Don’t Expel Canadian Auto Workers Union

The Split in the Canadian Labour Congress Must Be Stopped

Editorial by Socialist Action of Canada

The following editorial appears in the Labor Day 2000 edition of the Canadian newspaper Socialist Action. To receive your own copy, 24 pages of analysis and ideas for action in the labor and social movements, the NDP and global workers’ solidarity, send a $10 check to: SA, 517 College Street, Room 234, Toronto, Ontario M6G 4A2.

A dark cloud hovers over the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) this Labor Day 2000. The CAW-SEIU dispute threatens to permanently divide and weaken the union movement.

Could it come at a worse time? Bosses’ governments at all levels are introducing or invoking anti-labor laws to help strip collective agreements, steal workers’ rights and benefits, block independent labor political action, and undermine union representation.

Labor’s fightback has faltered over the past decade, for a variety of reasons examined in depth in our press. Now is the time to turn this situation around — to revive the fightback. The teachers’ struggle in Ontario against Bill 74, and for decent, negotiated school board contracts, provides a golden opportunity for the whole workers movement. Now more than ever, the working class needs united, militant mass action.

Instead, we’re being served the poisonous brew of a split in the CLC. And there’s no excuse for it.

Back and forth go the now familiar arguments. Is it a democratic merger or an underhanded raid? Is it solidarity or poaching?

Procedural niceties aside, one thing is crystal clear: thousands of Service Employee International Union (SEIU) members in southern Ontario want to leave the SEIU and join the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW). To be precise, over 10,000 (of a total 30,000) members of eight SEIU locals turned out to union halls in early March, voting over 95% in favor of moving to the CAW.

Because individual enterprise collective agreements terminate at different times, so far 6,000 SEIU members have officially voted to recertify as members of the CAW. Many others from this overwhelmingly female membership, with a large and visible ethnic-minority component, are likely to follow suit over the next two years.

What’s behind this big shift? Personal ambition? Interbureaucratic conflict? Perhaps. But if so, that would be nothing new.

Workers’ Democracy the Main Issue

Actually, the overarching issue appears to be…democracy! Years of efforts by leaders of the 30,000 SEIU members in Canada to obtain national autonomy hit a brick wall. International President Andy Stern, and his predecessors, just wouldn’t release the purse strings. Only the fact of a breakaway movement across the northern border pushed the Washington, D.C.-based SEIU to amend its constitution at its May 2000 convention — but too little too late.

Recognizing that they had lost the battle for many Canadian members’ hearts and minds, the SEIU decided to seek revenge on the CAW. They invoked the CLC Constitution, which works much more to protect the boundaries of major affiliates than to facilitate ordinary members’ democratic choice. Found guilty of “raiding” for initially talking to the breakaway SEIU locals, the CAW is being surgically removed from CLC structures over a six-month period.

The shake-up of the labor movement, in which the CAW represents over 10% of the total Congress membership of 2.1 million, and a disproportionate part of the activist base in local labor councils and provincial federations, is profound indeed. Windsor Labour Council, a CAW stronghold, is now operating independent of the CLC; other councils may follow suit. There’s also talk of a new binational labor central, possibly involving Québec’s CNTU (CSN), to be initiated by the CAW.

Split Is Wrong Way to Go

Clearly, although some will be tempted, this is the wrong way to go. The CAW generally represents a more militant, more progressive brand of unionism than many other CLC unions, and it did split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers (UAW) to oppose concession bargaining in the 1980s. CAW leaders are properly critical of the New Democratic Party from the left. (The NDP is Canada’s labor party, currently dominated by pro-market Social Democrats). But they offer no alternative, inside or outside the NDP, and have been guilty of indulging in “strategic voting” for Liberals.

Nevertheless, such tactical and political differences should be fought out inside the house of labor. A split is no short-cut to a new action-oriented majority. Only the bosses will benefit from a split in the labor movement.

As workers, our Labor Day message to the CLC tops must be clear: mediate this dispute. Don’t invoke closure on the CAW. Don’t deepen the rift in labor. Act now to reverse this division.

“Anti-Raiding” Rules Not Strictly Enforced

To those souls who like to sanctimoniously cite the anti-raiding rules of the Canadian Labour Congress, the CLC should admit that its rules are more often honored in the breach. Journalist Paul Weinberg, writing in This Magazine (July-August 2000) gives two examples:

Take the much-cited case involving the Canadian wing of the American-based Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, which refused to join its U.S. parent in a planned merger with arch rival, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the 1990s. Instead, it hopped over to the Canadian division of the Steelworkers Union and later jumped to the CAW. During the first breakaway, the UFCW made some noise, but it later negotiated a legal peace treaty with the Steelworkers.

Major sections of the U.S.-based Newspaper Guild in cities such as Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, were allowed to leave the Communications Workers of America. Other breakaways have been more difficult and caused much acrimony between the two sides.

But seldom have such disputes involved expulsion from the CLC, an action that thus threatens to precipitate a major split.

As Geoff Bickerton, researcher for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), points out, “The same (CLC) Constitution that prohibits raiding between affiliates also requires all unions to ensure that all of their locals are affiliated to labour councils and federations of labour. One of the reasons that the CAW is such an important union within the labour movement is that it honours this requirement and ensures that all of its locals are affiliated at the local and provincial levels. Other unions, including some of the larger public sector unions, do not.”

This is the direction we need to go. Full participation in labor councils. Plus: Greater union democracy and membership control. Unity and mass action against the bosses’ agenda. Solidarity with social movements at home and abroad. Voluntary mergers, leading to larger and stronger unions. Organization of the unorganized. Independent working class political action. For a Workers’ Agenda.

Strict enforcement by the CLC of its antiquated rules, which actually restrict workers’ democracy, takes us in the opposite direction. CLC President Ken Georgetti should accept CAW President Buzz Hargrove’s proposal that the eight rebelling SEIU locals be taken under a CLC trusteeship for three years. Then, let their ultimate choice of bargaining agent be determined by a supervised vote held among all the members.

The CUPW’s advocacy of looser procedures for breakaways, and for a mediation process in which the CLC is not both judge and jury, also makes sense.

President Georgetti, it’s time to welcome the CAW back into the CLC. It’s time to turn our energy and our anger against our real class enemies.