UNIFOR – will Action match the Rhetoric?

by Lindsay Hinshelwood,

assembly line worker at Ford Oakville, candidate for Unifor President on August 31, 2013


As a 15 year member of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) I couldn’t buy the line that my union was merging with the Communication, Energy and Paper Workers Union (CEP) just to have greater strength in numbers. The labour movement already had the numbers; what it needs is greater solidarity in action. So why this merger to form Unifor?

The CAW name was tarnished for many reasons, not just the lack of democracy and vision, or the plague of appointed reps, or nepotism and tokenism. It was also because of the 2009 auto bailouts in exchange for massive concessions, and for not supporting any other workers.

Here are two examples from my own experience. 1) My Local (now Unifor Local 707) President tried to get a court injunction against the CEP-represented workers at the Ford Oakville Assembly Complex, both in 2006 against an information picket line they set up, and in 2010 for being locked out by the company, instead of supporting those workers and blaming the company. 2) The Local invited Lisa Raitt, the former federal Minister of Labour, to the union hall as a guest speaker after her government legislatively broke the strike of Air Canada and CP Rail workers.

The merger also provided an opportunity for the founding unions to rewrite their Constitutions and tighten up their Policies and Procedures. Which is exactly what they did. The new Unifor constitution protects the National Officers a little more, it reduces the role of the Public Review Board, diminishes the appeal procedure for members who want to grieve decisions, and it allows the union to collect dues from laid off workers who have found other jobs to help them pay bills while they are waiting for a return to work call from their employer.

Back in 2009, during the auto industry bailouts, the CAW was not prepared with a plan. It has yet to come up with a vision, other than the Auto Policy Plan which is full of absurdities, often enacted at the expense of other industries and taxpayers. At the Unifor founding convention officials made claims about union renewal and moving forward. So why didn’t the National Officers, who brag about their experience and knowledge, implement a measure of democracy at the initial convention?

It was an opportunity to implement One Member One Vote, and to invite nominations for the new 25 National Executive Board positions elected at the convention. But this didn’t happen. The retiring National Officers declared it wasn’t the right time — an excuse I’ve been hearing for 15 years.

However, I did get nominated by Bruce Allen, Vice President of former CAW Local 199 and one of the most outspoken militants. I proudly accepted. Never in CAW history had the top positions been contested. It was necessary that Unifor’s first National President be elected instead of following the usual practice where people at the top pick and choose the people at the top.

With a modest grassroots leaflet and only 4 minutes to speak, I managed to snag 17.49% of the vote. That sent a strong message that members want change at the top. It hopefully set the precedent that these positions in future will be contested. The other 24 nominees, all promoted by the National Officers of both unions, were acclaimed. Acclamation should be a dirty word in an organizaton that purports to be democratic.

In 2012 many autoworkers were hoping for a strike. But a strike was avoided by hyping threats of plant closures, followed by more frightful concessions. Unifor has since ‘moved forward’ by ratifying the same massive concessions for GM Cami workers. It accepted that the ‘supplementals’ in those bargaining units will now become full time — but with a 10 year phase in period to reach the top pay rate, so these workers will be working nearly 15 years before they achieve it. And they will never receive the same benefits as those on the first tier. This is shameful. Unifor’s new National President, Jerry Dias, was at the Ford Plant in Oakville on September 19along with Lisa Raitt, now federal Minister of Transportation, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and company executives to celebrate the $135 million in taxpayers’ money to bribe the car bosses to retool for new product lines. Sadly, this P.R. Exercise came on the heels of Unifor Local 707’s fundraising for school supplies.

These latest examples show why the union needs to be independent of, and not a lobbyist for, the government and corporations, because the outcome of subservient lobbying is almost always in favour of the employers and not workers.

Unifor needs to acknowledge the dissension in the rank and file and come up with a vision to bring the ‘supplemental’ and lower waged workers up to a living wage, and address the plight of youth unemployment and underemployment, to truly move forward. It will not thrive if it refuses to lead the fights workers are facing now.


Watch video of Lindsay Hinshelwood candidate speech for President of UNIFOR: