Tag Archives: Canadian Auto Workers

Labour Day 2013 marred by unions bowing to austerity

 
And the downbeat goes on. In sector after sector, from auto to steel to forestry to railways to the Ontario and Federal Public Service, to the federal postal service, bosses usually get the concessions they demand from labour.
In the latest move, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union agreed with General Motors to organize special early retirement buyouts at its two assembly plants in Oshawa, Ontario. This is designed to accelerate the automaker’s drive to replace higher-paid veteran workers with workers earning low wages. Temporary workers will get about $10 per hour less than their counterparts, receive an inferior benefits program, and be barred from enrolling in the pension plan. New hires will begin work at $14 per hour below the regular-tier rate, will receive reduced benefits, and also will be ineligible to participate in the pension plan.
To supplement threats at the bargaining table there is the hammer of strike breaking law. Government back-to-work legislation in 2011 broke strikes in the railway, Air Canada, and at the post office, with scarcely a murmer from the labour movement tops. Union heads kept mass job action, urgently needed to counter the anti-labour coups, off the political agenda.
Unions in Canada now encompass 31 per cent of the work force, 9 per cent less than in 1983. Average wages are lower now than in a generation. Morale is even lower.
Some union leaders talk about confronting the threat of so-called ‘right to work’ laws (which would end compulsory deduction of union dues at pay source). Meanwhile they side-step the need to fight rollbacks in wages, benefits and pensions, and the insidious lower wage rate increasingly imposed on new hires. Such heinous measures undermine all workers’ (especially young workers’) confidence in unions.
Is the 30 year pattern of retreat by Labour due primarily to an inherent lack of self-confidence, to ingrained passivity, or to false consciousness on the part of working people? Are unions no longer suited to their task, as some academic ‘Marxists’ argue? Or does a sense of powerlessness simply feed off bureaucrats’ self-inflicted failures? Does Labour’s retreat arise from an aversion to struggle by union officials?
Plenty of evidence suggests that where a good, strong lead is offered, large numbers of people are willing to fight the austerity agenda of growing social inequality. The massive Quebec students’ uprising, the global Occupy protests, and the cross-Canada Idle No More movement testify to that. What’s lacking, especially at the top, is a will to fight, or even to allow the ranks to exercise the option.
 
Treachery, Authoritarianism undermine Teachers
In the teachers’ unions we find a particularly egregious example of class collaboration, and the strangulation of rank and file initiative.
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association brass agreed to concessions before the Ontario Liberal government enacted Bill 115 (which suspended collective bargaining and the right to strike for education workers) – and did so without conducting a vote of OECTA members. Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario followed suit. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation tops mounted token protest rallies, and simultaneously negotiated local concessionary deals. In York and Niagara districts, members voted in November to reject the deals that mirrored provincial take aways, despite heavy pressure from Federation headquarters to accept. In February 2013, OSSTF suspended its ‘political action’ protest (chiefly the boycott of extra-curricular activities, which impacted mostly on students and parents), and in April capitulated to the province’s demands, with minor tweaks. ETFO, the last holdout, gave way on June 13. Discouraged by the unravelling of what began as a common front of resistence to austerity, education workers ratified the deals. But scandal dogs the leaders who did the dirty deeds.
Outraged members of Toronto OSSTF are demanding accountability from the District 12 Executive which donated $30,000 to four candidates contending for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.
And members’ indignation pursues former OSSTF President Ken Coran. Coran angrily denounced the Liberals for violating collective bargaining rights, right up to the front door of the Liberal Party leadership convention in February. Then Coran stood as a Liberal candidate in the byelections held on August 1. Was his candidacy a reward for services rendered?
As it turned out, Coran came a dismal, distant third in London West. The labour-based New Democratic Party surprised the pundits by winning that seat, and by making an even bigger breakthrough in Windsor-Tecumseh. The Conservatives captured Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and the Liberals retained Ottawa South, and Scarborough-Guildwood in Toronto. All five contested constituencies had been held by Liberal Cabinet Ministers. The loss of three is a serious blow to the scandal-plagued Liberal minority government at Queen’s Park, now reduced to 50 out of 107 seats, with Tories holding 37 and the NDP 20. Most observers expect the next Ontario-wide election will occur in Spring 2014.
While perpetrating treachery from on high, union officials curtail democracy below. The latest attack is a ten year ban on this writer from attending OSSTF meetings for the crime of speaking out of turn at a substitute teachers’ bargaining unit meeting in November 2012. At the time, I demanded job access data that the local executive (consisting mainly of double-dipping retirees) refused to disclose for 10 years!
A decade ago, OSSTF officials removed the entire elected leadership of the Toronto substitute teachers’ unit on petty and false charges, and put conservative retirees in control. The latter surrendered an array of job security, wage and benefit gains in short order. On July 25, activists from several unions launched a Campaign to Defend Democracy in Unions and to Rescind the 10 Year Ban. For more info, please visit: torontosubstituteteachers.tripod.com
The fact is that the teachers’ top brass, and most of the entire labour leadership, would rather suppress militant members than fight austerity-minded bosses. Bureaucrats put a premium on tight control — even if it means weakening workers’ resistence to an agenda that harms the vast majority, including ultimately themselves.
Going Forward
So, how can workers organize in a non-sectarian way to challenge both the bosses and the labour traitors? Fortunately, some positive examples exist, pointing the way forward.
In the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, rank and file members organized a large and inspiring Solidarity Caucus. Its mission: to get OPSEU to rejoin the Ontario Federation of Labour, to which it stopped paying dues without good reason. The caucus attracted much support. It helped to elect reformers to the union’s Executive Board, but it did not win the re-affiliation battle at the April 2013 OPSEU convention. The campaign continues.
In OECTA, in March, convention delegates defeated and replaced the President who signed the bad deal and denied members a vote.
Meanwhile members of OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario formed a cross-union caucus, the Rank and file Education Workers of Toronto. REWT initiated actions to protest government policies, and is now demanding accountability from officials who approved funding and other forms of collaboration with the governing party which attacked teachers’ rights.
And in the Toronto substitute teachers’ bargaining unit, the Action Caucus, which was launched in 2003 when local control was undemocratically usurped, has been increasingly successful at winning policy and action resolutions at unit meetings. It has come close to getting its candidates elected. The ten year ban reflects the bogus executive’s fear of losing control.
What do these experiences suggest?
  1. The fight against capitalist austerity and union concessions requires rank and file organization in all the unions to promote mass job action to win a Workers’ Agenda.
  2. Rank and file organization should be based on policies, not personalities. It should actively strive to replace the current mis-leaders on political grounds. Abstention from struggle in the union arena, or giving political support to this or that wing of the bureaucracy, are a betrayal of the fight against austerity and concessions.
  3. To change the overall direction of our unions, it is necessary to build a cross union, class struggle left wing. This has been the approach of revolutionary socialists in the unions in Canada and the USA since the 1920s, pioneered by the Trade Union Education League. The TUEL, which was active prior to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party, provides an example that every worker-socialist should study.

CAW-CEP Merger – Undemocratic from the start

by Bruce Allen

UNIFOR

At the end of August 2013 a new union, called Unifor, will be launched in Canada with a membership of over 300,000 workers.  At a convention in Toronto, the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), will officially merge, creating the largest private sector union in the country.

Ostensibly, Unifor will be more powerful and influential than either of its founding parts. It will have more members and more resources at its disposal. But that means only that it has potentially greater power and influence. The merger in no way guarantees that these qualities will be fully realized. Size is certainly not synonymous with effectiveness. In fact, increasingly there are compelling reasons to view this merger with considerable apprehension. In fact, the more one sees of this merger and the process giving rise to it, the more there is cause for concern.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the merger process.  A short time ago CAW National President Ken Lewenza, when interviewed by the Windsor Star, had the audacity to claim the merger process could not be more open and transparent.  If he actually believes that, he has a unique concept of openness and transparency. CAW rank and file members have next to no idea what is going on. Even local CAW leaders have largely been left in the dark until very recently.  Many readily acknowledge this.

The merger process has in fact been driven from the very top of the two unions downwards and effectively shaped behind closed doors.  Few even know who are the people on the committees which have been assembling the terms of merger of the two unions.  Certainly the rank and file have not in any way shaped the process, nor have local union leaders. The bureaucracies of the two unions have exclusively shaped the process. Only now are they engaging, in a very limited and controlled way, local union leaders and members via a series of information meetings and a conference call. The membership has essentially been told they can’t just show up at a meeting of their own union to discuss the new union they are about to become members of, and pay union dues to, and be profoundly affected by.

Consider the following. Initially, fourteen information meetings about the merger were scheduled to take place across Canada.  Half were in Ontario.  Only one meeting each was held in the provinces of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  None was held in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.  This was hardly conducive to accessibility and transparency.

But the most damning thing is that neither individual members nor local unions can send resolutions to the founding convention of the new union. What this effectively means is that the bureaucracy of these two unions is going to present a complete merger package to the delegates to the founding convention. Basically, the delegates will be told to take it, in its entirety, or leave it. Thus, the delegates chosen by the membership will have a choice between rubber stamping the entire merger package, or voting against it and effectively scuttling the merger.

This is not the worst of it. When the critical vote is held, if brutal past experience is indicative, there will be an element of intimidation at work. The person chairing the convention will likely make it a standing vote. Delegates vote by standing up to vote, rather than by raising a hand — never mind having a secret ballot. Thus, delegates who want to vote against the merger package will find themselves having to stand up with the eyes of everyone in the room glaring at them.

These things must be stressed because the process reveals that there will be a real absence of democracy in the new union which structurally, and in practice, will perpetuate the absence of meaningful democracy — which has been absent in the CAW at the national level since its inception, exemplified by the fact that, at the CAW’s national council meetings, not one recommendation of the national president has been voted down since 1992.

Consistent with all of this, another thing is noteworthy. Back in 1985, when the then Canadian Region of the UAW broke from the UAW to form the CAW, large general membership meetings were held where the union’s rank and file could go to microphones and express their views without facing a wall of intimidation. They actually debated the issue of forming a new union, and then voted on it. The vote was by a show of hands, not forcing people to stand up to vote. Nothing comparable is happening this time around.

What this reveals is a considerable regression in terms of there being democracy within the union. What this shows is that rather than moving towards a stronger, more influential and democratic organization, what is emerging is one big unaccountable, self-perpetuating, privileged bureaucracy over which the rank and file will have very little control.

Despite this generally bleak picture, there is some reason for hope.  That hope lies in the fact that this union is being arbitrarily cobbled together by the bureaucracies of the two unions with huge unresolved issues.

Foremost among these is the question of political action, which centres on the future relationship to the NDP. They have no answer for this question and it is certain to spark intense debate.

I am hoping this debate will lead to what veteran CAW and socialist militant Joe Flexer used to call “an outbreak of democracy.” The task then will be to pour gasoline on the fire and break things wide open. That opening should include challenging the longstanding embrace of contract concessions by both organizations, and the tepid, selective support given to social movements resisting the austerity agenda.

Only if these things are done will the merger constitute a historic step forward for the labour movement. It is imperative that they are done.