Chapter 9 - The More Things Change, The More They...Change Again

 CAW poster

Won't Canadian business lobby to reduce spending on social and other programs? NOT AT ALL

- Business ads during FTA election

Everybody knows the boat is leaking. Everybody knows the captain lied.... Everybody knows the plague is coming. Everybody knows it's moving fast. Everybody knows ...

- Leonard Cohen

Our union is based on certain principles that we refuse to change and directions and structures that we must change to preserve and win those principles.

- CAW 1994 Convention Document

The formation of the CAW in the mid-eighties coincided with the election of Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives into office. The Tory victory symbolized the capture of the national agenda by big business in a way not seen since the early years of the depression. The Tories laid the foundation for a revolution which, ten years later, the Liberals cynically brought into full force. The social programs and gains that were fought for years ago and that were fundamental to a sense of citizenship in Canada were being diminished and demolished.

Although Canadian governments had focused primarily on fighting inflation since the mid-seventies, inflation continued to rise through the eighties. The government was planning to introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the early nineties, but this tax would directly raise prices, and result in even higher inflation if workers successfully raised their wages to compensate for the tax hike. At the same time, the freedom of corporations to relocate plants and invest money had been increased because of both international developments and domestic policy decisions. This combination of factors reinforced the government's determination to focus on restraining inflation. Concerned about competitiveness and capital outflows, but reluctant to strengthen controls over investment and finance, the government tightened the screws on the economy even further by way of higher interest rates.

This move not only destroyed jobs and denied people a chance to participate in productive work - in the name, strangely enough, of strengthening the economy - but it also set the stage for the later debt crisis. Slow growth and high unemployment resulted in lower government revenues and higher social costs. The subsequent budgetary deficit would be financed by money borrowed at higher interest rates. The growing deficit became the basis for another attack on public sector wages and social services. Taxpayers rebelled against further taxation because the unfairness of the tax system wasn't addressed and because the added revenue was going to pay interest and therefore represented no improvement in services. As a consequence, services faced the knife - and the cuts would be deep enough to change the nature of Canadian society.

During this radical restructuring of the economy, politics, mood, and nature of Canadian society, the CAW was undergoing its own internal transformation.

Mergers: Developing a New Membership Base

In the decade after the split, the CAW's membership increased by fifty per cent to almost 200,000. In contrast, membership in the UAW over this same ten-year period fell by one-third. By 1995, the number of UAW members was half of that in 1979, just before concession bargaining began.

The increase in the membership of the CAW is, however, misleading: it doesn't accurately reflect the union's experiences. It hides the losses and pain of the closures and downsizing that occurred, and it understates the even larger increases in the number of new members. As a result of the accelerated restructuring of the economy, plant closures had become common even in so-called good times. The deep recession at the end of the eighties and into the early nineties was, however, particularly destructive. Between 1985 and 1995, CAW members suffered through 250 closures, which affected about 28,000 workers.

Local 195, the amalgamated local in Windsor, has lost well over 100 plants since its charter in the thirties, and the heaviest losses occurred in the past decade. Yet in spite of the grim reality that corporations can and do carry out their threats to close workplaces, the local - to its credit and to the credit of the CAW staff involved with it - has maintained the union policy of fighting concessions.

In addition, thousands of jobs were lost through the everyday growth in productivity because of new technology, because companies were allegedly working smarter, or, as was often the case, because of a combination of the new technology, lean production, and plain old-fashioned speed-up (In fact, corporate policy had never dismissed speed-up as an option.) Roughly 10,000 to 15,000 workers, primarily in large auto and aerospace plants but also in telecommunications and the airline sector, lost jobs through so-called downsizing.

These losses would have cut the union's size by over one-third to under 80,000. But an aggressive organizing campaign offset much of this major loss. Workers clearly wanted to join unions, and the CAW's economic restructuring had also included new plants and therefore potential members. The added resources invested in organizing resulted in the recruitment of almost 450 units representing about 43,000 new members in this ten-year period (50,000 ifthe government-imposed vote amongst a number of rail unions, won by the CAW, is included). This growth compensated for the other losses. While the above factors essentially cancelled each other out in terms of numbers, the primary surge in membership came from almost twenty mergers that added about 73,000 dues-paying members to the CAW. The total number of such members originally exceeded 100,000, but some of these groups, especially those connected to the fisheries, suffered catastrophic job losses in the early nineties.

Mock cemetery and grim reaper with gravestones citing plant closures, set up at May 15 rally in Ottawa.
Photograph by Brenda Stoddart.

The mergers were rooted in the history and structure of the labour movement in Canada. In the private sector, the trade union movement had generally grown up as a branch plant of the American movement. As unions broke away to form their own Canadian structures, they found that they were too small to survive on their own. A union structure and diversity that might have worked in the larger economy of the U.S. was impractical and too fragmented in Canada. The corporate aggressiveness and the tough economic times highlighted this weakness. Many unions, including some that still belonged to American international unions, therefore welcomed admission into a larger union.

Common industrial employers or sectors were only one factor involved in the restructuring of the labour movement. Sectorwide mergers had a strong logic, yet other factors turned out to be more significant: union histories, ideology, attitudes to international unions, government-mandated reductions in the number of unions, and bureaucratic concerns over staff and leadership positions.

The mergers were rooted in the history and structure of the labour movement in Canada. In the private sector, the trade union movement had generally grown up as a branch plant of the American movement. As unions broke away to form their own Canadian structures, they found that they were too small to survive on their own. A union structure and diversity that might have worked in the larger economy of the U.S. was impractical and too fragmented in Canada. The corporate aggressiveness and the tough economic times highlighted this weakness. Many unions, including some that still belonged to American international unions, therefore welcomed admission into a larger union.

Bridgnath Theodore working on axle line at Scarborough, GM's van plant which closed in 1993.
Photograph by Gayle Hurmuses.
Reservations agents at Air Canada, 1982.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

Past conflicts over raids, competition over bargaining strategies, and failed attempts to cooperate left a bitter legacy between certain unions who seemed to be logical partners. A unit that had just broken away from an international union to become Canadian would not merge with another international. Even Canadian sections of internationals that wanted to merge their Canadian operations would generally be blocked until the Americans approved the merger. Ideological compatibility turned out to be an important factor not just because of the legacy of labour's own cold war, but because the trade union movement was in fact in the midst of a debate about alternative directions. Some unions were on the same wavelength in responding to the new challenges; others were not.

The CAW was an attractive potential partner to many sectors because of its high profile, strong servicing reputation, independence from the Americans, and stance on concessions and fighting the corporate agenda. The first of the mergers, which occurred in the summer of 1985, was with the Canadian Airline and Employees Association, a small but active and progressive union representing passenger and reservation agents. The association had rejected mergers with other unions in the same sector because of past conflicts and differences. Its vote to join the Canadian UAW came just before the formal founding of the CAW. A group of workers in comparable positions at Canadian Airlines also joined the CAW, though only after a great deal of internal resistance.

Passenger agents were originally predominantly men, and the view was that women were not suited to the work.
- Craig Chouinard

The largest of the mergers occurred in 1994. The Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers (CBRT), which began as an industrial union in the rail industry three decades before industrial unionism made its breakthrough in manufacturing, merged with the CAW. When the Canadian UAW was first being organized in the thirties, the CBRT (then the CBRE) ranked as one of the largest unions in the country. It also preceded the CAW in becoming a general union across the country, having moved from representing only railworkers to also speaking for workers in hotels and hospitals, truck drivers, garage mechanics, ferry workers, and workers on the Great Lakes. The CBRT's rail members, along with the CAW's earlier merger with the Carmen (which represented workers who maintained the interior of trains) and the government-mandated vote to streamline the number of unions in rail, left the CAW as the dominant union in rail.

Although the first bargaining round in rail under the CAW banner ended, as past rounds normally did, with back-to-work legislation, the union nevertheless showed that the mergers did create the possibility of developing new and more effective strategies. In bringing together seven of the rail unions, the CAW acted as a catalyst to replace much of the past distrust and tensions with collective confidence and discipline. Unity was possible.

Checking the trains.
Photo by CAW member George Haber.

Furthermore, sections of railworkers had, almost a decade ago, argued against the traditional strategy of a shut-down, which usually accomplished nothing more than bringing in the government. Now, as part of the CAW, they advocated focusing on one company in order to increase pressure on that company as work was shifted to its competition (the strategy developed in auto). And, by leaving some rail lines running rather than shutting down the entire national system, this tactic would weaken the rationale for government intervention. The union also experimented with very modest job actions - and even rumours of actions - to see ifthey chased business to other companies.

The streamlining of the economy, just like the streamlining of auto production, clearly left the companies extremely vulnerable to creative tactics. The issue that remained was to convince the rail unions outside the CAW that, from a unified base, such strategies were worthwhile.

Other large mergers brought in groups with a left-nationalist ideology. Some, such as the United Electrical Workers and Mine Mill, which had been expelled from the CLC during labour's cold war but survived, continued to play a significant role on their own. UE was eventually accepted back in; Mine Mill was not. Others had been part of a separate labour central, the CCU (Confederation of Canadian Unions), which was established in the late sixties to fight the international unions and work towards building democratic and independent Canadian unions. In spite of their relatively small size, these unions had led a number of important strikes in the West and in Ontario and were able to place crucial nationalist issues on the agenda. However, the formation of the CAW and external economic pressures put into question the need for, and ongoing viability of, remaining isolated from the rest of the labour movement. A number of the CCU unions, the largest of which was the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical, and Allied Workers (CAIMAW), eventually joined the CAW and brought with them a strong western base with members in industrial plants, in mines, and in the private service sector (particularly hotels and restaurants).

The Globe and Mail, 29 August 1987:

The next time we'll be looking at different things, like having a strike on only one railway and letting the other operate, or a work-to-rule.

- Gary Fane, Brotherhood of Airline and Railway Clerks

A railway strike does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. ifwe do battle, it will not be to be defeated, or have someone rescue you. We have to put maximum pressure on the railways and minimum pressure on the public.

- Abe Rosner, Council of Railway Shopcraft Unions

Mergers with airline groups and the broadly diversified CBRT raised the total number of women in the union to over 40,000. This reinforced the demand for leadership schools for women, and strengthened the base for more effective women's networks across the country. The rail mergers almost doubled the number of skilled trades in the union to over 35,000, strengthening their potential lobbying effectiveness nationally and provincially. The merger with the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union led to the innovative establishment of a storefront office in downtown Toronto, allowing the union to work with, and build ties to, the neighbouring immigrant communities.

In the early debates about how aggressive the CAW should be in pursuing mergers, Buzz Hargrove, then one of White's Assistants, argued that the potential growth in the union's existing sectors was low, while the risk of decline was high. In addition to continuing to organize in these traditional sectors, the union must therefore also be diversified. Furthermore, there was some responsibility on the part of the union to welcome any groups it could help. As long as the viability of the CAW wasn't being endangered, such an expansion of the union was, he argued, one vital aspect of social unionism. The diversification would give the union a national base of like-minded groups, allowing it to continue to play a leading role in determining the ideology and direction of the Canadian labour movement.

The most controversial of the mergers involved the Fishermen, Food, and Allied Workers (FFAW) of Newfoundland. The FFAW was "more than just a union." It was a powerful presence in Newfoundland's communities and in the politics of the province. In the early seventies, the leaders had, remarkably, forged a union that united workers in diverse circumstances: independent fishermen who owned their own boats, trawler workers on company boats who shared in the catch, and fish plant workers on shore. After a series of militant strikes, the group merged with the Packinghouse Workers, an industrial union. A subsequent merger with the Retail Workers resulted in the creation of a new organization, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

When the Newfoundland workers realized that their union neither reflected their values nor provided the services they needed and that these problems couldn't be solved through internal democratic procedures, they decided to split from the UFCW. But would the UFCW accept the separation peacefully or try to destroy them? The FFAW leadership concluded that leaving the UFCW necessitated simultaneously joining another union. The CAW was the obvious choice because of its principles and because few unions would risk the consequent hostility of the internationals.

White and the CAW leadership understood the possible implications of allowing the Newfoundland workers to join the union: a bitter and costly fight with the UFCW, attacks from the international unions that saw this move as opening the door for other groups considering going Canadian, and the financial costs of taking on a union with low dues and high costs. From the perspective of direct gains for the CAW, the merger offered little. Nevertheless, the NEB and the union voted in favour of merging. Workers were not the property of any union. ifcommitted unionists and determined workers wanted to join a different organization, and they could not realistically do so because there was no way to express and carry out a democratic decision, then the CAW had a responsibility to support them.

The legal and organizational battles with the UFCW cost the CAW a very substantial sum of money. The merger shook up the labour movement and seemed to put the issue of workers' democratic rights inside their unions on the agenda. However, the lack of consensus within labour assured that this issue of internal union democracy was never satisfactorily resolved.

FFAW brings songs and music of Newfoundland to Toronto, November 14, 1994.

From Non-American to Canadian

With their breakaway, the Canadians were no longer part of an American union. It was not the split, however, that made the union truly Canadian. It was the mergers, which nationalized the union by involving all regions of the country and no longer limiting unionization to central Canada. The mergers transformed the union into a microcosm of the entire Canadian economy, not just of the heavy manufacturing sector.

Fisherman on the Great Lakes (Marine division, Local 444).
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

The CAW was now building cars, planes, trains, buses, subway cars, and the accompanying components. It was digging salt, nickel, and coal out of the ground, refining aluminum, and pulling fish out of the sea. Members of the CAW were shipping resources by rail and truck, transporting people by plane, truck, and bus. They were manufacturing telecommunications equipment and servicing the equipment to facilitate national and international communication. They worked in hotels and casinos, served food in restaurants, and cared for patients in nursing homes.

The crucial change wasn't just the diversification of the union into a number of sectors and regions, but its central role in so many parts of the economy across the country. The CAW had become the largest union in a wide range of manufacturing sectors, the dominant union in transportation services and the fisheries, and an increasingly important union in mining and the hospitality sector.

In 1984, ninety per cent of the CAW membership was contained in a few centres in southern Ontario and in the Montreal area. Those Ontario centres were Windsor, St. Catharines, London-Woodstock, Chatham, Cambridge-Kitchener-Brantford, and the Toronto-Oshawa-Oakville-Brampton area. With the mergers, the CAW became the largest private sector union not just in Ontario, but also in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and had a major presence in Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba.

Larry Bauer, Local 444 president and head of Chrysler bargaining team during 1993 negotiations. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1994, the Windsor Star honoured him in an editorial that said: "His heart couldn't keep up with his soul."
Courtesy of the CAW Local 444 collection.

Although the mergers certainly added new and difficult challenges, they were also a source of strength and vitality. The mergers brought unions with their own rich histories, activists with talent and experience, and the energy of new members. In addition, they encouraged the development of a broader working class consciousness on the part of the past and future CAW members. CAW activists, having heard a report on the fisheries at the council, read the newspaper differently and paid more attention to what was happening to working people in Newfoundland. Students in the PEL program, listening to a passenger agent explain the impact of lean production on her work, realized that work reorganization was in fact part of something bigger and that service workers were really workers.

This is a legal battle, it's a political struggle. The workers want a union that represents a value system, and ifsome people have differences with that, they can go to hell. - Richard Cashin, FFAW, responding at CAW Council to UFCW raiding charges

Particularly important was the contribution of the mergers to the momentum of the union. A union characterized by growth=more likely to feel confident about the possibilities of moving ahead. The 1993 Big Three negotiations were an example of the influence of that general mood on a union. The union entered that round of bargaining at a time when the labour movement felt weak and uncertain and wage increases in Canada were at the lowest levels ever recorded. This set of negotiations was the CAW's first Big Three bargaining round since both top officers of the union had left (White to the CLC, Nickerson to active retirement). Yet the union and its new leader, Buzz Hargrove, went in demanding and expecting to win not just COLA, but additional wage increases, more paid time off, large pension hikes including increases for the 23,000 Big Three workers in retirement, improvements to income security, and significant gains on social issues.

It was a brash, but ultimately successful position for Hargrove and the bargaining committees to take. That success stemmed from many factors, but the readiness of the workers to fight for their issues was the most important. One factor that should not be ignored, however,=that without the momentum of the mergers and with a falling membership, the leadership and membership might have been defensive, cautious, and relieved to take a safer and less ambitious road.

Although there were many benefits, the changes inside and outside the union necessarily raised new problems or highlighted old ones. They raised interrelated issues about union finances, the administration of an increasingly complex organization, and the development of a common identity to keep the union together. The CAW always had certain crucial financial and administrative advantages. Its members were generally concentrated in a narrow region of the country, in a few highly unionized industries, in larger plants, with full-time positions, and with relatively high wages. This concentration in itself provided the national union with a strong revenue base and relatively low operating costs.

Union policy reinforced these strengths by negotiating, wherever possible, full-time elected company-paid reps in the larger units, and by encouraging smaller units to amalgamate into larger locals. The union's commitment to leadership training supported the development of this local activist base of stewards and full-time officials. Locals in Canada were large, even relative to the United States: in the mid-eighties, the average CAW local had about fifty per cent more members than the average UAW local.

Although workers are now producing more than ever, real wages (wages after adjustment for inflation) have grown more slowly than they did in the thirties and at a small fraction of the growth in other decades.

Real Wages:
Growth per Decade
AVG, above:
(The trend of the 1990s=running at or below the 1980s.)
Source: Perspectives on Labour and Income, Statistics Canada, Vol. 5, No. 2.

That local structure strengthened the democracy, effectiveness, and finances of the union. The existence of strong and independent locals reinforced the accountability of the national office. It also meant that council and executive board discussions and debates weren't just abstract posturing but reflected a serious local mandate. iflocals weren't in favour, decisions couldn't be carried out. ifthey were, policy could lead directly to action. The ability of the locals to manage their own affairs meant that a qualified pool of potential staff and leaders was more readily developed, and that the ratio of staff to members was low compared to other unions.

These factors allowed a relatively small but well-qualified staff to serve the members. Although the staff was highly paid relative to other unions, this cost was offset by the higher dues (since the general members were also relatively higher paid), and the need for a smaller staff. The overall financial structure built on this base was sound.

By the eighties, however, the economic restructuring had begun to undermine some of these advantages. There was a rash of plant closings. Plants were moved to rural areas and new plants were set up in non-union areas. And as a matter of corporate policy, the new plants that replaced old plants were generally smaller. As a result, organizing was both more essential and more expensive. Furthermore, the ongoing cost of serving new, inexperienced, and often smaller units was high while their dues - given the pressure to keep wages low in this period and the difficulty in raising them quickly to a standard pay level - were relatively low. And although the union had always spent substantial amounts on broader political activities, the increasing importance of nonbargaining issues like free trade in the lives of its members led to increasing expenditures on political campaigns.

In each of the five years ending in 1991, the union reported a deficit in its general funds. This period included high expenses for organizing and the costly merger with the FFAW, but the majority of mergers actually came later. (Two-thirds of the workers who joined the CAW by way of mergers came after 1991.) The total deficit over the period exceeded $27 million. The subsequent mergers added to these cost pressures, since it became more expensive to serve a membership base that was increasingly spread across the country and in a wide range of sectors.

The original principle of staff salaries was that they match the weekly pay of a Big Three skilled worker with eight hours overtime per week (forty-eight hours for fifty-two hours of pay).

The safety valve for the union in this period was the strength of its strike fund. That fund was structured to subsidize an eight-week strike at its largest unit, GM. But the changes in GM's operations had left such a standard irrelevant; only a complete war with GM could lead to that long a strike, and in such a war, the size of the strike fund would not be decisive. The union was therefore able to draw on the strike fund to cover its deficits over this period, without running out of monies for strike pay.

Nevertheless, depleting the strike fund was not a long-term solution. The union leadership at the Big Three was justifiably anxious that the strike fund not be drained. The existence of a large strike fund was still important to the membership and as a message to the companies. The CAW leadership therefore tested the council on an increase in the dues structure, from the current two hours per month to 2.5 hours per month. The mood was not receptive. The economy was in a tailspin, and workers' wages were stagnant. More significant, resistance was building against new taxation (the GST had just been introduced), and an increase in the dues check-off sounded uncomfortably like a new tax.

Between the council meeting and the 1991 convention, the union distributed more information on the changing times and the needs of the union, and lobbied activists. At the convention, members overwhelmingly approved an increase of twenty minutes (rather than the original half hour) in the dues structure. Although there was some nervousness about a backlash in the workplace once this increase hit the paycheques, none occurred. Explanatory pamphlets were distributed to all the locals, and the local leadership explained the necessity of the increase. The change in dues was soon old news.

The new dues structure allowed the union to move closer towards balancing its budget. But the initial costs of bringing in other new groups of workers, full-scale unions in their own right, were high. There were adjustment costs in dealing with their staff, nationwide educational campaigns to explain the structures and processes of the union, and the internal politics and subsequent delay in moving small units towards amalgamation into more viable locals. In offsetting these costs, the union could not impose another dues increase. The solution lay in more careful and systematic management of the operations of the increasingly complex union.

This issue of management was, however, not just a financial question: it raised difficult questions about the structure and nature of the union: To what extent can a union decentralize to allow for local initiative and provide services, while resisting regionalism and the loss of a coherent national direction? How can a union maintain the strength to respond to its powerful enemies, but also allow for the membership input and control that is even more fundamental to mobilizing for struggles? How can the organization introduce new rules and more formal structures while avoiding any hint of bureaucratization? How do leaders whose strength and credibility have always stemmed from their focus on direct bargaining even think of standing back and becoming managers? How does that leadership stay in contact with the larger and more dispersed staff and maintain staff morale?

Militant Loyalty

The most important internal issue the CAW faced, and which encompassed the management issue, was recreating the magnetic force that brought and kept the union together; the CAW had to create what Walter Reuther long ago called militant loyalty to the union and its cause. Amongst the challenges and potential problems of this issue were changes in the composition of the workforce, the relationship to the rest of the labour movement, and the crisis in left politics.

Within major auto companies, the limited expansions over this period had aged the workforce. In the mid-seventies, the average Big Three worker was in his or her early thirties; by the end of the eighties this worker was approaching the mid-forties. This aging was particularly evident amongst staff and activists, and it raised the question of the ability of the union to renew itself through the future commitment and energy of young people. In the late nineties, when those who entered the auto plants during the boom years of the mid-sixties will look to retirement, the issue will become the union's integration of their replacements. Will the new generation of workers, with generally higher education levels and having grown up in relatively conservative times, be alienated from the union or will they lead a new rebellion against corporate Canada?

The changing face of the union raised the question of integrating groups of workers with different experiences and union cultures into one organization. Over and above the mergers, economic restructuring was reducing the traditional white-male base of the union, while new hires and newly organized units added greater numbers of women, recent immigrants, and people of colour. This diversification demanded increased sensitivity to ensure that the union truly represented all members and their needs. Developing leadership from these groups was especially crucial. This was not just as a matter of equal opportunity, but a matter of ensuring that the daily life of all CAW activists includes interaction with members from all parts of the union. And the union would benefit from developing and using all the potential and talent that existed in the workforce.

.. [the union] is still in the process of formation. It is a young union, not yet set organizationally or administratively, that must keep itself flexible and on its toes to meet constantly new and changing problems. We need organization and adaptation, rather than routine administration and regimentation.

- Walter Reuther, July, 1937

The union addressed these issues in bargaining, in educationals, through films, and in its structures. Though difficult, the issues seemed manageable. A growing constituency was demanding changes and the leadership was committed to responding. The union had to decide how fast changes could be made, whether the resources applied were reasonable or needed to be increased, and what the best approach might be. Harder to manage, and therefore more dangerous, was the possibility of the union being overwhelmed by changes outside the union. Such changes had infected and weakened other unions and other labour movements.

Just as new circumstances and the issue of direction had caused the split from the international UAW, similar debates about direction now caused tensions within the Canadian labour movement. The isolation of the CAW amongst the private sector unions was primarily caused by the threat the CAW's successes posed to the existence of international unionism in Canada. But it was also related to the nature of unionism, as some unions began to accept the need for a less adversarial approach.

The CAW certainly made compromises; it didn't have the power to avoid them. As long as American society remained on the right, the achievements of Canada and Canadian labour would remain limited. In the midst of the euphoria after the split from the Americans, Phil Bennett, the head of the GM Master Bargaining Committee and a strong supporter of the breakaway, asked the sobering question: "How long can we continue to go in a different direction than the Americans?"

The Canadians had put this nagging question aside to form the CAW. They couldn't ignore it, but neither could they wait for American labour to revive itself. They could only continue their own struggle, insisting that unions remain independent working class organizations and arguing that, with corporations more aggressive than ever before, the last thing unions should adopt is the illusion of false partnerships. From 1975 to 1988, the Canadian labour movement faced this danger, and it survived relatively well compared to other labour movements. The CAW had even emerged stronger. But in the subsequent years, an effective response to this threat became much more difficult.

In the earlier period, the issues and responses were much clearer. The union was confronted with a steady series of challenges to traditional unionism and saying "NO!" was an effective solution: NO to wage controls in the mid-seventies; NO to concessions at the end of the seventies; NO to the opening of agreements in the early eighties; NO to the new direction of the American leadership; and NO to free trade with the United States. Such a response was not easy. It took courage because it resulted in difficult changes to long-standing structures and attitudes within the union. But it provided the union and workers with a ready response, ifnot complete answers.

The union was also much more homogeneous at that time. In recent years, it has become more diversified, and it is still in the process of accommodating the internal changes. Moreover, the Canadian labour movement itself was more unified in the earlier period. There was still a general consensus within labour that concession bargaining and false partnerships damaged, rather than helped, working people. The fights of the autoworkers were the fights of the labour movement, even ifthere were tensions over jurisdiction and over which unions were the informal leaders of the Canadian labour movement.

Before, the union had positioned itself as the underdog challenging American multinationals and the American UAW to protect past gains and Canadian sovereignty. Now, as globalization seemed to push nationalism aside, and with the CAW being the largest private sector union in the country, that nationalist underdog role had ebbed.

Percentage of Workforce Unionized in Major Countries, 1975-88

1975 1988
Canada 34% 35% + 1%
Germany 37% 34% - 3%
U.S. 23% 16% - 6%
U.K. 48% 42% - 6%
Japan 34% 27% - 7%
Italy 47% 40% - 7%
France 23% 12% - 11%
Source: Bamber and Lansbury, International and Comparative Industrial Relations

The passage of time became the most crucial factor. In the early seventies, members of the corporate and political èlite were beginning their attempt to change people's economic and social expectations, and people resisted. But over time, those expectations did change. The strategy of outright refusal, effective for a period of time, was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Some unions acceded to "the end of adversarialism," prompting the media to challenge the CAW on why it too wasn't changing.

The change in the national mood inevitably also affected many CAW members. Many workers, tired of banging their heads against corporate/government walls gave up on social change and turned inward. ("I'll work overtime to make up for the tuition increases for my kids"; "reduce my taxes, and I'll take care of my own pensions.") Some exhausted activists found their confidence wavering and cynicism invading their thoughts. When hope falters, the pressures of daily life increase the incidence of burn-out, and a paralyzing demoralization threatens to take over. After swimming so long against the tide, the swimmer gets tired.

All of this seemed to be directly related to the union experiencing, in 1994, its first staff strike. Regardless of the immediate events, personalities, and bargaining issues that led to the strike, the changes in the organization and in society were having an impact on the staff's view of itself. The move to independence had been accompanied by the formation of an elected executive board, and that necessarily shifted some of the effective power in the union away from the staff and towards the board. The sheer size and complexity of the organization limited past informal contacts; the staff had, for example, doubled since the split. In addition, some staff were starting to suffer from the same let-down that other activists faced: exhaustion from years of struggles over increasingly limited gains; the perception that everything - their life, their work, their assumptions - had become more complicated; an uncomfortable uncertainty about where the labour movement and their own union were heading; and a questioning of whether things would or could get better.

The election of the Ontario NDP in September, 1990, seemed to be the tonic that the labour movement so desperately needed. The significance of the NDP victory - over and above the fact that it had never before happened in the province - was that Ontario is the industrial heartland of Canada, with an economy equal in size to those of major countries such as Sweden. Starting the nineties with a victory symbolized a rejection of the corporate agenda that had dominated the eighties. For workers, it meant that, after years of struggling against the corporations, governments, and the institutions of the state, they might actually have some friends in high places to support their struggles and needs.

The Crisis in Social Democracy

Soon, however, many workers were wondering which groups in society had won the election and which had lost. Long-standing promises such as public auto insurance were not only postponed but discarded and discredited. The deficit in Ontario was a problem that couldn't be wished away, but rather than changing how deficits, and therefore politics, were discussed in Canada, the NDP began, as journalist Tom Walkom put it, "talking Tory." The NDP used the deficit to pressure its allies into line, rather than to clarify and expose the underlying democratic questions: Why do financial institutions have so much power? How can we democratize economic power so that bankers are not determining social policy? ifthe crisis=so dangerous, why aren't we discussing the responsibility of the rich in contributing to solutions?

As part of its deficit response, the NDP introduced the cynically misnamed "social contract," which took away the most fundamental union right - the right to bargain - from public sector workers. That single policy reinforced the denigration of public sector workers, legitimized future attacks on unions, added to divisions within labour, and effectively severed the NDP's ties with its most important potential base.

Some workers rejected the NDP for the "wrong" reasons. The NDP's introduction of some long-sought progressive changes like employment equity no doubt resulted in a backlash amongst many working people. But that backlash was rooted in the fact that these issues were not placed in the broader context of working class struggles. The party's overall language and direction did not clearly identify it as fighting on behalf of working people. And its backtracking had disarmed the party's past supporters in the workplaces; they no longer played a role in explaining the purpose of positive changes and defending the party against unfair criticism. Even amongst those who would still vote for the party given the lack of choices, most would do so without the enthusiasm that=so critical to the success of parties who don't have the luxury of big money behind them.

The gains the NDP government had made - and it had taken a number of important steps, including legislation reducing the barriers to union representation, and the barriers facing women and visible minorities in the labour market - were undermined. In other provinces, NDP governments appeared to be more durable, but only where the absence of a centrist Liberal party allowed the NDP itself to fill that role.

Workers take over the Caterpillar plant after company announces take-over and refuses to negotiate, April 1991.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

As the NDP developed its strategy, one perspective that it lacked was the "old" socialist idea of a party that defined its role as moulding the working class into an effective political force. That perspective emphasized developing the understanding of working people and building vehicles for collective intervention in all aspects of their lives. It aimed at overcoming fragmentation of the working class by encouraging their collective confidence in building a better world. But at this crucial time in history, with the right vulnerable in terms of its inability to deliver and with working people desperate for leadership, social democracy had no answers, and the NDP wore that failure. The tragic impact of the Ontario NDP government's reign was, unfortunately, to further destroy hope and to demoralize, divide, and ultimately demobilize rather than activate working people.

That the NDP had limited answers was not simply an Ontarian or Canadian matter; it was part of a more general, international crisis in social democracy. As corporate power increased, social democratic parties followed the swing to the right, hoping that moderation might increase their chances of election. However, even ifthe socialist ideal of a planned and democratic economy was forgotten, and even ifsocial democrats simply wanted to maintain the welfare state that capitalism itself had earlier accepted, such goals could no longer be maintained in a nonradical way. Globalization and international finance would undermine even modest goals ifthe power of capital was not addressed. As John Crotty summarized it in an essay in Creating a New World Economy:

The bottom line is this: Capital mobility gives the wealthy classes around the globe veto power over the economic policies and priorities of every nation. No progressive, democratically controlled system of economic regulation can function effectively ifit does not break that veto power through the imposition of capital controls.

Although some CAW activists did work for the NDP in the 1995 Ontario election and although, as individuals, many decided they had no alternative but to cast their ballots for the NDP, the union as an institution could not endorse the party's role in government by endorsing them in the election. The CAW would, of course, participate in the process to revive the NDP, but it was clear that the immediate support and solutions the union needed would not come from the party.

The union would have to draw on its own strengths. It would have to reach into the historical legacy and culture of struggle that had led working people to build the UAW and then the CAW. It would have to rely on: the momentum from the split and the new legacies the merged sections brought to the union; the conscious leadership decision to keep expectations high and demands aggressive; and the structures that provided forums for ongoing collective discussions and development of responses. Those structures included the Canadian and Quebec Councils, the strong locals and the locally rooted executive board, the extended education and training for activists, and a tightly knit staff.

The mergers truly transformed the CAW. For every person who was a member a short ten years ago when the union was formed, there were two current members who didn't directly experience the split. The number of members outside of auto had tripled. Members who worked in auto plants used to outnumber others by almost three to one; now, they were a minority, though they still comprised by far the largest and most influential single group in the CAW. Previously, less than ten per cent of the union members were outside of Ontario; now, well over one-third came from outside that province. Of the original twelve-person executive board elected after the split (including the union's top three full-time officers) none remained.

When the union celebrated its tenth year, it was therefore remarkably different from the organization that nervously left the UAW. While the union looked for quiet periods to deal with its internal changes, dangerous external changes were accelerating. The mid- to late eighties, the period just after the formation of the CAW, when Canadian labour led the challenge to corporate Canada's FTA, once seemed like the peak of labour's mobilization. But events since then warned of the steep decline on the other side of that perilous peak. The union would, in confronting these most threatening times, have to creatively rethink what a new unionism, which preserved the basic insights of the old, might look like.

Chapter Eight / Chapter Ten

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