Chapter 8 - Breaking Away

Oshawa workers filing in to union meeting to vote on tentative agreement with GM in 1984. The formal steps that led to the Canadian breakaway began shortly after the negotiations.
Courtesy of the Globe and Mail.

If Bob White thinks he's going to get a better deal out of those auto companies ... he's crazy ... [the Canadian members] may well get screwed in terms of benefits under the new regime ... the auto companies will now play some real hardball with the Canadians.

- Doug Fraser

It's hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.

- Sally Kempton

We should have at least put up a fight instead of saying "We can't win - we surrender" ... the plant shut down anyway ... we should have done like the Canadians.

- American worker

In the early eighties, when globalization was quickly becoming something-not-to-be-questioned, the Canadian section of the UAW stubbornly embarked on a direction that went against the tide of economic change, against the apparent end of nationalism, and even against its own history (only a decade earlier, it had been the staunchest defender of international unionism). Given the extreme and growing integration of the industry, did the Canadian split amount to anything more than a symbolic move? And where would this new direction ultimately take the new union?

Globalization, Nationalism, and Internationalism

In Canada's case, globalization was hardly new; it essentially meant "continentalism" - further integration into the U.S. economy and, courtesy of American interests, an eventual move towards also bringing Mexico into that relationship. Despite the apparent inevitability of this trend, Canadians put up resistance well into the eighties. Even the federal Liberals had included nationalist elements in their policies during the early eighties (the National Energy Policy and the Foreign Investment Review Agency), and, of course, there was the massive mobilization against free trade in the mid- to late eighties.

In contrast to the popular resistance to globalization and continentalism, a unique favourable consensus had emerged within business. In the past, those in the business world in Canada had always been divided on the issues of free trade and nationalism, depending on whether they were concerned with protecting domestic markets or searching for foreign markets. However, by the eighties, no significant division remained. Big business was united on the free trade issue and small business fell into step behind that leadership. In spite of the feelings of some individual capitalists, not one section of business was part of the anti-free trade alliance. In fact, it was becoming very difficult to define the term Canadian as it applied to business.

The Mulroney Tories became the vehicle through which big business defeated nationalist-leaning policies and, by way of the FTA, essentially achieved the constitutionalized economic integration into the United States. But even the Tories recognized the antagonism across the country; in the campaign that preceded the move towards the FTA, they knew enough to keep a safe distance from continentalism.

This popular opposition wasn't based solely on abstract nationalism: it was a result of the fact that the United States, once a model of the good life, no longer held much appeal. Further economic integration with the U.S. might be viewed as unavoidable from the perspective of uncertainty and fear, but it hardly had the power to move people with its promises and vision. The role of autoworkers in the economy placed the union at the centre of the debate on globalization and further integration into the United States; the response of the union placed it at the centre of the oppositional movement.

By the mid-seventies, the integration of the Canadians into the UAW and the American economy seemed complete: wages were virtually equal, the industry was more integrated than any other cross-border industry in the world, and the opposition to this integration had apparently collapsed. But during this period, Canadian workers began to shift the focus of their bargaining from the United States to Canada. Having achieved wage parity with the Americans, Canadians lost interest in catching up with the Americans.

Poster against free trade with the U.S., 1872.
Courtesy of National Archives, C-954466.

In the past, Canadian UAW members, attempting to steadily improve their living standards, turned first to bargaining and then to national political action. The promise of the good life through collective bargaining was the ultimate lure of ties to the American union. But the situation had changed in two ways. First, as the postwar period of relative security and sharing in steady growth ended, the importance of bargaining seemed to diminish in relation to political events. Recession and restraint shifted union attention towards job policies and industrial strategies, legislated wage controls, labour laws as they affected organizing, and employment standards as they influenced health and safety and plant closures. To deal with such issues required addressing domestic politics; Canadians had to adopt a national perspective. For the Canadian UAW, building new ties with Canadian workers became more important than reinforcing the ties to American labour.

Second, even in bargaining itself - which remains a crucial element even as the significance of the political climate grows - the American leadership role was waylaid. The relative weakness of American labour, compared to the general militancy of the Canadian movement in this period, led to the greater attraction of wage comparisons within Canada over those in the U.S. It was in the process of bargaining, the raison d'être of unions, that the issues of Canadian autonomy and union direction came to a head.

The corporations had responded to the intensified competition they faced (and encouraged via free trade and capital mobility) with a new belligerence towards their workers. The companies, with auto in the lead, had made the transformation of collective bargaining relationships a crucial part of their overall strategy. The general disenchantment amongst Canadians with the American model was matched within the Canadian UAW by a growing dis-illusionment with the American union's response to this attack. The difference in the response of the Canadian UAW to the same corporate assault led to the split inside the UAW.

This conflict between the union and its parent organization reflected national differences, but more important, it stemmed from divergent strategies and notions of the role of unions. The Canadians were challenging the logic of globalization in a way that was both nationalist and concerned with the purpose of nationalism. Had the Canadian UAW even reluctantly adopted the American response, the union would have become just another vehicle for bringing American ideology and directions into Canada. Alternatively, since these differences over direction also existed to some extent within Canada, the UAW would have become a mechanism for reinforcing the weakest tendencies within Canadian labour. Instead, the Canadian UAW was able to retain its leading role in the labour movement and in broader struggles such as the fight against free trade.

One of the most successful internal educational campaigns undertaken by the union was around the struggles of black workers in South Africa. What made it so effective was its direct link to those workers, the support of the CAW leadership, the focus on taking the educationals to the base by way of local union meetings, and - especially - the role played by a small group of activists inside and outside the union.

The direction of the Canadian UAW seemed, however, to undermine the historic internationalism of progressive unionism. According to internationalists, corporate internationalism was based on competitiveness, while worker internationalism was based on solidarity. This definition was true, yet it skirted key problems. The international labour movement was too diverse to effectively coordinate activities. Each national labour movement was rooted in its distinct stage of development. Each movement faced a different context, and each was separated by cultural and ideological differences. These variations became most obvious in the difficulties encountered by Canada and the United States in their attempts to develop practical cross-border strategies. These problems arose in spite of the countries' relatively similar language and culture.

But more important, international solidarity couldn't work unless each of the labour movements became stronger. New kinds of international solidarity are not compatible with a reality that includes an American labour movement that has been unable to organize its own "South"; a Mexican labour movement in which workers at different auto plants within the same company can't even communicate with each other; and a Canadian movement that can't organize the fastest-growing sectors (private service).

Under these circumstances, iflabour wants to challenge the internationalism of the corporations, it must first be strong nationally. However, national strength does not simply mean strong national governments. Such governments legislated wage controls, imposed the FTA, skewed taxes against working people, and forced cut-backs in the social wage on the general population ("for its own good"). Similarly, national strength means more than allegedly strong unions. Unions that are strong enough to sell wage concessions and false partnerships will reinforce rather than challenge the view that there=no alternative.

Rather, national strength requires local and national institutions - unions, community organizations, political parties, and the service and administrative bodies within the various levels of the state - that are accessible to working people, and that are democratic and effective. These institutions must be able to articulate working class needs and fight on behalf of and alongside workers in their struggles. Only on such a national base can internationalism be meaningfully achieved.

While the Canadians were breaking away from the international union (which was really an American-based union with a Canadian section) and concentrating on building a strong national union and national movement, the CAW also increased its commitment to internationalism. After the split, the CAW channelled more resources into international education and the enforcement of solidarity, especially through its ties to the South African labour movement, South and Central America, and (later) Mexico. In bargaining, the union negotiated a company-paid Social Justice Fund which financed important international projects. These international ties included some awareness of long-term self-interest but they could not be, and generally were not, justified in terms of developing goals such as "international bargaining" or "joint efforts to affect corporate decisions." They reflected cultural solidarity, and a direct identification with workers in struggle.

The struggles in other countries would be fought on a national basis, and the role of internationalism was both modest and indirect: to attract national and international attention to issues, to provide financial assistance and technical and moral support, and to act nationally to limit the power and ideology of capital. if Canadians and American autoworkers could resist their employers' attempts to speed up the line, Volkswagen workers in Mexico would face less pressure to work at a pace that forced forty-year-olds into involuntary retirement. ifCanadians could challenge the logic of competitiveness (rather than try to compete with fellow workers in other countries), then workers in South Africa would feel less isolated when they also resisted that logic. In essence, progressive internationalism can only be built on a strong and progressive nationalism.

Confidence and Independence

Given the pressures of globalization and the dependent relationship that had existed within the union and Canada for so long, how did the Canadian UAW develop the self-confidence to attempt a split from its parent organization?

Unions do not set out explicitly to develop confidence. On the contrary, concrete issues and struggles absorb their time and energy. And while educational campaigns and policies can help, it=the struggles themselves, rather than any prearranged plan, that build collective confidence. Yet building confidence contributes to no less than building the potential of the union to survive attacks and initiate progress. In a sense, the entire history of the Canadian UAW centres on the development of that potential amongst its activists and members.

As Big Three bargaining developed in the early eighties, each step further escalated the stakes and each success seemed to build the Canadian UAW's ability and confidence to act independently. As pointed out earlier, struggles outside the Big Three - against wage controls, with anti-union employers, over plant closures and wage concessions - set the stage for the Canadian UAW's decision in early spring of 1982 to reject the American proposal of opening the Ford and GM collective agreements. In a sense, once the actual decision was made, rejection of the American direction was relatively easy to uphold, since it didn't require the Canadians to go on strike or risk immediate retaliation. The real test was to come when the agreements expired and the alternative was a strike; would the companies let them get away with trying to achieve more than the Americans?

The mood within the labour movement was sombre and even sympathetic; reporters were writing articles on the defeat of labour. An editorial in the Financial Times in April, 1980, warned against any economic stimulus. The economic establishment was determined to let the 1979 recession continue as a crucial part of the fight against inflation and to break the resistance of the stubborn labour movement. In the early eighties, unemployment was higher in Canada than in any other developed capitalist country.

And in the auto industry, a report by Ross Perry, The Future of Canada's Auto Industry, summarized the prevailing pessimism: "Two recent studies predicted a reduction [in jobs] in the range of 30 and 50 per cent from the peak employment year 1978 to the mid-1980s. This amounts to a loss of between 29,000 and 41,000 direct wage-earning jobs. These forecasts are based on conservative assumptions ..." In this context, unions were wondering ifthey could resist the concessionary patterns being set in the U.S., especially after the once powerful and still respected American UAW felt compelled to move in that direction.

In the U.S., "what's good for GM is good for the country" carried some weight. Americans hoped that by restoring the once dominant position of their companies, workers could also return to the good old days. In Canada, that kind of endorsement of corporate leadership, especially since GM was a foreign multinational, was not as accepted. Leo Panitch, observing Canada-U.S. cultural differences at the time, noted that in the U.S. the folk hero of the period was Lee Iacocca, a leading capitalist who was demanding concessions from workers, while in Canada the folk hero was Bob White, a trade unionist fighting those very same concessions.

GM was the target in the fall of 1982. As the negotiations began, the new GM president calmly made the same threats that had, in the United States, led to the rally of public support for the company. He declared publicly in September, 1982, that a refusal by the Canadians to fall in line with the Americans could lead to the fullscale closure of facilities and plant relocation. It was, however, one thing to ask workers to "do their part" and another to threaten entire communities with devastation ifthey didn't comply. Rather than mobilizing public support, the comments sparked a public backlash (in future, GM and other companies laid the groundwork for their demands with slightly more sophistication).

The lay-offs in the industry, especially the scheduled weeks of downtime, were so pervasive during the 1982 negotiations that the union had difficulty finding a strike deadline during which even half the workers would be working. On the dates that would have been the normal deadline at Ford, for example, no assembly plant was scheduled to work. The union took a cautious position: it recognized not only that times were difficult, but also that it faced an environment that differed from the American one (e.g., Canadian inflation was higher). The union had done its homework; it publicly took advantage of GM's vulnerable position as a foreign multinational. It also sent the clear message to the company that it would settle ifthe company made a reasonable offer, but that it was ready to fight ifGM forced it to the wall.

General Motors decided that a war would be too costly and settled without a strike. It succeeded in removing the PPH program from the agreement, though the Canadian agreements retained it slightly longer than those of the Americans. The company did not ask the Canadians to repay the COLA that workers had retained by not reopening, and the Canadians won a small wage increase, over and above COLA. The Canadians breathed a sigh of relief. Their gains were modest, but they had challenged the Big Three collective bargaining system - including both the companies and their own union - and survived.

Unfortunately, the feelings of relief were short-lived. A dispute at Chrysler followed, and the Chrysler workers stated their demands in absolute terms. They had lost $1.15 per hour when the concessions agreement removed COLA. Other catch-up demands could wait; the workers wanted first and foremost to reinstate COLA. Chrysler had offered the American workers a continuation of the agreement with future COLA but without the restoration of the lost COLA and other wage increases. The workers rejected the agreement by a vote of two to one but the union leadership convinced them that a strike would be suicidal. They therefore ended up in limbo, with no agreement and no strike.

In Canada, the company, newspaper editorials, and every consultant on the continent were joined by the international union itself in warning workers that the cupboard was bare. With the added authority of President Doug Fraser's vantage point on Chrysler's board of directors, the UAW was telling the Canadians that their demands were unreasonable. An increase as small as twenty-five cents per hour would push Chrysler into bankruptcy and cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. ifthe Canadians demanded more, Chrysler might actually do what GM had only threatened - leave Canada.

Despite the hysteria of the times ... sweeping changes have taken place amongst Windsor autoworkers ... during the past few years ... progress was being made [towards] ... increasing demands for greater independence for Canadian trade unions.
- Cyril Prince, Local 200, March, 1954

The Canadian UAW's analysis concluded that the wage issue had little or nothing to do with Chrysler's survival. The key was economic recovery and Chrysler's ability to return to full-capacity utilization. Nor did it make sense for Chrysler to move out of Canada. Relocation would be extremely costly, and the company could make substantial profits in Canada even at the wages the workers insisted on. Nevertheless, Chrysler did have the power to carry out any decision it made, and the Canadians had no guarantees.

The leadership decided the risk was necessary, and the membership simultaneously made it clear - by way of wildcats, at membership meetings, and through their bargaining committees - that it wouldn't accept any other decision. The strike began on 5 November 1982. During the Chrysler strike, newspaper reporters had been told by their editors to balance the stories by finding breaks in solidarity. But the reporters were themselves surprised at the degree of support for the strike on the picket lines and at the workers' ability to argue against concessions and justify demands. The solidarity of the workers was overwhelming across all the Canadian units.

Chrysler's expectation that pressure on the workers would weaken the union did not come true; in fact community support from other unions, many local businesses, and sections of the church was growing. Nor did the company's hope - that, one way or another, the Canadians would be influenced by their parent organization in Detroit - materialize.

Chrysler's top negotiators arrived from the U.S. The head of finance came. UAW president Doug Fraser came. And Iacocca himself slipped quietly into Toronto to meet with White. After a five-week strike, it was Chrysler that made the concessions. The company agreed to the opening day economic demands of the workers, and the Canadians even won an acceptable increase for the Americans (seventy-five cents per hour plus future COLA). By 1985, Chrysler was recording the highest profits in its sixty-year history while paying wages that were higher than those it had earlier warned would result in bankruptcy.

The Chrysler strike had "really done it." The Canadians had achieved something that the American union was not only unable to do, but had in fact given up on. They had also shown that they could generate the pressure necessary to force the Americans to come to Canada and negotiate on the basis of Canadian demands. Along the way, they proved that their analysis and intuition were correct, while the experts (including the union leadership in the U.S.) were wrong. The Canadian David had been smarter and tougher than the American Goliath, and even non-union Canadians expressed admiration.

Press conference, Chrysler negotiations, 1985, when the Canadians completed their restoration of full parity with GM and Ford. From left to right: Jim O'Neil, Bob Nickerson, Ken Gerrard, Bob White, Buzz Hargrove, Sam Gindin.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

Then came the 1984 bargaining round. General Motors had settled in the U.S. with no real wage increases built into the agreement (the ratification vote was only fifty-seven per cent). The Canadians decided to target GM again. Chrysler had not yet been brought back to pattern (i.e., parity with GM and Ford) so it wasn't an option. Since Ford hadn't yet settled in the U.S., targeting Ford risked entanglement in the American strategy. If, for example, the U.S. went on strike while Canada was already on strike, the Canadians could be left hanging until the Americans had settled. This vulnerability was the last thing the Canadian union needed.

This time, the confrontation dealt with who had ultimate authority over the bargaining program in Canada - the Canadian director or the UAW president. The 1982 GM settlement in Canada had been reached without a strike, and the American leadership had rationalized the differences in terms of higher Canadian inflation and the profit-sharing plans, negotiated by the Americans and rejected by the Canadians. At Chrysler later that year, the Americans disagreed with the timing of the Canadian demands (i.e., immediate restoration of the COLA float) but they couldn't criticize the Canadians' ultimate goal: bringing Chrysler back to parity with GM and Ford. Now, however, the union was involved in pattern bargaining for the entire Canadian auto industry. The Canadians were asserting independence and, by their actions, essentially saying to American workers, who were themselves questioning the leadership of their union, "Hey! You don't have to go down that road!"

It is possible to imagine the two sections of the union simply deciding to follow their own agendas within the same international union. Other unions seemed to have managed this arrangement. However, this plan was not an option given the specific nature of the UAW as an organization, and the lack of consensus within the American section on its own direction. There=no other example in the history of bargaining of a relationship that=as integrated as that between Canada and the U.S. in the Big Three negotiations. In fact, there are very few domestic industries with such integrated bargaining. Workers doing the same job have generally earned the same wage, whether they worked for GM, Ford, or Chrysler and whether they worked in Canada or the United States. In the past, rigid wage parity was a source of strength for the workers on both sides of the border; at a time of strain, it became an inflexibility that the structure couldn't handle.

To be more accurate, the structure invited comparisons. It was those comparisons that the American leadership, rather than the union structure, couldn't handle. The American leadership, in its attempt to sell the new direction, was meeting stiff resistance from American workers; the last thing it wanted was a Canadian presence that highlighted this resistance at conventions and intercorporate conferences, and most of all by their bargaining directions and outcomes.

The bargaining with GM Canada was unsuccessful, in part because the American UAW leadership warned GM to limit what it gave to the Canadians. The Canadians went on strike - nervous and very apprehensive about the high stakes, and with the knowledge that the company and the American leadership of their own union were talking to each other. But by this time, the Canadian union had defined its course, and it understood that it had substantial bargaining clout. Although the common perception of globalization was that it represented a shift in power to the corporations, leaving workers relatively defenceless, the Canadians knew better. Corporations were indeed more powerful, but the internationalization of production also left companies more vulnerable at any particular point in time.

The Globe and Mail had earlier editorialized that in challenging GM the Canadians were "looking staunchly backward." The Toronto Star, for all its apparent identification with Canadian nationalism, showed little interest in it taking this particular form. Their earlier editorial patronizingly brushed the Canadian autoworkers aside, proclaiming "It's hard to see what they hope to achieve by this strike."

In the past, the corporations usually retained excess capacity to meet sudden increases in demand, and they often had the luxury of double-sourcing: ifone plant shut down, another could pick up some of the slack. But as the companies cut overhead to save costs, this flexibility also disappeared. And as they reduced duplication, increased specialization, and moved to just-in-time production, many groups of workers were left with the power to affect a disproportionately wide range of a company's operations. The Canadian strike made this power especially clear, as 50,000 American workers were soon laid off, with more to follow.

The catch was that the companies retained the power to move those crucial parts of their operations, though at some cost, to locations where the workers were under "better control." As a result, the Canadians had both the power to win and, as one worker put it, the power to hang themselves. The union had to balance its demands, taking corporate warnings of competitive limits with a grain of salt, but also aware that the threats were not just propaganda.

In the long term, that balance could be shifted in the workers' favour only ifnational and international legislation limited corporate mobility, and ifworkers' militancy became more generalized on a global basis. International ad hoc militancy - with or without formal international links - would at least leave the corporations nervous about the expense of relocation with the possible rise of militancy at the new site.

The Canadian leadership made it clear that whether or not its strike was approved by the parent organization, it would strike for the right to share in the industry's growth in productivity. The solidarity of the workers was strong, and after a thirteen-day strike, GM conceded annual improvements for each year of the agreement. This increase wasn't labelled the traditional AIF, but was renamed "special Canadian adjustment" (SCA) and added to COLA rather than the base rate; like COLA and the base rate, the SCA was included in calculating overtime, premiums, vacation pay, etc. The reason for this creative introduction of yet another initialism into the agreement was to obscure the visibility of the Canadian gains and limit the antagonism of the American UAW. The workers ratified the agreement by a vote of almost six to one.

The GM strike confirmed the ability of the Canadian UAW to act independently in the most difficult of circumstances. The union had taken on the largest manufacturing company in the world and shown that, in spite of globalization, workers had a measure of power. The workers had confronted their own union and established their own Canadian pattern. The face of the union now wore a giddy smile. That smile mixed pride, surprise at the union's progress, growing self-confidence, and nervousness about the ultimate step of permanently separating from the international union and past dependency.

The Split

The Split Detroit's interference in the Canadian negotiations made future change in the bargaining relationship inevitable. The bargaining successes were obviously crucial in allaying the apprehension that remained, but also critical was the role played by the Canadian director, Bob White.

White had many of the attributes of other leaders: he was clever and bright, articulate, astute in sizing up both people and situations, and he revelled in responsibility and tough decisions. Like all leaders in the UAW, he had been significantly influenced by the social unionism of Walter Reuther. Although originally opposed to Dennis McDermott's appointment as director of the Canadian region, White worked closely with McDermott and credited him with influencing White's own social perspectives.

White's greatest attribute was that he clearly understood who he represented. Electoral politics was very important, but always secondary to the impact of any policy or event on working people and the union. The workers and their union were the foundation of both bargaining and future political strength. His personal ties to the international leadership were painful to break, but he would never let those ties stand in the way of his representing Canadian workers.

Robert White was the first (and only) Canadian labour leader to become a media star; he was a nationalist speaking for the underdog, youthful and open. He respected the media, understood it, and used it, but he never overestimated it or became overly dependent on its judgements. He spoke to the members through the media, and the status the media conferred on White was shared by the membership. Through the news clips of White speaking to and often even on behalf of Canadians, UAW activists and members began to see themselves as leading a fight that extended beyond their interests to a broader national arena. White had not intended to make history by leading a breakaway from the international union. His great contribution as a leader was that when the historic opportunity did arise, he didn't try to escape from it.

Of the union's two living past directors, Dennis McDermott strongly supported the breakaway, while George Burt opposed it.

White had decided to go to the Canadian Council in early December to garner support for autonomy demands from the international union. (White wanted to ensure that the Canadian bargaining conference would set Canadian goals, and that the control over the right to strike, over access to the strike fund, and over Canadian staff would rest with the Canadian director.) Just before the council meeting, White called a meeting to inform the staff of his intentions and to test the waters. The six-hour session included arguments for and against taking the steps that would very likely lead to the split. The impressive overall commitment of the staff members to press ahead in spite of any risks to themselves - their paycheques came from Detroit - reinforced White's determination and strengthened the resolution he took to the council. As was happening in the union overall, the struggle over the future of the Canadian UAW had unified the staff and brought out the best in them.

As Bob White was the first to point out, the role he played in the union was critically dependent on Bob Nickerson and Buzz Hargrove, his two trouble-shooters and assistants. Most unions would have envied having either one of these individuals as their leader. Their differing styles and roots complemented each other. Both brought close ties to the rank-and-file to any discussion and never shied away from challenging, pushing, or restraining White according to their views of the union.
 Nickerson, who subsequently became the CAW's first secretary-treasurer, had, as a service rep, played an often unrecognized role in developing local activists. As an assistant, he played a particularly important role within the labour movement in supporting the early struggles of women to break through barriers within the male-dominated union structures.
 Hargrove joined the staff in the mid-seventies and immediately became active in the two most pressing issues of the time: organizing the unemployed and fighting worker concessions, including wage controls. Hargrove was in his early thirties and had been on staff for less than three years when White became director. Nevertheless, White acknowledged his potential by choosing him as an assistant.

The debate at the council was equally impressive. Some delegates made passionate appeals for international solidarity and historic ties, and a few questioned whether the union could survive on its own. But the delegates had been through enough over the past few years to clearly understand that they had to assert their autonomy. No one really expected Detroit's reaction to lead to anything but a split. The only questions for most delegates were when the split would occur and under what conditions.

When, as expected, the international executive board rejected those conditions, White returned to the council on 11 December 1984. The Canadian union's "parliament" decided that day, virtually unanimously, to establish a new Canadian union. Of 350 delegates, only four voted against the decision. In his own comments to the council, White emphasized that, with the formation of their own union, the Canadians could no longer blame the Americans for any failures. The point of full autonomy was full responsibility.

The new union would obviously need a governing structure between conventions that was broader than its current single elected officer (the director). White proposed the formation of a twelve-member national executive board (NEB), which would (in line with caucus sensitivities) be representative of all sections of the union. Eventually, affirmative action positions were included for two women and one person of colour. To limit potential bureaucratization, only three officers would hold full-time positions: the president, the secretary-treasurer, and the Quebec director. Since the remaining officers would retain their current union functions, officers would, in some cases, continue to work on a part-time or full-time basis in the workplace.

Because the two large locals in Quebec themselves could dominate any vote in Quebec and thereby choose one of the NEB members, the overall convention formally elected the Quebec director. In fact, this "safety valve" was never used; the elected Quebec caucus member was rubber-stamped by the delegates in recognition of Quebec's unique status. This procedure was later modified so that Quebec's candidate for the board did not need the ratification of the convention.

At a demonstration of pensioners at the 1987 Bargaining Convention, one retiree took up White's call for responsibility within Canada with a picket sign reading "YOU CAN'T BLAME BIEBER THIS TIME!" Owen Bieber was the UAW president at the time of the split.

The three full-time officers, plus two others, would be elected at the convention. The remaining seven would include those elected as executive officers of the Canadian Council (six), plus the elected president of the Quebec Council. This method allowed for a partial integration of the council and NEB structures but also assured some stability in the case of a radical electoral change in the union. A complete change would have to occur over two elections at least a year apart (i.e., at the convention and the Council meeting).

Within the union, the remaining controversy over the split was as much about the process as about the decision. This controversy was especially heated at the crucial and politically divided Oshawa local (Local 222). Some members argued that the Canadian Council had no constitutional authority to make such a decision and that, considering the fundamental nature of the decision, the council should have called for a referendum vote. They were right about the council not having the constitutional blessing to make the decision, but a referendum in Canada also held no "constitutional authority." The central issue was not constitutional authority; it was the democratic legitimacy of the split in Canada.

The option of a referendum was discussed in some depth at the national office. The reason for its ultimate rejection was that, while adding little, it created substantial risk. There was no question that the members overwhelmingly supported the split. The staff, local activists, and the delegates elected to council were in regular contact with members and readily confirmed this support, as did the meetings and newspapers of the local unions. Even former UAW president Doug Fraser, who was critical of the Canadians for leaving, laughed when asked about a referendum vote; according to Fraser, "White would easily get eighty-five per cent." The concern about a referendum was less about letting the members decide - they had made their feelings known through other forums - than about creating an opening for others outside the Canadian UAW to intervene, even at the last moment.

 On 12 December 1984, the Detroit Free Press carried the headline, "UAW Rift May Cause Canada to Lose Jobs."

The companies had already mentioned that they were rethinking future investments. ifthe Council announced a vote, the companies could have escalated such warnings in order to influence the debate. The American UAW knew that White had the full support of the leadership. ifthere was an in-plant vote, however, the UAW could certainly release rumours about a refusal to transfer any monies to the new union, leaving it without a strike fund and reinforcing concerns about staff salaries and services. Since the collective agreements were legally with the parent union, not the Canadian UAW, it could be argued that once the Canadian office led a breakaway, that office was no longer the bargaining agent for any of the units in Canada.

The argument made by the Local 251 president was that the local was satisfied with the current relationship to the UAW and that the only interference it had seen in its internal affairs had been the attempt by the Canadian staff rep to prevent the local from making concessions. In 1987, that president was defeated and became assistant personnel manager at Eaton-Yale.

An elected union official in Local 222, the largest local in the union, actually raised this issue with the Ontario Labour Relations Board to give the government an excuse to step in and challenge the council decision. ifthe Oshawa local had subsequently decided to stay in the international organization, the resolution to split might have quickly unravelled. Other GM units would not have wanted to be separated from Oshawa, and other Big Three workers would be worried about bargaining without GM. As it turned out, while the membership meetings eventually held in Oshawa were rambunctious, workers still voted overwhelmingly to support the council decision.

Once the Canadian Council made its decision and exhibited the solidarity that would discourage the companies, the government, or the UAW from trying to intimidate Canadian workers, it asked each local to hold meetings to ratify the decision. Any local that chose to reject the decision and form a new union could stay with the international union. At the meeting of Local 251 in Wallaceburg, fifty-eight per cent of the membership of about 1500 decided to stay with the UAW.

Over the nine months following the council decision, financial and legal matters were settled. The UAW agreed to transfer $36 million to the Canadians; this amount was less than their fair share but it was sufficient to equip the new union with an adequate strike fund and some cash for administrative purposes. At the founding convention in early September, 1985, the Canadian UAW formally established the new union, and in the summer of 1986, the union was renamed the Canadian Auto Workers.

A Culture of Resistance

The massive disinvestments in auto and the dissolution of the Autopact predicted by the experts in the event of a Canadian split didn't materialize. Yet economic restructuring both within the workplace and through plant closures was taking its toll. The new Mulroney government had made it clear - after the election, of course - that it would shift power to the corporations by way of a greater reliance on markets and competitiveness. The test of any policy or activity would be whether or not it increased Canada's competitiveness in business terms.

In the mid-eighties, the CAW suffered casualties in terms of plant closures, especially in the auto parts sector, and any gains that were made were generally limited and vulnerable to future changes. But the union continued to fight back. This stubborn resistance was central to the CAW's survival and strength as a social force in the country. One measure of the strength of the new union was that, after the split, it did not withdraw into a shell to consolidate, rebuild, and establish some breathing room. Its activism at all levels increased with barely a missed beat. Expectations were raised, Detroit's valuable services were more than adequately replaced, and rather than having to cope with the loss of financial subsidies from the UAW, the CAW found itself with additional resources for its own priorities. The split didn't drain or divert the CAW; it energized the union.

The attitude of the new union was that it could and should participate in all relevant struggles. It supported other workers on strike, made organizing even more of a priority, invested a sizable portion of its strike fund in modernizing and expanding the education centre, assisted locals in developing their own newspapers, introduced innovations in bargaining, and played a vital national role in the crucial debate over free trade and the future of the country.

The first act of the new union involved a group of young women who had, with the support of the CLC and its affiliates, taken on one of the most powerful institutions in the country - the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Along with other unions, the Canadian UAW contributed money for strike pay, and it also provided staff. The minute the formation of the CAW was officially declared, the bank workers marched into the convention in Toronto.

(Top) The original CAW Education Centre in Port Elgin, Ontario in the mid-1950s. (Bottom) The new CAW Education Centre.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

The union's first two financial decisions were also significant. They involved organizing and education; that is, expanding the union's membership base and deepening its commitment. The Canadian section of the union had, since the sixties, led all regions within the UAW in organizing. With its new independence, it decided to hire ten additional organizers for a year to protect existing standards in the union and accelerate the recruitment of new workers. The decision was in part related to the opportunities created by the wave of media attention surrounding the split. The CAW had been receiving increasing numbers of calls from groups of workers attracted by both the union's well-publicized successes and the fact that it was becoming Canadian (which, to these workers, meant that decisions were made in Canada, not in a foreign country, and that money collected in Canada stayed in the country).

After giving the workers a boisterous feet-stomping ovation, the CAW delegates followed the strikers, many single mothers and immigrant women, out of the hotel and down Bay Street to the bank's headquarters. For the CAW, this support indicated recognition of the changing nature of the workforce and made a statement about solidarity with low-paid workers.

Frustrated with the bank's refusal to negotiate with the workers, the women, along with their bargaining rep, Jim O'Neil of the Canadian UAW, made the decision to sit-in and stay-in at their workplace. For women who had never been on a strike before and who were responsible for child care and supper, this was a wrenching and tense period. Security was already tight in the bank, but someone found an unguarded fire door and let O'Neil in to help maintain the worker's confidence as they began their thirty-six-hour sit-in.

The decision regarding education was much more costly and risky. It involved the rebuilding and expansion of the union's education centre in Port Elgin. That expenditure reflected the priority the union placed on education and was indicative of the permanence of the CAW. It announced that the union was here to stay and that it was building for the future. This education centre belonged to the workers. At Port Elgin, workers exchanged information about the latest management strategies in the workplace, tried to get a handle on the deficit, and learned about a history they had previously been denied - their own. It was a place where they studied the role of workers in the scheme of things. Port Elgin was also the home of the CAW's unique Family Education Program. Run in the summer as two weeks of vacation and education for the families of CAW members, the program symbolized the union's commitment to integrating the family and union culture. And, as the home of the Canadian Council, Port Elgin was the place where activists renewed contacts with old friends and later met in crowded rooms to share rumours and complaints or out-yell each other in debates. Paintings, photographs, and posters reflected everyday lives and paid tribute to past struggles. At Port Elgin, working people were more than "just workers."

Meeting inside plant at de Havilland after work stoppage over health and safety.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

The modern health and safety movement emerged in the mid-sixties, when the workers placed the issue of working conditions on the agenda. From the beginning and into the nineties, that health and safety movement was influenced by the rising consciousness of public health and the environment, and by outside activists.

 In the early seventies, wildcats by miners in Northern Ontario, members of the Steelworkers union, forced a Royal Commission on Health and Safety, and the Saskatchewan NDP government introduced legislation patterned on earlier legislation in Sweden that was unique to North America. That legislation emphasized both a greater role for the state in policing health and safety and the empowerment of workers who could themselves force the issue. That empowerment included the establishment of health and safety committees, the right to information, protection against reprisal and above all, the right to refuse work that might endanger workers. The Saskatchewan legislation became the model for progressive reform on the continent.

 In Ontario, worker militancy over the issue surprised trade union leaders. The NDP made it a central issue, and this forced legislative changes and significant increases in government budgets dealing with workers' health. In the mid-eighties, there was another round of worker pressure and militancy over the issue. In 1987 and 1988, workers at de Havilland and McDonnell-Douglas staged the largest work refusals that had ever occurred for health and safety, shutting down production and making major gains in cleaning up the workplace, training and educating the workforce, and monitoring the health of workers.

In collective bargaining, the union consolidated its separation from the U.S. and tried to restore the notion that bargaining was not about corporate demands (concessions) but about workers' demands (sharing in progress, improving the workplace). The union lobbied for legislated changes, and when Parliament wavered under corporate pressure, as it did with indexed pensions and advanced lay-off notice in Ontario, the union confronted it in bargaining - both to win gains and to demonstrate that the change in legislation was in fact practical. And with its new control over its finances, the CAW was able to provide financial support for the struggles of other unions when they came for help: woodworkers on the West Coast, telephone workers in Newfoundland, food-processing workers in Alberta, public sector workers in Ottawa.

The "culture of resistance" that had developed in the union was rooted in a historical legacy and recent involvement in struggles. The role of education was to reinforce and consolidate that culture ("education" also included films, pamphlets, union newspapers, music, and even writing classes that encouraged workers to resist the dominant culture and tell their own stories). As a culture that permeated the union, it did not depend on or wait for leadership from "the top." Local activists and members proved themselves quite capable of leading on their own. The best example of this autonomy was in aerospace, where the local leadership at de Havilland Aircraft and then McDonnell-Douglas took on the issue of health and safety and led the largest collective refusals Canada had ever seen.

 Labour Day march against the proposed Free Trade Agreement, September 1987.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

When Mulroney announced his intention to move towards the FTA with the United States in 1986, the CAW was there in opposition with its credibility and organizational/financial clout. Leadership meetings and forums were held in every community with a CAW base across the country. Bob White, as leader of the CAW, was generally viewed as a central leader and spokesperson for the anti-free trade coalition. Over one million pamphlets were distributed in the plants, to homes, at schools, and in malls. Full-page ads appeared in newspapers across the country when opposition to the agreement was flagging and in need of revitalization. And CAW activists across the country brought the issue into the plants and worked with others to introduce more Canadians to politics by way of the anti-FTA fight.

In spite of the subsequent close defeat, the fight against free trade proved the potential of the Canadian labour movement and highlighted its importance as a relevant and democratic social force. Without the intervention of the labour movement, the crucial debate over the future direction of the country would have been a brief and hardly noticeable interruption in Canadian life. In the past, the economic and political èlite of the country had always been divided on free trade. Now, however, business was united in its favour; the media, with a few exceptions, endorsed that support; and opposition from the NDP had no fire. Canadian labour, along with its resource-poor but commitment-rich coalition partners, forced a national discussion which, at least for a brief moment, had the establishment nervously making accommodating promises.

After the 1988 federal election, Bob White of the CAW and Leo Gerrard of the steelworkers' union each wrote scathing public criticisms of the NDP's belated and tepid handling of the free trade issue. The tone of the criticisms didn't suggest any break with support for the party, but it highlighted an emerging change in labour's attitude to the party.

What was and remains an issue, was the style and orientation of the NDP campaign ... this reflected a deeper problem: a feeling of disillusionment and drift which threatens to reduce active commitment to passive support ... "Is our party becoming a pale imitation of the other parties? Can we still count on it to stand up for us?"

- CAW brief presented by Bob White to NDP task force, March, 1989

The labour movement seemed to be rebelling against past notions that the NDP had all the political savvy and labour's role was to provide the bodies and money. The movement was asserting that it had fully understood the significance and potential of the free trade issue while the party caucus had not; that it had broadened the notion of politics and mobilized public opinion in a way that the party had not; and that even in terms of narrow electoral strategies, it was right and the party was wrong. While these events were encouraging in terms of labour's development, they reflected the NDP's inability to deal with the new economic times. That failure would reveal itself even more painfully in the 1990s. The comment made by Charlotte Yates in From Plant to Politics on the relationship between the CCF/NDP and the UAW/CAW in the early eighties seemed to be confirmed: "The party moved away from its social democratic principles towards a more conservative political image at the same time that the UAW was becoming more politically militant in its own action ... As had happened so many times in the past, the UAW and the NDP were marching to the beat of two different drummers."

The UAW made its breakthrough in Oshawa in 1937, after a fifteen-day strike against GM. That strike was dragged out and given national significance by the interference of the premier of Ontario. In 1984, another strike at GM of similar duration was catapulted into national prominence by an external player. This time, the interference came from the source that had inspired the Canadians to establish their own branch of the UAW in the thirties, but whose own spirit had since been sapped - the American UAW. The internal UAW conflict that was the inevitable result led to the formation of a new Canadian union. The breakthrough of 1937 had developed into the breakaway of 1984.

This event had a current context and immediate causes, but it cannot be fully understood without reaching back to the past. Two issues have dominated much of this book: how the Canadian section of the UAW managed to avert the decline of the UAW, and how the Canadian union members developed the confidence and maturity to leave home when the outside world was more threatening than ever. The autoworkers where not the first to break away from an American-based union. Other unions in telecommunications, paper, and chemical had made this move in the seventies. What gave the split of the Canadian UAW such importance was not only the union's prominence in Canada, but its past role as a leading defender of international unionism and the issues and timing surrounding the break with the Americans.

The Canadian move to independence was a statement about coming of age that contrasted with the country's own increasing economic dependence on the United States. The split was therefore also one step in the building of a Canadian working class. The significance of this step <> that Canadians are inherently superior, but that the struggle to improve workers' lives and communities can only be won ifit=fought on the basis of a national project linked to a national labour movement. History isn't made in the abstract, but in specific spaces with specific cultural, economic, administrative, and political histories.

The years just before and after the split were probably the most exciting in the history of the Canadian UAW. This excitement had less to do with good times (old problems persisted and new ones arrived) than with the union remaining a place where it was still possible to fight for, and hang on to, alternative ideals. The issue the union now faced was whether, in these most difficult of times, it could maintain that twin sense of resistance and possibilities.

Chapter Seven / Chapter Nine

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