Hot! Unions recognize the need for a radical change

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
 9 August 2012.   Carol Goar

It is either the last gasp or the rebirth of the labour movement in Canada.

After eight months of negotiations, the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) have unveiled their blueprint for a proposed merger, creating the largest industrial union in Canadian history.

The good news is that the two unions are clear-eyed about the challenge they face and realistic about the prospects.

They acknowledge that nothing short of a “culture change” will stem the 25-year decline in the strength and credibility of private sector unions.

The bad news is that mergers haven’t strengthened or even stabilized the labour movement in the past.

Both the CAW and the CEP — of which I am a member — gobbled up smaller unions to reach their current size. But neither achieved the critical mass to keep growing or to revitalize the labour movement.

This time they’ve come up with a more ambitious — but much riskier — formula. They aim to create a new union unlike anything labour activists or the public have seen in the past.

• It would be “a fighting force for all workers,” not just its own members.

• Its reach would extend beyond traditional workplaces. It would organize temp workers, contract employees, immigrants in precarious jobs, the self-employed and the unemployed.

• It would be open to all “who share the vision of a stronger, larger Canadian social union,” including artists, entrepreneurs, homemakers, community activists and seniors.

• It would offer support and services to non-members engaged in disputes with their employers.

• It would inspire — embarrass if necessary — umbrella bodies such as the Canadian Labour Congress and the Ontario Federation of Labour to be bolder, more active and more forceful.

There are a couple of troubling assumptions in the report.

One is that “a new union may create a wave of change in Canadian labour and attract other partners.” That is little more than a pipe dream, albeit a long-standing one.

The second is that the two unions have the talent, drive and discipline within their ranks to pull off a radical makeover. If so, it hasn’t been visible.

The proposed merger still has to be approved by the members of both unions. The CAW will put it to a vote in two weeks at its national convention. The CEP will do the same in October.

The heads of the two existing unions, Ken Lewenza of the CAW and Dave Coles of the CEP, have strongly endorsed the plan and ruled themselves out of the running for the presidency of the new union. They have also declined to say which political party — if any — the new union should support.

Saying yes to this scheme would require more than a leap of faith on the part of the 320,000 workers eligible to cast ballots. It would mean giving up some of the cherished traditions of unionism: exclusive membership and benefits, automatic dues check-off, job security according to seniority. It would also involve working out a whole new set of objectives, rules and relationships.

But saying no would be an equal or greater gamble. The trend line is clearly heading in the wrong direction. Without a major course correction, Canadian unions are likely to follow their American counterparts down the slope to irrelevance.

There could scarcely be a less propitious moment to revive the labour movement.

Economic growth has stalled, globalization has driven jobs out of Canada, companies such as Caterpillar are quite willing to close plants to get rid of unionized workers and governments are increasingly prepared to override collective bargaining rights to prevent work stoppages.

Even public sector unions, which once seemed impregnable, have been unable to forestall mass layoffs and legislated wage freezes. In addition to all that, Canadians regard unions as outdated and self-serving.

But there was a worse time: the Great Depression. At its nadir, the union movement surged.

(Historical note: the Toronto Star was the first Canadian newspaper to win union certification. Its crusading publisher, Joseph Atkinson, was a strong proponent of the rights of working people. That became one of the “Atkinson principles” that guide his successors 64 years later.)

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