On Certain Recent Developments in Canadian Trade-Unionism

Last April 28th, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) announced that they had just signed an agreement in principle with Ford, renewing the collective agreement for three years, five months before the current one was to expire. This agreement provides for a three year wage freeze, a freeze of the cost of living allowance for four years, the loss of 40 hours of vacation per year, a reduction in pensions, cuts to drug insurance and other health programs. Perhaps worst of all, it puts in place a two tier system by which new employees will start working at seventy percent of the base salary and will only receive the base salary after three years of work. Also, certain clauses open the door to new layoffs, which is a bad omen in an industrial sector where layoffs are the order of the day and are splashed regularly over the economic pages of the major media. For example, on May 12th, while it was also in negotiations for the renewal of the collective agreement with CAW, General Motors announced that in the second trimester of 2010, it would close down its transmission manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ontario, thus throwing 1400 workers into the streets of a town already suffering heavily from an unemployment rate of eight percent. In the last two years alone, this once prosperous town which used to be called “Motor City” or the Canadian Detroit had already lost more than two thousand five hundred jobs, including more than two thousand in its Ford and Chrysler plants. Finally this “master contract” concluded with Ford and which is traditionally also agreed to in principle by the other two members of the “Big Three” (General Motors and Chrysler) also contains clauses which progressively transfer the administration of the pension fund to the union, which will gradually become its sole owner and manager and thus in charge of future cuts that are likely to happen.

Buzz Hargrove, the head of the CAW, whose tremendously inflated ego sometimes reminds us of a certain Louis Laberge (1) - and who not ten years ago was still the hero of the Canadian capitalist left - congratulated himself for having limited the damage, notably with the two tier system, compared to his American “brothers” in the UAW. But Hargrove benefited from a clear advantage over his fellow bureaucrats of the American union since health insurance is covered by the state in Canada, which is not the case in the United States where the three automobile giants have to contribute a good part of the cost which represents a considerable percentage of their manpower expenses. Despite these huge cutbacks and the unprecedented resistance from the workers of Ford Canada (a notable example would be the rejection by 56% of the workers at the major plant in Oakville near Toronto), the union and the company were able to push the agreement through by way of blackmail, lies, maneuvers and threats.

But why do we say “the union and the company”? We will use two recent examples of corporate/union collaboration to explain why we associate them in such a negative manner. Let’s first examine the case of the ArcelorMittal Dofasco steelworks in Hamilton. During the thirties, in the heroic years of Canadian trade-unionism, the owners (the Sherman family) did everything they could to crush one of the first steelworkers unions that had briefly established a foothold at Dofasco. It was a period marked by great struggles for union recognition. We need only refer for example to the great Kirkland Lake miners’ strike of 1941-42, which rallied thousands of hard rock miners against an alliance of greedy mine owners. The Kirkland Lake miners were ultimately defeated and the town of Kirkland Lake never really recovered from the conflict, but a majority of the ruling class was shaken enough by this strike, as with many others of the same kind, that they came to the conclusion that they might be better off recognizing a role for the unions in labour relations. And in fact less than a few years later the unions made their entry with little fuss or major confrontation into the mines of Kirkland Lake as they would also do so in thousands of other mines, factories and other workplaces across the country. But the Dofasco owners were of the old school. They fought like hell throughout the 20th century and successfully beat back all attempts to establish a union at their Hamilton facility. Dofasco was the anti-union bastion in the union town stronghold of Hamilton. Or at least until the 20th of March of this year when the local newspaper The Spectator announced the unimaginable: the company was openly inviting the United Steelworkers of America to meet with its 4000 employees directly on the shop floor to invite them to join their union! Moreover, Andy Harshaw the vice president of the company circulated a letter to all the workers in the plant saying that he “strongly encourages consideration of the union offer”. The understanding between the company and the union openly aimed to favor the unionization of the facility as is the case in the United States between the United Steelworkers of America and ArcelorMittal regarding their 16,000 American employees. However on March 27th, Wayne Fraser the Steelworkers director for the Atlantic/Ontario region issued a press release announcing the failure of this joint union-corporate operation. The ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers had in majority refused to join this very strange unionization drive.

But there is something stranger still in the Canadian trade-union landscape today. We refer to the agreement concluded between the CAW and the Canadian auto parts giant Magna, owned by the Stronach family. With this agreement, named “Framework for Fairness”, the Stronachs have invited the CAW to “organize” the 18,000 people working in their 45 plants. This agreement has now been ratified by a crushing majority of the CAW council. The agreement provides for the election of a single candidate to the post of Employee Advocate, chosen through a nomination process of candidacy and selection which for the moment is totally incomprehensible. These employee advocates would then form a union council for all of the concerned factories and would directly elect their executive officers without any form of candidacy or direct elections by the grassroots. The whole project aims to develop “non-antagonistic” relations with the bosses. The agreement would ban the right to strike or lockout and all disputes not resolved by negotiations would be submitted to outside arbitration, i.e. the state. You will agree that we are far from the epic struggles of past decades that sought to force union recognition on the bosses. Something has changed in the exploitation system, but unfortunately the capitalist left as well as the vast majority of workers have not caught on to it yet, at least not as much as the majority of the capitalists and their state has. Our exploiters have no doubt read with interest Buzz Hargrove’s 1998 book, Labour of Love. In this book, Hargrove reveals the littlest secrets and is very honest in his description of the theory and practice of trade-unionism in this epoch of state capitalism and monopolies:

Unions probably prevent more strikes than they precipitate. [...] Good unions work to defuse that anger - and they do it effectively. Without unions, there would be anarchy in the workplace.

He concluded his tale with an appeal to his capitalist partners and their mouthpieces:

If our critics understood what really goes on behind the labour scenes, they would be thankful that union leaders are as effective as they are in averting strikes. In my view, the wonder of the collective bargaining process in Canada is that we have so few strikes.

The vast majority of the ruling class in Canada, as in other countries, have understood Buzz Hargrove’s message. From the workers defense organizations that they were at their inception, the trade-unions were called to become in the imperialist stage of the wage slave system

an essential tool for the preservation of capitalism and thus to assume the precise functions of a state organism.

Conference on the trade-unions of the Internationalist Communist Party of Italy, 1947

In short, trade-unionism has become a cog in the mechanism of our exploitation.

Internationalist Workers Group (Montreal)

(1) Quebec labour bureaucrat who ruled the Quebec Federation of Labour for more than a quarter of a century. See Not a Single Tear! , Internationalist Notes, November 2002.