by Bruce Allen, Vice-President of CAW Local 199, and V.P. Niagara Regional Labour Council (writing in a personal capacity)
Just prior to the start of the 2012 Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) Collective Bargaining and Constitutional Convention, held in Toronto August 20-24, the Chrysler Corporation sent the CAW a clear and unequivocal message concerning this year’s contract negotiations with the Detroit 3 (which includes Ford and General Motors). Chrysler tabled the demand that the CAW give up ’30 and out’. This means that Chrysler demands that the CAW give up autoworkers’ right to retire with a full pension regardless of their age after 30 years of credited service.
This is particularly significant because nothing better exemplifies the historic gains achieved by North American autoworkers over the last century than this contractual right. Chrysler’s position attests to its audacity and boldness going into this year’s negotiations. It shows the aggressive stance being taken by the Detroit 3 towards the CAW.
Prior to 2012 none of the Detroit 3 would have dared to table such a demand. Furthermore the tabling of it illustrates the self-confidence of the auto bosses and their sense of a new found ability to attack workers’ pensions. Clearly Chrysler has noted the recent successes of Vale Inco and U.S. Steel in rolling back pensions in their collective agreements with the United Steelworkers’ union and wants to follow suit. Regardless whether Chrysler actually succeeds in eliminating ’30 and out’, the very attempt to do so constitutes a watershed development. But should Chrysler actually have any success in this regard it will give added momentum to the onslaught against pensions, not only at companies like Vale Inco and U.S. Steel, but also by the Stephen Harper Conservative federal government’s move to raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67.
Thus it is imperative that the CAW beat back the demand to end ’30 and out’ by any means necessary, including by industry-wide strike action. Moreover, such action by the CAW should be couple with a serious campaign of mass action to halt the Harper government’s raising of the age of eligibility for OAS, since it will hit autoworkers especially hard. This is because the supplements to their pensions which are integral to their retirement income, end at age 65, because the current eligibility age for Old Age Security is 65. Raising the eligibility age to 67 will cost retired autoworkers thousands of dollars in lost income between the ages of 65 and 67.
These developments put the proceedings of the Collective Bargaining Convention into perspective. The convention was bathed in militant rhetoric and good policy papers detailing the breadth and depth of the attacks CAW members are facing. But the proceedings were detached from the everyday realities faced by CAW members who are being relentlessly attacked with no clear prospect of a serious fightback in response. Indeed the deliberations at the convention marked no significant shift in direction for a union that has been in retreat for many years, particularly in the all important auto industry. The CAW has allowed the auto bosses to set the trajectory of contract negotiations by permitting them to impose concessions in exchange for promises of new investment. As long as this approach continues, autoworkers will endure the effects of taking ever more contract concessions.
Indeed, the top CAW leadership stubbornly refuses to acknowlege this trajectory, never mind put a halt to it. The outcome of the convention effectively reinforced this recipe for continuing retreat.
Finally, the CAW’s planned merger with the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers, sealed by unanimous vote of the nearly 1,000 delegates, promises more of the same. It will produce a larger, better-resourced labour organization. But those advantages will be of little consequence unless there is a decisive shift to the left in both the collective bargaining and political strategies of the CAW. Neither is on offer with this merger. The very few critical voices on the left in the CAW are consequently tasked with relentlessly making the case that more of the same is not acceptable and will lead to even greater retreats.