectors such as steel; and shutting some Canadian plants as we moved away from a wide range of models. While jobs would be expanded with the higher Canadian content in a Canadian car, many of these jobs would be in other communities, for other workers. Moving to a Canadian car would therefore have meant addressing all kinds of complex issues for which, in spite of the enthusiasm, there was no economic and political base.
The argument that the pact would further integrate this crucial industry with the United States, further limiting Canadian sovereignty, was correct (though the industry was already virtually completely American-dominated). Nor did the pact provide the Canadian industry with the crucial aspects of any independent industry - research, design, development, process engineering, and high-technology parts production. The opposition to the pact was, however, wrong in warning that there would be a net shift of jobs away from Canada. The restructuring that followed the Autopact did mean closures and "rationalizations" that spelled job loss for many, but the overall impact did increase jobs.
Employment in the Canadian auto industry went from 32,000 in 1964 to 60,000 in 1973. With access to the American market, a lower dollar, and the safeguards to maintain assembly plants, Canada got new investments to make the existing plants world scale. This gave us the advantage of having the more modern plants in Canada and it created the opportunity for parts plants to produce larger runs for these larger plants producing standardized product. Having this higher efficiency, it increased the opportunities for parts plants and assembly plants to export to the United States. (American tariff reductions were a less significant factor.)
Although the debate over the Autopact continued for years, that debate gradually merged into a consensus that essentially accepted the logic of the Autopact. When the Americans tried to erode the pact, there was unanimity within the Canadian UAW in defending the importance of the safeguards; even those originally opposed recognized that Canada was now more vulnerable to their withdrawal. And when the Americans shifted their focus elsewhere, the continued imbalance in favour of assembly lead to unanimity within the union to strengthen the safeguards to get more parts production and some research and development.
This nationalism differed from American flag-waving because Canada wasn't a superpower intent on making the world safe for American capitalism. In fact, Canada's sovereignty was based on finding a way to escape the domination of that superpower and to prevent it from stifling Canadian potential. In the case of Quebec nationalism, the focus was on liberation: Quebecers were simultaneously recovering something lost while shedding a conservative past that held back the province's creativity and promise.
Because the main vehicle for the increasing penetration of the U.S. into Canada was economic - foreign investment and trade - Canadian nationalism was debated in economic terms. This emphasis put the Canadian UAW at the centre of political debates within the left. Could Canada challenge economic integration with the U.S. and follow nationalist industrial strategies such as developing a Canadian car? Could international unions play a role in a nationalist movement? Would the international unions limit nationalism in the NDP?
In each case, the Canadian UAW leadership found itself at odds with the nationalist left, which included sections of its own membership. The union supported the Autopact, arguing that the industry was already so integrated with, and dependent on, the American companies that a Canadian car was simply not on the agenda. Canadian safeguards for a fair share of the industry, along with income protection for those affected by the restructuring, were therefore the main goal. The union defended its ties to the American-based UAW, arguing that the measure of a union was its internal democracy and direct achievements, not its nationality. In addition, the top leadership emphasized that internationalism as applied to worker solidarity was quite different from, and even essential to taking on, internationalism as applied to capital. As for the NDP, the union played an active role in expelling the Waffle group from the party, arguing that the group's focus on long-term radical utopias would undermine the NDP's electoral chances.
The Waffle group was one central expression of Canada's new left, full of intellectual and organizing potential. Its nationalism was unashamedly part of a socialist project, and its strategy was based on the working class as the main motor of social change. This fact in itself would have, sooner or later, led to a direct confrontation with the NDP establishment and much of its base. The NDP had already defined itself as primarily an electoral party, whose main goal was to come to political office. The Waffle's idea of a socialist party placed immediate electoral success second.
The Waffle group included different tendencies, but to its key activists, the main point of a party was to educate, organize, mobilize, build understanding, and expand the number of activists. The Waffle's goal was to lead and coordinate campaigns and struggles, and eventually unify workers, unions, and other progressive groups into an unstoppable political force. To lifetime NDP stalwarts such as Dennis McDermott, who had taken over the helm of the Canadian UAW in 1968, the Waffle's increasingly radical ideas and actions threatened the NDP's electoral chances. In 1971, McDermott told the Canadian Council:
Labour desires a change in the social order now and not 50-100 years from now ... It is my belief that the end purpose of political and ideological belief is to bring that belief to fulfilment and in one's own lifetime. Fulfilment means power, power means government, and government means changing the social order now ...
This assessment had some short-term validity, and after the Waffle was expelled, the NDP was in fact successful in a number of provincial elections. But as the future history of the NDP showed, the loss of committed young people with ideas and vision cost the party dearly. Ironically, many of these people later returned to work with the labour movement - in some ways more productively. Having been excluded from the NDP, they and other young people disenchanted with the NDP drifted into other forms of politics. Some ended up in coalitions which became part of the impressive alliance with labour that almost defeated the FTA. A good number became union activists through their jobs and have since risen to important positions within the labour movement. Others found work directly in the union movement as staff, and many joined the feminist movement. Within the trade union movement, groups such as Organized Working Women (OWW) lobbied for changes in structures and policies. These socialist feminists, refusing to write off the trade union movement even in difficult times, established - to a degree unique to any country - strong links with the labour movement.
Dennis McDermott relates the following story: Growing up Irish in England, he was listening as his teacher showed the class the vastness and riches of the empire. The young Dennis naively asked, "Why, if it's so great, were there so many poor people in it?" On his next report card, the teacher warned: "... this child has bolshevik tendencies."
In Canada, unlike in the United States, the conflicts with the new movements did not become the dead weight of a renewed and false stability. Although the nationalist left was defeated in Canada, the labour movement and others eventually adopted much of its perspective. As a result, militancy and politicization continued and even expanded within the labour movement.
The evolution of the Canadian UAW's positions from the sixties to the mid-eighties and beyond=one of the best examples of change within the movement. By the mid-eighties, the union that, a dozen years earlier, had been the leading defender of its international connections had bolted from its own international union; it ended up playing - by way of the anti-FTA fight - a leading role in the battle against further integration into the U.S. and it increasingly attacked the NDP from the left. That evolution reflected more general trends in the Canadian labour movement, the Canadian UAW's own political make-up and culture, and the particular response of the union's new leader to the criticisms and challenges facing the union. Dennis McDermott was one of a generation of activists inspired by and devoted to the social unionism of Walter Reuther. McDermott was keenly aware of the instability of the times and determined not to lose the young militants either to the left or to cynicism. He also had his own strong nationalist impulses. Though he didn't hesitate to marginalize those who challenged his authority as leader, he set out to accommodate certain pressures from the left and to establish a militant, progressive, and Canadian face for the union.
Within months of taking office in 1968, McDermott announced his opposition to the U.S. role in Vietnam, even though Walter Reuther and the UAW executive board remained mute on the subject. Soon after, confronting an employer (North American Plastics) that was determined to break the union, McDermott took an unusual but dramatic last-resort step: he called for a sympathy walk-out at Ford and informed GM and Chrysler that shut-downs at their plants would soon follow. North American Plastics eventually accepted the union.
|Ontario legislation provided for voluntary overtime after forty-eight hours, but there was no mechanism to enforce this. Consequently, the Chrysler workers fought for and won language to get this right put into their agreements, where it could be arbitrated.|
The next year, and continuing into the early seventies, McDermott adopted the struggle for an issue that had historically been led by the left: the shop-floor demands for reduced work-time and especially the frustrations over forced overtime. He also led the fight within the international union for voluntary overtime. Though the Canadian union extended the strike at GM in 1970 to try and win voluntary overtime, the lack of interest in the United States undermined that goal. This divergence in attitudes towards control over work-time became another factor that weakened the American UAW's role as a model for the Canadian union.
The struggle of the Canadian UAW to control overtime and reduce work-time was part of a larger demand across the labour movement. At that time, the movement seemed to have enough drive to lead the respected H.D. Woods, in Queen's IR Scene in Canada, to conclude in 1973 that: "The 1970's may witness a dramatic decline in hours of work due to the growing demand for shorter hours and the four day week."
|Local 112 float in Labour Day parade. |
Courtesy of the CAW collection.
|Dennis McDermott, Director, Canadian Region, with Cesar Chavez at United Farmworkers rally in California, 1969 (Bobby Kennedy poster in background). |
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.
Anxious that the union reach the young workers in the industry, McDermott pushed to expand the union's emphasis on education and to link the opportunities for more education created by the large number of strikes. In many of the large units, the companies did not challenge the union with scabs during strikes, making mass pickets unnecessary. However, pickets were an important educational tool of the union. To compensate for this change, the union insisted that workers who didn't picket had to attend strike classes as a condition for receiving their strike pay. The classes dealt with union structure and union history, and provided information for new members.
McDermott moved the Canadian office from Windsor to Toronto, officially to be closer to the national media but unofficially to create some physical distance from Detroit. Remarkably, the UAW, one of the most powerful unions in Canada, did not have its own research department or its own newspaper. Instead, the American UAW paper had a Canadian supplement. McDermott successfully set up a research department and a national paper and raised the status of Canadians at the meetings of the International Metalworkers Federation from merely being part of an American UAW delegation to representing workers in a sovereign country. McDermott's nationalism also included a sympathetic appreciation of the nationalism of others, in particular Quebecers.
Quebec: The Not So Quiet Revolution
No part of Canada experienced more change during the sixties than Quebec. With the death of the reactionary and iron-fisted Premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, Quebec emerged from the Grande Norcier (Dark Ages) and entered a decade of capitalist reform and modernization that witnessed the explosion of both militant trade unionism and nationalist sentiments.
During the sixties, the number of organized workers in the province almost doubled, and Quebec's rate of unionization became one of the highest in North America. The Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL) moved from being a modest provincial body to a labour body at the centre of decisions on bargaining and the political direction of its affiliates. The Catholic-based central union dropped its religious ties, establishing the primarily public sector-based CNTU (Confederation of National Trade Unions). The existence of the CNTU pushed the QFL in a more nationalist direction. Though its competition with the QFL would later become bitter, the two centrals brought a new dynamism to the Canadian labour movement. The two centrals joined in fighting the War Measures Act and, in 1972, organized - along with the teachers' central - a virtual general strike in Quebec. In the process of this mobilization, the educational material prepared by these centrals added radical socialist ideas to the nationalist analysis.
The UAW's presence in Quebec came late. The UAW had been slow to bring Quebec workers into the union. White Consolidated, organized in 1946, was Quebec's first UAW unit. During the war, the opportunities within Quebec were great, but the UAW made no significant inroads: it was preoccupied with the competition from other well-established unions in Quebec, the demands of organizing in Ontario, and the lack of additional resources coming from Detroit. In 1947, the union again considered the potential for growth within Quebec, focusing unsuccessfully on approximately 17,000 garage workers. (These workers eventually joined the CAW by means of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers.) While the UAW did experience growth in Quebec through the fifties, the real breakthroughs came in the mid-sixties, with the establishment of GM's assembly plant in Ste-Thèrèse and the successful vote at United Aircraft (now Pratt and Whitney).
|Unless we are prepared to set up a separate organization in Quebec, it seems that our efforts would be better regarded by cleaning up and consolidating our membership in Ontario than attempting a Quebec campaign without the necessary tools, i.e., men and money.
The War Measures Act, which took away civil liberties in Quebec, was introduced in 1970 under the pretext of fighting terrorism. It is now generally known that the actual goal was to weaken Quebec's nationalist movement; the federal government already had the police powers to deal with terrorist activists and the murder of Pierre Laporte, Quebec's minister of labour. Few individuals or institutions outside Quebec escaped the resulting hysteria, but the UAW's Canadian Council, with McDermott leading the argument, eventually passed a resolution exposing and condemning the actions of the federal and Quebec governments. Subsequently, in 1977, the UAW also passed a resolution recognizing Quebec's historic claim as one of the founding nations of Canada.
Two UAW strikes during the sixties and early seventies, both strongly supported by the national office in Canada, played a prominent political role in Quebec. In 1970, GM workers at Ste-Thèrèse included as a major demand their right to work in their own language. As the Financial Times subsequently reported on May 16, 1977:
The assemblers [in Ste-Thèrèse] ... are proud of their achievements following a three-month strike that turned a routine company-wide strike ... into a cause celebre throughout Quebec and turned the local into the spearhead for language reform ... Premier Bourassa intervened near the end with the promise of language legislation, laying the groundwork for the 1974 Official Language Act.
At the beginning of 1974, the workers at United Aircraft in Longueuil (Local 510) launched a strike that was originally over issues such as upgrading their lagging wages and benefits but eventually focused on the more fundamental issue of union recognition. As the strike dragged on, the union successfully mobilized funds and special monthly contributions from its locals across Canada. But in August, 1974, eight months into the strike and while the Canadian director was out of the country, the international secretary-treasurer did something inexplicable. Without consulting McDermott, Emil Mazey sent letters to the strikers and all Canadian locals, accusing the local union of fraud in obtaining extra benefits. The accusation was technically true, but the additional funds were not going into anyone's pocket. They were being channelled into emergency relief for the strikers. Mazey's letter threatened to undermine support.
On his return to Canada, a furious McDermott, foreseeing the implications not only for the strike but also for the Quebec labour movement and the UAW's role in Quebec, arranged a loan from the QFL to continue strike payments until the issue was resolved. At the next council meeting, he put forth and received support for an unprecedented resolution condemning Mazey's actions. There had been many conflicts with the international office over the years, but for the first time, a Canadian director had led the criticism on a major policy issue and demanded a reversal by the international union with the support of the Canadian secondary leadership. Since Mazey was embroiled in other conflicts in the union at the time, McDermott wasn't as isolated within the international executive board as he might have been. Mazey's policy was reversed and when McDermott introduced Local 510 leadership to the Canadian Council in June 1975, they were welcomed as heroes.
|Union meeting of United Aircraft workers in Longueuil, Quebec (Local 510) during bitter 1974-75 strike. (Picket reads "United Against United.") |
Courtesy of the CAW Local 510 collection.
The long and bitter United Aircraft strike ended in August, 1975, after almost twenty months. It had included professional strikebreakers, dogs, violent confrontations, mass demonstrations and cultural events, and then a desperate factory occupation that ended with a brutal police assault. The strike occurred at a particular point in Quebec's development when nationalism was directly linked to questions of class and corporate power and when workers were playing the leadership role in that nationalism. The strike consequently came to symbolize the refusal of Quebecers to be treated like colonials by a foreign-based multinational which refused to accept standards that had become common in neighbouring Ontario.
The negotiated settlement did not include union security, but the workers returned to work with a political commitment, from an embarrassed provincial Liberal government, to introduce the Rand formula through legislation. The legislation was implemented in 1977 after the Parti Quèbècois (PQ) came to power with a social democratic and nationalist mandate.
By the mid-fifties, it seemed that capitalism had attained a new normalcy in North America. Conflicts between labour and management were contained within fairly narrow limits, steady material progress was assured, and the only threat was externally based - the Soviet Union.
Suddenly, in the United States, a generation stood up and challenged the morality behind the normalcy. It questioned society's commitment to the democratic values that were repeatedly expressed but were absent in the schools, in the workplace, and in America's foreign policy. It questioned society's commitment to equality for blacks and for women. The American labour movement, however, proved incapable of tapping into this energy and potential, as did the UAW. The UAW had failed to make strong connections with and channel the angry energy of its own members; it could hardly be expected to form lasting bonds with external movements. The UAW - for all its achievements - had been drained of its own spirit.
That failure condemned American trade unions to a long and steady slide to marginalization. Walter Reuther's death in 1970 may have symbolized the death of an era for American labour, but labour's fall was by then well established. For American unions, the sixties offered the last chance for revival or even transformation. That chance was lost.
In Canada, the countermovement was neither as intense nor as explosive as in the United States but, especially in the labour and women's movements, it lasted longer. The Canadian UAW's relationship with the new movements was hardly smooth. No formal or informal ties of any significance emerged. Yet the Canadian union was influenced by surrounding events and emerged from this turbulent period with greater militancy and a stronger sense of its role. There was no breakthrough in political power or dramatic achievements in relating to the Canadian movements, but unlike their American counterparts, Canadian unions remained a relevant social force.
This modest achievement was crucial given the impending attack on labour. The social unionism of Walter Reuther couldn't take root in the United States because of both the conservative climate and the way the seeds were planted. The great irony of the UAW was that any hope of Reuther's ideals taking hold seemed narrowed to the one region of the union that had historically retained some significant opposition to Reutherism.