A Rival Canadian Union Federation?

by Charles Walker

According to the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), 30,000 Canadian members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) were getting a raw deal from the SEIU. So when the SEIU members asked to join up with the CAW, the CAW welcomed them in.

The SEIU claimed that the CAW was raiding its members, and the CAW admitted that technically it was. But still, the CAW argued, the votes of the SEIU members and their local union leaders should be respected. The Canadian Labour Congress (the equivalent of the AFL-CIO) disagreed, and the CAW, according to its president, Buzz Hargrove, was “effectively thrown out of the Congress, our leaders and members barred from participating in events ranging from national-level conferences to nitty-gritty local labour council meetings.” (Hargrove reported this in a June 30 “open letter,” published in the Toronto Globe and Mail.)

Hargrove has indicated that the CAW (Canada’s largest private-sector union) may organize a rival to the CLC. “I’m going to be talking to a lot more people,” Hargrove told the press, “about whether or not there’s a mood out there to have another central labour body in Canada that’s more progressive or militant, more democratic.”

If history is any guide, that’s not an idle threat. In 1985, Canadian auto workers rebelled against the United Auto Workers (UAW) and formed their own, independent CAW. “We…had to fight as hard with the leadership of our union as with the corporations,” says Hargrove.

Hargrove’s speeches don’t sound a lot like those of his American counterparts. For example, “Hostility from employers and governments meant that cozy business unionism, in which union leaders take few risks and actively co-operate with employers in return for annual wage increases, was no longer sustainable.”

Hargrove’s Weak Side

At the same time, Hargrove talks like an ardent trade protectionist, pushing trade policies that won’t unite workers across borders.

“We are recommending that the government, instead of removing the tariffs for everyone, that they raise the tariffs for everyone, including GM, Ford, and Chrysler on imports that they bring in from offshore. This includes the parts industry and the Japanese, who simply ship parts from Japan to their assembly operations in Alliston and Cambridge, Ontario. They should pay a penalty in tariffs to help protect the auto industry in Canada.”

Hargrove’s tariff plan must be good for the American auto bosses, for he claims, “We have the auto majors on [our] side. GM, Ford and Chrysler are agreeing that rather than take the tariffs off of everyone, they will accept a tariff on their products coming in from offshore.”

The CAW broke from the UAW, denouncing its “enterprise unionism.” Still, Hargrove is far from being a class struggle unionist. For example, in a recent speech he recounted his often successful efforts at getting the Big Three auto giants to invest new capital in one plant or another. Since investors aren’t in business for their health, but for increased profits at the expense of their workers, one has to wonder what advantages Hargrove pointed out to them, that they couldn’t see for themselves. That part was left out of Hargrove’s speech.

(For more on the dispute in the Canadian union movement, see the accompanying editorial from the Canadian newspaper Socialist Action.)