Chapter 7 - The Candy Man's Gone


 
Flyer for Canadian UAW film on wage controls and the union response.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

I hate to tell you but the candy man's gone ...

- Bruce Cockburn

... it will be a hard pill ... to swallow - the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more ... nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling jobs that must now be done to make people accept the new reality.

- Business Week

We'll put a few union leaders in jail for a few months and others will get the message.

- Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

The excitement of the sixties stemmed from a feature common to other rebellious periods: the people seemed to have grabbed the initiative. But by the mid-seventies, the corporations held the initiative once again. Although the seventies were a period of great labour militancy in Canada, that militancy was becoming defensive.

Ironically, this reversal was rooted not in capitalism's success, but in its immediate failures. By the early seventies, the evidence was growing that falling profits, rising unemployment, and accelerating inflation weren't simply cyclical problems; instead, they were signals that the postwar economic boom was over. With no alternative force to initiate a progressive redirection of the economy, this potential crisis on the right - the failure of business to provide stable economic security - became a crisis on the left. The agenda and momentum moved quickly towards an even greater dependence on strengthening corporations and the business climate.

Since the seventies, the corporations have retained that initiative and used it to restructure both the economy and expectations. At best, the Canadian labour movement slowed down the corporate agenda and kept some alternative values and ideas alive - limited yet crucially important achievements.

Lowering Expectations, Redefining Progress

The sixties had raised expectations by asking fundamental questions about the alleged democratic values of capitalism. By the end of that decade, another issue was emerging in North America: capitalism's capacity to provide a constantly rising material standard of living.

The unique conditions central to the postwar success of the United States, and therefore Canada, had disappeared. Manufacturers faced a profit squeeze, and the U.S. economy faced growing trade deficits and an outflow of capital. The era of access to cheap raw materials and America's overwhelming economic dominance was coming to an end. Demands for raw materials grew, while the most ready sources of supply dried up, and some Third World countries had room to insist on better prices. The U.S. was diverting resources to fight the war in Vietnam, while Europe and Japan, fully recovered from the war, were advancing economically on the United States. The results were intensified competition and the steady transformation of the relationship between these blocs.

The energy crisis of 1973-75, when oil prices quadrupled, aggravated this economic crisis. Companies tried to protect their profits in the face of added material costs and increased competition by limiting wage increases. When workers resisted, the companies raised prices to maintain their profits and protect their stockholders. And when workers then responded to the high rate of inflation with militant wage demands to protect their standard of living, this conflict over the distribution of income led to accelerating inflation. The higher prices, in turn, fed concerns about the loss of international competitiveness.

Every country felt compelled to increase its exports of manufactured goods, thereby providing jobs and additional national income, while limiting its imports. This strategy would alleviate the rising unemployment and pay for the escalating costs of raw materials. The catch was that one country's exports were another's imports; the unanimous adoption of this strategy resulted in everyone producing more but buying less.

The result was "stagflation" - high unemployment and high prices. Since the fifties, people had taken on faith that modern capitalism would no longer have to face wild fluctuations in economic activity and prices. By the mid-seventies, that confidence in capitalism's ability to provide steady and stable growth was profoundly shaken. Along with this realization came a profound change in the lives of working people. From this point on, reducing inflation would be a central goal of Canadian economic policy; the underlying assumption was that, with zero inflation, all other economic problems would iron themselves out. In the interim, high unemployment would have to be tolerated. An indicator of the changing times was the fact that the lowest unemployment rate after 1975 was still higher than the rate in any year between 1941 and 1975.

The economic and political èlite attempted to persuade and/or force workers to reduce their demands so that inflation would fall and the economy's relative competitiveness would be strengthened. This situation had the makings of a political crisis. Workers previously considered greater job security, higher wages, and a more equitable distribution of wealth to be the fruits and even the essence of progress. Now these benefits were being redefined as problems standing in the way of competitiveness. In the past, trade unions could justify such goals as being good for the economy because they maintained purchasing power; now the unions were attacked for inhibiting the ability to sell internationally.

Capitalism's inability to justify itself either morally or materially created the perfect scenario for a challenge to the system. There was, however, no social force in Canada or the United States that was interested in, or capable of mounting, such a challenge. As a result, capitalism not only rode out this storm and its occasional bumps, but also used it to become stronger.

 
Northern Telecom workers, organized in the late sixties, were out on strike in 1973 for greater security.
Courtesy of the National Archives, PA-182814.

This situation was clearest in the United States, where the hopes of the sixties had been dashed. It wasn't that worker struggles had faded. Mineworkers suffered through a long confrontation to win compensation for lung disease, and the UAW fought tough battles at International Harvestor and Caterpillar, manufacturers of farm machinery and other heavy equipment. Also, the UAW made a major breakthrough in 1976 with an innovative program on reduced work-time that revived the possibility of a transition towards the four-day week. And, in the late seventies, UAW president Doug Fraser led an attempt to form a new alliance with promises of returning to the organizing style and militancy of the thirties.

But the American labour movement was constrained by its history and the self-fulfilling prophecies of its leadership. Its mobilizing and organizing skills had been laid off for too long, and rust had set in. The leaders' claim that the members were too demoralized or too complacent to fight was, because of American labour's recent past, partly true. But it was also true that the leaders used this argument as an excuse for not attempting remobilization.

Lacking confidence in itself and fearing that militant national campaigns might further isolate it and undermine the electoral chances of the Democratic Party (on whom it depended for better legislation), the American labour movement slid into irrelevancy. Its response to Nixon's call for voluntary controls in the early seventies was weak and confused. The labour movement was unable to persuade sympathetic (Democratic) administrations to improve America's unsympathetic labour legislation; instead, the movement faced increasingly antagonistic labour board interpretations of existing legislation. American labour possessed neither an alternative strategy for fighting legislation nor a means of using its still impressive resources to spread unionization to new regions and sectors.

In June 1981, when President Reagan legislated air traffic controllers back to work as the American labour movement watched meekly, he exposed organized labour in the U.S. as a paper tiger. On behalf of employers, he declared open season on all workers. By the early eighties, the acceptance of concessions within the UAW - still considered to be the leader within the movement - confirmed that American labour had virtually given up.

The distinguishing factor of the Canadian response to "the new reality" was that, in spite of Canada's tight economic integration with the United States, the movement showed sustained signs of resistance, and therefore life. One dimension of that distinction was captured by the electoral moods and trends as the sixties ended.

In 1968, Nixon, with a strong anti-union and antiprogressive history, became president of the United States. That same year brought Trudeau to power in Canada, riding a sixties image and carrying a banner calling for a Just Society. In 1972, Nixon was reelected in the U.S. In Canada, the NDP, led by David Lewis, won the balance of power. Although the Waffle group had been expelled, its influence on NDP politics left a residue, and the country itself was open to the left-populist slogan of the Lewis campaign: taking on the "corporate welfare bums." Later, when the Tories called for wage and price controls, Trudeau - desperate for worker votes and with the NDP breathing down his neck - ridiculed the idea. Trudeau won a majority government in 1974. The provincial election of left-leaning and left-dependent governments led to significant labour law reform in Canada. NDP governments were elected in three provinces: in Manitoba in 1969-77; in Saskatchewan in 1971-82; and in British Columbia in 1972-5. The PQ, in power from 1976 to 1985, also clearly leaned towards social democracy.

These events seemed to have the makings of the NDP's moment in the sun. During the heady sixties, even the Liberals were proposing social democratic policies and therefore competing with the NDP. But as the Liberals began to retreat from recent definitions of progress, the field was left to the NDP. The establishment had always called on workers to restrain their demands but now, for the first time since the war, it clearly stood for the bitter medicine of lowering people's expectations and insisting they stifle their demands. Canadians had not signed on yet and the NDP took advantage of the opportunity.

Campaigning in Timmins, Ontario in 1974, Trudeau had mocked the Tory controls, arguing that they merely masked an attack on working people while protecting the powerful: "So what's he going to freeze?" Mr. Trudeau shouted. "Your wages! He's going to freeze your wages."

- The Toronto Star, 28 October 1975

The NDP attacked corporations for demanding that others take less while the corporate èlite took more. It revived the issue of American control of Canada's resources and economy, resurrecting some themes of the exiled Waffle group. It argued for price controls on certain necessities, and it challenged the logic of creating more jobs by reducing purchasing power. In office, or where it was influential, the NDP led in the introduction of health and safety legislation and progressive labour reform.

The NDP's programs were, however, based on an assumption of steady growth and stable prices. Now the country was facing a serious economic crisis and high inflation. Old solutions - such as stimulating the economy - would no longer work in the new environment unless they were supplemented by greater control over prices, investment, and capital flows. Any such attempt to democratize the economy and move towards planning meant taking on the corporations, especially the Canadian banks. The NDP no longer seriously considered this option. With neither an alternative strategy nor an inclination to lead a movement that would fundamentally challenge the status quo, the NDP could not sustain its momentum when the recession deepened in the mid-seventies and the economy plunged still deeper at the end of the decade.

Although the Canadian labour movement was strengthened by both the existence of the NDP and the party's role in supporting working class positions and arguments, the most significant resistance to Canada's new direction came from the labour movement itself. The labour movement became more directly politicized as workers, through their unions, took concrete action to challenge both existing legislation and the lack of legislation. They fought legislated wage controls, battled employers and police to formalize the right to union security, and assumed control of plants in a desperate protest of the corporations' unilateral right to rob communities of the tools that allowed workers to use their skills.

During the sixties, the strike records of Canada and the U. S. were similar. In the seventies, time lost due to strike activity in Canada was almost double that in the United States. In fact, Canada lost proportionately more days to strikes during the seventies than any other developed country. Public sector workers and their new unions continued their fight to bring their wages up after the lag in the pre-union period, and workers in the resource sector took advantage of the boom in their industries. Workers in the manufacturing sector increasingly shifted their focus away from wage comparisons with the United States and looked to comparability within Canada.

One-third of the strikes in the seventies were wildcats, which were illegal in all Canadian provinces except Saskatchewan. This number was proportionately higher than even that in the U.S., where wildcats were, under certain conditions, legal. In Canada, wildcats were led at the local level and, while McDermott did not sanction them, he made no concerted attempt to discredit the frustrations these protests reflected. At GM Canada, there were fifty-nine wildcats in the ten years after the long 1970 strike, and at Budd, a major stampings plant, there were 150 wildcats during the period from 1976 to 1979. De Havilland workers were on strike for an incredible 468 days to negotiate three new agreements during the seventies. And on 14 October 1976, Canadian labour held a one-day national strike - the first national work stoppage in North American history.

By the mid-seventies, the deterioration of the economic situation in Canada forced the hand of the Liberal government. Canada's resource base should have left it with a unique advantage amongst the major capitalist economies, especially with the rising prices of resources. But Canadian business, operating under its own profit-maximizing rules, had not translated this natural wealth into a stronger manufacturing base. Furthermore, Canada was linked to a declining power that was increasingly "looking after it own." As a consequence, pressured by Canada's powerful banks with their priority of reducing inflation, and concerned that the strength of Canadian labour relative to that of the United States would undermine competitiveness, the nervous Liberals reversed their election promise and introduced compulsory wage controls effective October, 1975.

Controlling Wages, Controlling Unions

Wage controls - legal limits on what workers could negotiate - were directed at breaking the momentum of the Canadian labour movement, which kept resisting corporate pressures and refusing to accede to government lectures on economics. The labour movement was united in opposition, recognizing that acceptance of controls in any form, especially since they included no offsetting benefits, risked the union's alienation from the membership. The government offered no trade-offs, such as equitable tax reform or enriched social programs to buy labour's compliance. But as collective agreements expired, labour generally had no concrete response other than the rhetoric of opposition.

The Canadian UAW's response began with the recognition that wage controls differed from other attacks on working people such as tax increases, which affected workers as individuals or family units. Wage controls constituted an attack on the organization itself. Controls undermined unions by imposing the most severe limits on their ability to fulfil workers' expectations in negotiating the price and conditions of labour. In contrast, the government made no attempt to control corporate power over price determination and the direction of investment. (The focus of the Liberals was not surprising since they were trying to improve the "investment climate" as defined by private corporations.) ifunions were to retain the confidence of their membership, it was essential that they not only avoid any role in endorsing controls, but also actively mobilize all aspects of their organizations to fight them.

Because controls were not universally popular, the government conceded some flexibility in the program (e.g., historical relationships to other groups and appeal procedures). The UAW's bargaining strategy was to build on, and take advantage of, this flexibility. In each set of negotiations, bargaining was to occur as ifthe controls didn't exist. Any agreement should exclude recognition of the controls apparatus and would have to be fully implemented by the company or a strike would begin or continue. With the contract in place, the bureaucracy of the program worked in the union's favour. ifthe Anti-Inflation Board (AIB) ruled against any settlement, the union called on the appeal procedure and used any delaying tactics it could. The companies - nervous about introducing a reduction in pay - were put in a position that strongly encouraged them to support the union arguments. In contrast to a process in which workers depended solely on technical arguments and then waited anxiously to see ifOttawa approved the negotiations, this situation allowed workers to continue to receive full pay.

This strategy was taken to the Canadian Council and the staff. The union set up meetings with activists (local leaders, bargaining committees, stewards, education committees) on a regional basis. It distributed pamphlets and addressed the issues in local union papers and at union educationals. The campaign for Canadian content in auto was linked to the fight against wage controls and provided workers with an alternative focus and policy to the controls. ifthe central issue was jobs, then the answer was mobilizing to put restrictions, such as the Canadian content requirements, on companies rather than on workers. All bargaining was centrally monitored to ensure as close adherence as possible to the policy. With this base, the union worked within the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) towards a broader political protest against the controls, which eventually led to the National Day of Protest on 14 October 1976.

In the spirit of the On-to-Ottawa trek of the thirties, the Canadian UAW chartered a train to leave Windsor and pick up passengers at selected stops on the way to Ottawa. The problem was the train was full before it left Windsor. Bus/car caravans were hastily arranged to get others there and back.

The significance of the UAW's response on the issue of controls to the future role and direction of the Canadian UAW cannot be underestimated. The struggle over wage controls was ultimately about worker concessions. This early fight against concessions developed workers' confidence in their union and provided the ideological arguments and understanding that were the base for later opposition to concessions and to the positions taken by the American union.

If the union's opposition was only at the level of rhetoric and the membership felt that the controls would still be accepted, workers would have shown little or no interest in educational material. But because the union was actually engaged in a struggle, workers sought out this material and discussed each wave of bargaining. Leaders wanted to be able to answer members' questions on whether controls were a good idea, whether they should be fought, whether they could be fought ifthey were "the law," what the implications of fighting were, and so on.

Moreover, the experience of challenging the controls reminded workers of the vital importance of their union. Ultimately, the union was really the only institution they could count on. Companies were, of course, never on their side; governments, as Trudeau showed, couldn't be trusted; and even the NDP's record was spotty (the Manitoba and Saskatchewan NDP governments supported the controls). But the union was there, fighting the companies, the law, and the bureaucracy. It was protecting the wages workers had negotiated or limiting their losses, and unambiguously leading and fighting alongside the members.

When wage controls came into effect in October, 1975, Canadian Salt (Local 195) and de Havilland (Local 112) were both in the midst of long strikes and in both cases the strikes were extended to force implementation of what they had negotiated. The de Havilland strike, lasting three and a half months, concluded with full implementation of the negotiated agreement; the Canadian Salt strike went on for over seven months and it too ended with the workers getting virtually everything they negotiated. At Mussens, Quebec workers who serviced heavy-duty equipment suffered a roll-back in spite of their long and bitter strike - fourteen months - against the controls.

At de Havilland, workers were on the verge of a settlement in their long strike when wage controls came into effect. Since the company would not, however, agree to implement the agreement in full, their service rep, Frank Fairchild, made the case to McDermott that the union should call for a rejection of the agreement. McDermott agreed, though he was concerned that, given the length of the strike, this was demanding an awful lot from workers. The workers did reject the agreement and eventually forced the company to agree to full implementation.

In spite of limited successes, the labour movement did not defeat the controls. The strategy of choosing one particular set of negotiations where the workers had an argument that could attract national support, and rallying the labour movement around that case as a challenge to the entire program, was never attempted. The trade union leadership was not, it seems, confident enough to aim at defeating rather than just protesting the controls. The impressive Day of Protest turned out to be an isolated event, and, rather than indicating the beginning of a massive public campaign, it signalled the end.

Though the number of strikes within the Canadian UAW during the controls was about the same as in the previous three-year cycle, the overall number of strikes by the Canadian labour movement fell significantly. The rationale for controls had included the repeated arguments that they would lower inflation and increase jobs. In fact, inflation was higher in the three years after controls than it was in the period that preceded them. (For one thing, Canadian inflation depended on U.S. inflation.) Unemployment, which had risen in 1974 to a relatively high 6.4 per cent, continued in the seventies to rise and never again returned to within even one per cent of that "extremely high level." Wages were reduced, though the more significant impact on wages came with the deep recession of 1979-81. And as the weaker firms were pushed aside in the restructuring of the economy, profits took off. Future governments returned to controls, but limited them to the public sector, leaving the market and record unemployment rates to provide the less overt controls in the private sector.

The CAW and Wage Controls

The controls attack our unions, demand sacrifices by working people, do not control prices, and do nothing about unemployment or income distribution ... They represent no 'alternative' to real solutions - which would mean challenging (not reinforcing) corporate power ...

That= why labour opposes controls. That=why, on October 14, UAW workers will close down their plants and offices as part of the National Day of Protest called by the Canadian Labour Congress.

- excerpt from UAW Canadian Council Statement on Wage Controls

Wage controls covered about four million of the ten million workers in the economy at that time. This included two out of three organized workers (smaller units were exempt). In the UAW, sixty-five per cent of agreements (ninety per cent of membership) were covered.
 About thirty-five per cent of all workers under controls settled above the guidelines; for the UAW that percentage was almost seventy-five per cent (fifty-five per cent ifwe exclude the Big Three, who followed the American pattern which was slightly above the guidelines but accepted by the AIB).
 The goal wasn't to break the guidelines but to ignore them. There were about 100 strikes within the union during the program, which ran for less than three years. About half of those strikes didn't lead to any involvement by the AIB, either because the settlement occurred early on when the guidelines were relatively high or because the settlement was acceptable to the workers even ifwithin the guidelines.
 A UAW study of 110 non-Big Three agreements (of 121 that exceeded the guidelines) found that:
. In seventy per cent of the agreements, covering ninety per cent of workers, the UAW eventually had the agreement approved or the workers kept everything they had coming because the union forced the companies into some "creative" accounting.
.In fifteen per cent (six per cent of workers), the union achieved more than the guidelines but did suffer a rollback.
.The remaining fifteen per cent, covering 1500 workers, who were generally in smaller units, ended up rolled back to the guidelines (three cases involved strikes that took them to the highest appeal level under the program).

Concessions: You Don't Need a Union to Go Backwards

In 1979, Chrysler was in serious financial trouble and the UAW agreed to postpone part of the pattern settlement until later in the agreement. By early 1980, with Chrysler staring bankruptcy in the face, the American Congress made long-term worker concessions a condition of loan guarantees to the company. The savings from worker concessions would help to pay off the bank vultures, who faced no corresponding conditions. The American UAW accepted those conditions but the Canadians rejected them, arguing that Canadian workers weren't going to be bound by a foreign legislature.

A year later in January, 1981, Chrysler returned, this time without Congress but with its own demands and Lee Iacocca's threat of immediate bankruptcy. The Canadian Chrysler workers, who had been the most committed to ties with the Americans, were now part of an overall union vote. (They were, unlike workers at Ford and GM, part of a formal international agreement.) The result was that Chrysler workers lost their current COLA ($1.15/hour), along with future wage increases and some of their paid time off.

In the 1981 vote on Iacocca's ultimatum, the Canadian leadership took the rare step of making no recommendation to the membership. While the total U.S.-Canada vote was clearly in favour, the largest Canadian local, Local 444 in Windsor, voted - by the slightest of margins - against the agreement. (Counting all the Canadian units, Canadian workers voted fifty-one per cent in favour.) The Canadians subsequently left the international agreement.

Soon small employers were lining up demanding the same "sensitivity" to their plight. It had never been unusual for specific companies to argue for concessions based on unique and temporary circumstances. Trying to isolate such demands to Chrysler was, because of its size and prominence, difficult enough. But when the American Ford and GM agreements were opened to negotiate concessions in the spring of 1982, which was before the three-year term was up, broader concessions independent of circumstances were legitimized, and a devastating new chapter began for the American UAW.

Some union leaders naively argued that these circumstances actually provided an opportunity: ifthe companies were so desperate for wage restraint, why not trade it off for shop-floor control? This strategy was nonsense. Workplace improvements could emerge only out of organizational strength, not out of weakness. The companies' goals were to restructure their costs and their operations; they wanted both. Once the union and workers accepted the logic of wage concessions, the same logic - and threats - would be applied to workplace concessions. With American wages (after concessions), still generally the same across one company's plants, workers were given the so-called freedom to compete for jobs by lowering their own workplace standards. Workers were much more vulnerable to such decentralized local changes. The wage concessions were therefore the prelude to the much more important corporate objective of restructuring the workplace to maximize profits.

In the early days of the auto industry, companies had taken advantage of the desperate desire for work by forcing workers to undercut each other. One of the first goals of unionization was to overcome this competition between individual workers. After the war, GM was concerned about the bargaining power of autoworkers. It had initiated the Treaty of Detroit and accepted "continuous improvement" in workers' wages and benefits. Soon "continuous improvement" would take on quite a different meaning. The companies now wanted to recreate the past competition between workers at a higher level. Companies pressured employees to compete with workers both at other companies and at different plants within the same company.

The companies were essentially saying that centralization and consideration of worker's concerns may have been tolerated in the past, when workers had bargaining strength and used it to leap frog each other in settlements. But with the decrease in the relative bargaining power of workers, the companies had decided to change the rules. They were no longer interested in centralization but in competitive decentralization. Bargaining would no longer centre on workers' demands, but company demands.

The UAW's new direction was dangerous in that it robbed the union of its independent role and virtually transformed it into an industrial-relations arm of the companies. The union was now selling the company line and ideology. ifthe union was supporting concessions, did this mean that the union had negotiated too well before and would never negotiate that forcefully again? ifGM and Ford needed help, who didn't? ifthe union believed workers needed to work harder for less, then why was a union necessary? As one exasperated worker said, "We don't need a union to walk backwards; we can give things up just as easily on our own ..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dynamic of the union endorsement of concessions undermined every facet of the union's life: its outward stance, its internal democracy, its educational structures. By accepting concessions, the union allowed the companies to shift the focus of America's problems on to workers' shoulders. The public debate centred on whether autoworkers would make concessions, and this emphasis diverted attention from more fundamental causes of the industry's problems: high interest rates and the banks; the corporate failure to build small, quality vehicles; the overvalued dollar (and undervalued yen); and the diversion of resources and skills to the military, which reflected the competitive costs of America's imperial role.

One casualty of concessions was the emerging drive towards reduced work-time. The new program of paid personal holidays (PPH) had been introduced in 1976 as a long-term measure in negotiations headed towards the four-day week. Now the union gave up PPH as part of the concessions package, essentially removing shorter work-time from the union's agenda. That the surrender of paid time off was justified in the name of job security further exposed the futility of this new direction.

In spite of pressures from the companies, the media, and their own union, American workers did not immediately buy into the new direction. At GM, workers originally voted against reopening their agreement before it expired and, even when they were softened up by union-company pressures, forty-eight per cent still voted against the concessions. Because of such resistance, the insecure union leadership interfered with the workers' ability to collectively deal with these questions across workplaces and companies.

In 1982 for example, the scheduled Collective Bargaining Conference, the purpose of which was to set the general directions for all sections of the union, was cancelled. Locals that defied the leadership were isolated and weakened with threats and rumours of their plants being next on the closure list. Union democracy could hardly flourish in such an environment; the roles of union education and the development of activism also faded in this context.

The objectives of the PPH program were to provide workers with an increasing amount of paid time off, allow the companies to utilize their facilities fully, and create new job openings. This program gave each worker a given number of paid days off per year: six at first but it was originally hoped this would soon rise to twelve (providing a four-day week each month), then twenty-four (a four-day week every second week), and so on.

With a given number of workers off each day, replacements would be needed. Example: an operation requires 100 people. The company hires 125. On a rotating basis, twenty-five are off each day of a five-day week. Each worker would therefore work only four days (paid for five), but the company has the 100 workers it needs daily. (This could also be adjusted for six-day schedules.)

These events should not obscure the pressures faced by the Americans. The industry was confronting its greatest crisis in over half a century. It was becoming increasingly common to hear rumours that the auto industry was essentially dead in North America and that autoworkers should all move on. American autoworkers, earning almost fifty per cent more than the average worker in manufacturing (plus far superior benefits), attracted little public sympathy for their wage losses. The UAW members themselves were acutely aware that even a lower-paying auto job was much better than other alternatives. Politically, the right was on the rise; the union was therefore even further isolated in terms of hopes for more meaningful alternatives.

This situation was part of a more general economic and social transition taking place in the United States in the seventies and eighties. The U.S. had, since the late sixties, experienced a relative loss in stature as international competitors eroded its once dominant status. In the late seventies, two events symbolized America's frustration: the Japanese were making inroads into the most American of all products - the car - and a Third World country, Iran, held Americans hostage while the U.S. sat helpless, watching CNN with the rest of the world. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and this was used to rekindle the cold war.

Reagan emerged with the promise to restore the "good old days," when America, as the undisputed leader in all things important, was shown proper respect, and when Americans knew they would achieve a standard of living that exceeded their parents'. That nostalgia included making American industry Number One again, which left the companies in a powerful position to define the requirements of success. Workers, on the other hand, nervously hoped that they might at least keep their jobs, while also wondering about the costs of doing so.

It would certainly have been extremely difficult for the UAW to avoid losses in this period. But losses are one thing - workers don't always have the strength to win their demands - and concession bargaining=another. This new direction was defined not by its defeats, but by the refusal to fight, and the rationalization of those defeats as "victories." The UAW had, over the years, suffered a major decline in its ability to act as a social movement; now it was surrendering its most basic economic role as a bargaining agent. A temporary defeat (lower wages) therefore became a long-term change in direction (selling concessions).

No to Giving Up and Giving Back

The Canadian UAW rejected the direction of its parent organization. The context in which the Canadians made their decisions was no doubt more favourable than that facing the Americans. Auto lay-offs were not as severe, the national mood had not yet shifted to the right, and the union was simply not as isolated economically, politically, and socially. Canadian Big Three wages were about twenty-five per cent above the national average, half the gap between American autoworkers and the rest of their community. The Canadian movement was more highly unionized and aggressive. The NDP provided a countervoice that the Americans didn't have. And Canadian nationalism, unlike American nationalism, allowed for much more skepticism over the claims and demands of American-based multinationals.

At the same time, however, the 1981-82 recession was deeper in Canada than in any other major developed country. Canadian autoworkers, like their American counterparts, faced a daily barrage of warnings that the auto industry was now a dying industry which could only continue to exist with fewer jobs that would go to those who worked harder for less. Fighting concessions wasn't easy; workers had seen far too many closures to write off any threats as mere posturing. Brantford, for example, once ranked behind only Toronto and Montreal as a centre of heavy industry. It was quickly being wiped off the industrial map, but workers never stopped fighting. When corporations tried to take advantage of the desperation in the community in the early eighties, Canadian UAW members went on strike at Trailmobile, a trailer manufacturer, for over eight months and at Hussman, which supplied store equipment, for nine months. Concessions were successfully resisted.

At least as important as the corporate threats was the uncertainty of the Canadian UAW's ability to venture in a direction entirely different from that of the Americans. Would the parent tolerate an independent direction? Would it view the Canadian example as reinforcing the opposition to the American leadership? if the American UAW made concessions, could Canadians who worked for American companies reject that direction without risking their jobs? Did the Canadians have the collective bargaining strength to stand up to the auto companies ifthe Big Three really decided to take them on?

In early 1982, the Canadians made the key decision - the one that launched the eventual breakaway from the Americans. The Canadian UAW chose to break ranks with the Americans and reject an early opening of the agreements with Ford and GM. Under the leadership of Bob White, the union saw the basic danger of concession bargaining: ifthe union consented to participate, it would collapse from internal conflicts and nullify its role as a social force within the Canadian labour movement and in Canadian society. The risk of fighting for traditional bargaining had to be taken.

In the U.S., the resentment amongst workers against staff who weren't facing concessions led to a decision to cut staff salaries in the name of solidarity. The Canadian staff were part of the same staff union, but the American logic didn't fit. The Canadians (staff and administration) decided instead to contribute $100 per month to the no-concessions fund (slightly more than what their American counterparts were giving back). This maintained wage parity within the staff union but made the gesture of solidarity a meaningful rather than token one.

This decision wasn't made in an intellectual vacuum, but in the context of the momentum against concessions that was already growing in the union by that time. The fight against concessions had begun during the struggle over wage controls. It continued after controls at places such as Kenworth, the manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks in Montreal, where workers stayed on strike for nine and a half months to reject concessions and make gains. Less successful, but still crucial to sending a message to corporations about the union's determination to fight was the twenty-two month strike and boycott of Blue Cross, the supplier of medical insurance.

Where locals entered into new agreements, as opposed to mid-term reopeners, the union was reluctant to set the precedent of taking away any unit's ratification rights. Thus, the no-concessions policy was enforced in much the same way as in the fight against wage controls: through the distribution of educational material on why making concessions propelled workers into a no-win rat race to the bottom; through community meetings with bargaining committees and stewards; and through of the union's staff, who were responsible for bringing that policy into each set of negotiations and supporting any reluctant committees.

The issue of concessions intensified after the concessions to Chrysler, when the independent parts units of the Canadian UAW confronted employers who were "whipsawing": demanding concessions in one unit, arguing in a competing unit that those concessions be matched or surpassed ifworkers wanted to keep their jobs, then telling the first unit that it was underbid and inviting those workers to start the merry-go-round of concessions again.

After the strike began,
Troops were rushed,
To defend property
But before the trouble started
Nobody seems to have bothered
To defend living standards.

- Frank Scott

The union response was reinforced by educationals, especially in the Paid Education Leave (PEL) Program negotiated at the end of the seventies. At the council, the ideal forum for the exchange of information on the treatment of workers, a more comprehensive strategy was developed. It began with a declaration that the national office, which was the signatory to all UAW agreements in Canada, would not sign any agreements that were opened in mid-term to make concessions. The potential chaos of units opening up their agreements to undercut each other had to be stopped immediately. As a result, local decisions that might have been reached democratically could now be overridden. The justification was the authority of the Canadian Council, a broader democratic forum which took into consideration the negative implications of individual local decisions on all UAW locals in Canada.

Paid Education Leave

The Canadian UAW Education Centre housed the PEL program, which was first negotiated in 1977 at Rockwell. It was initiated by Education Director Gord Wilson, after a fact-finding trip to Europe and was especially inspired by the educational work done within the Swedish trade union movement. Dan Benedict, an early advocate for PEL within both the North American and international trade union movements, was asked to come on the Canadian staff to develop and implement the program.
 The political orientation of the program - its orientation to understanding the economy and addressing broad social change - had roots going back to the forties. The immediate drive to put the new program into place came from the top. Union policy was that no staff rep could take it off the table without authorization from the Canadian director's office. Once negotiated, a committee that includes the local and the education department chooses the students to attend the course. As of 1995, some 5,000 workers had gone through the four-week course. The uniqueness of PEL lies in its combination of the following elements:

1. Ideological Orientation

The PEL program wasn't set up to provide bargaining and contract-administration skills but to contribute the background for using and developing such skills. PEL aims at providing working people with an understanding of capitalism, their place in this system, the role of unions as independent working class organizations, the history of workers and their organizations, and the principles and philosophy of the Canadian UAW. The program's goal is to develop future activists with a commitment to the union and to progressive change.

2. Adult Education

The course includes lectures but is biased towards group discussions in a comfortable atmosphere. PEL provides workers with an opportunity to use and develop their intellectual skills as they discuss the major economic and social issues of the times.

3. Peer Training

The PEL program includes a program administrator and brings in staff, activists, and academics to share their knowledge and experience. But the main teaching load falls to over 100 local union discussion leaders who come from CAW plants and offices and have been trained to lead the learning process.

4. Blocks of Education

The basic program is four weeks, though recently one- and two-week programs were introduced. The shorter programs allow for more specialized courses such as work reorganization, health and safety, competitiveness, workers' compensation, and leadership development for women and people of colour.

5. Residential

While some courses occur off-site, the main courses take place at the CAW Family Education Centre. The advantages of making the courses residential come from workers being at their own place with its rich history and the opportunity to continue the education informally outside of the classroom.

6. Company-Paid

The program's financing is negotiated from the companies, though the program =completely administered by the union. The original contributions per worker were one cent per hour worked (enough to get started) and now range up to three cents per

The council also set up a special no-concessions fund, with contributions from all locals, to provide special assistance to any units on strike that were forced to resist concessions. (Over half a million dollars in support was distributed by way of that fund.) One of the early strikes against concessions was an eight-month strike at Rockwell's auto components plant in Milton. The strike was lost, but the message to employers was loud and clear: the union might lose a particular fight, but not before that fight had had a severe impact on the employer. The Rockwell strike made it less necessary for other workers to be tested. In general, the no-concessions fight of the council was successful, particularly in its ability to support units in a weaker bargaining position.

Two other kinds of confrontations, dealing with concessions of a different kind, reinforced the confidence and militant mood in the Canadian region: the fight for union security at Fleck Manufacturing, a producer of wire harnesses for the auto industry, and a series of plant take-overs which were part of a larger attempt to deal with the growing number of plant closures. Both events drew national attention because of the issues involved, the response of the authorities, and the fact that they were really political battles led by the direct actions of workers outside of Parliament.

At Fleck, eighty per cent of the workforce voted in 1977 to join the UAW. The plant manager promptly notified the workers that the company had no intention of recognizing the union, and in the spring of 1978, the workers - generally young women, many single mothers, and all low-paid - faced the option of conceding or going on strike. Three days before the nervous workers were to begin picketing, they were called to the lunch-room, where an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer read them the sections of the Criminal Code dealing with the illegality of workers threatening or intimidating anyone; he did not read them their rights to picket peacefully. Eighty of the women went on strike; forty felt threatened and were sufficiently intimidated to stay at work.

 
Women on picket line at Fleck strike. The strike brought solidarity and support from women in other UAW locals, other unions, other labour centrals, the NDP, and the cultural community.
Photo by Schuster- Gindin.

If there was ever any doubt about which side the police were on, that doubt quickly disappeared as 500 OPP constables amassed in and around Centralia, the industrial park near London, Ontario, where the plant was located. The policing costs at Fleck were higher than for any other event in Ontario history. Al Seymour, the UAW service rep at Fleck, found that his office and home phones had been bugged. Presumably believing that the strike might fold ifSeymour was kept away, the police arrested him, and three officers drove him the "very long way" to the station to make him fully aware of his vulnerability. When Seymour returned to the picket line, a local magistrate banned him from the county until after the strike was over. The provincial government's unique focus on this small plant turned out to have an interesting explanation: the owner was a top official in Premier Bill Davis's office.

The strike lasted for five months. Bus loads of activists from other UAW locals and from other unions came as morale boosters to completely shutdown the plant from time to time. The women's movement mobilized pickets to keep the profile of the strike high. Community artists donated their time to a unique cultural event and show of solidarity across unions. The Fleck strike became a rallying point for the fight over union security, a fight that had been carried on over the past decade with front-line troops who were often immigrant workers and women. The fight had been waged at Artistic Woodworkers and the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union in the early seventies, and at Radio Shack and the Steelworkers shortly before Fleck.

We didn't strike so much over economic issues as to prove we had the guts to stand up.

- Debra Riley, twenty-four-year-old Fleck worker and single mother of two

The strikers surprised even themselves with their collective strength. As the strike dragged on, the company lost contracts from GM. These factors, together with the support from other UAW locals and the sympathy growing across the province, resulted in a victory for the Fleck women. Soon after, the Conservative government of Ontario legislated union security (the Rand formula).

In the summer of 1980, the increasingly common plant closures became an issue at the Canadian Council, and that forum galvanized a response. As speaker after speaker told stories of lost jobs and destroyed lives, the frustration grew into anger, and the anger, into a search for actions. As Bob White stepped up to the podium to conclude the debate, he looked around the hall and grimly declared: "ifit takes occupations of plants to stop this ... then we'll occupy them." On the return trip, the delegates from the Houdaille bumper plant in Oshawa and others who had been told their plant would close separately discussed their options and reached their own conclusions.

In early August, the council delegates appeared before the premier of Ontario and key cabinet members to argue - to no avail - for legislation governing plant closures. The brief had called for expropriation of any plant that didn't justify its decision and deal fairly with its workers. But the next morning, 8 August, 1980, a more effective "presentation" was made to the premier: the Houdaille workers took over the Oshawa plant and renamed it "UAW Industries." Although the take-over was illegal and therefore strike pay should have been out of the question, UAW president Doug Fraser agreed at White's insistence to waive that technicality and provide strike pay for the workers. In the coming weeks, workers took over Beach Appliances in Ottawa, and Bendix and Windsor Bumper in Windsor.

 
Workers scaling fence to take-over Bendix plant in Windsor in 1980 after company announcement of closure.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.
 
Worker getting ready for "bed" during Houdaille take-over, August 1980.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

In terms of plants remaining open, only the Windsor Bumper take-over was successful. Often, the experience simply left workers more aware of the limits on their power. Having taken the most radical of steps and seized the owner's property, they were confronted with the question of "What next?" Nobody offered easy answers. Preventing or reversing closures required much broader changes in the economy and in society. However, where workers did act, they made gains: ifnothing else, their severance pay and/or pensions were increased. Other workers benefited to the extent that employers watching these events decided, in their own self-interest, to show a bit more sensitivity to workers in the handling of closures. As a result of these actions and pressures involving other unions, the provincial government introduced modest reforms in 1981. The changes extended worker rights to advance notice of workplace closures and improved their severance payments. Like other social legislation, this policy lagged behind that in Europe but surpassed anything in the United States.

The issue of concessions ultimately centred on the future of the auto majors. Because of the high profile of the Big Three negotiations, those talks would set the pattern and mood for the future direction of the Canadian UAW. ifthe union had, however, allowed concessions in other places, the fight at the auto majors would have been weakened ifnot undermined. But the militancy in all sections of the union, especially since the mid-seventies, had reinforced both an understanding of the need to fight back and the confidence that fighting back actually mattered.

The exuberant challenges to the status quo of the sixties had not changed the world, and as the excitement gave way to disillusionment, the corporations began a much longer-lasting and successful counterrevolution. Facing greater competition from Europe and Japan, the economic and political èlite emphasized the need to keep prices down in order to remain competitive. This plan translated in the mid-seventies into pressures on workers to accept lower wages, though it would later be extended to tougher working conditions along with the wage restraint.

In the U.S., the labour movement had lost its ability to lead any serious resistance, and as the eighties arrived even the UAW had ceased to be an independent voice challenging corporate morality and corporate actions. The Canadian left did not escape this malaise, yet Canada's labour movement retained a breath of defiance, and the gap between the Canadian and American labour movements grew in terms of both membership numbers and direction. The economic strength of Canadian workers in the seventies - their ability to resist the corporate pressures for concessions - was not, however, matched by any corresponding political strength. The government was thus able to introduce legislated wage controls to accomplish what the private sector did not. And in order to increase the likelihood of those controls being successful, economic policy allowed unemployment, and therefore worker insecurity, to rise.

At the end of the seventies, with the deepening of the recession, the pressures for wage concessions intensified. The leadership of the American UAW accepted the logic of concessions. The Canadian leadership, both leading and reflecting the mood of its members, rejected concession bargaining. For the Canadian section of the UAW, past tensions with the Americans could always be attributed to internal union politics (e.g., Canadian opposition to profit sharing in the late fifties), strong disagreements over a specific but unique problem (United Aircraft in the seventies), or different national circumstances (the contrasting roles of the two governments in responding to Chrysler's possible bankruptcy). But once the issue became the direction of the union's primary activity - bargaining - and that issue pitted the entire Canadian region against the top leadership of the UAW, a change in the relationship between the American and Canadian sections of the UAW became increasingly likely.

Chapter Six / Chapter Eight


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