A New (Old) Idea to Rebuild Unions
From CAW and CEP comes a new (old) idea to rebuild unions
by Thomas Walkom,
National Affairs Columnist
May 23, 2012
Two Canadian unions are negotiating a deal that, if
successful, just might reinvigorate the labour movement.
The proposed deal itself, as reported in the Star by my
colleague Tony Van Alphen, involves a merger between two
labour giants, the 200,000-member Canadian Auto Workers and
the 130,000-strong Communications, Energy and Paperworkers.
But the most interesting element of the proposed deal would
see the new union aggressively move to sign up members among
groups that the modern labour movement has tended to ignore -
including the unemployed and the growing number of contract
workers technically considered self-employed.
Unlike traditional unionists, the new kinds of members
wouldn't necessarily bargain contracts with bosses. The
unemployed have no employers.
But the aim of the proposed scheme is to restructure the
organizations that claim to represent working people so that
they better reflect the reality of the modern workplace.
That reality rests on part-time work, so-called independent
contractors (in actual fact, employees who legally don't
qualify for statutory benefits) and fragile jobs.
How do unions make this leap? In part, the new proposal
harkens back to an earlier era when unions, such as the 19th-
century Knights of Labour, acted more like fraternal
organizations than modern-day collective bargaining units.
Unions got their start in those days by offering members
tangible benefits, ranging from burial insurance to summer
camp for the kids.
The CEP-CAW scheme echoes this with its suggestion of letting
those outside of traditional bargaining units participate in
union-sponsored benefit plans.
With its talk of organizing the jobless, the proposal also
harkens back to similar attempts - often successful - by
Canadian Communists in the 1930s.
"There's a lot of like-minded people out there not in
traditional bargaining units," says CAW secretary-treasurer
Peter Kennedy, who co-chairs the merger committee.
And the idea of unifying workers as a class is as old as the
labour movement itself, dating back to the radical Industrial
Workers of the World, or Wobblies, and Canada's short-lived
One Big Union.
That labour is even talking about such things is a great step
forward. Thanks to outsourcing, the factory model of work, on
which the modern union movement was built, is virtually
finished in North America.
It's no surprise that the two protagonists in this effort come
from factory-style industries in decline.
The autoworkers face low-wage competition from China. The CEP
represents workers in the struggling pulp and newspaper
industries. (The Star is a CEP shop and I'm a proud union
More to the point, the political climate facing labour is
unremittingly hostile. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's
Conservatives are openly anti-labour. They have used the power
of the state to beat back unions not just in the public sector
but also at privately owned Air Canada.
In Ontario, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are taking on public
And the New Democrats, for decades the party of labour, are
deliberately moving to what they call the centre.
In such a world, labour needs new friends. No wonder then that
Ontario Federation of Labour chief Sid Ryan has embraced
striking students in Montreal. No wonder that the once-mighty
CAW is casting about for new ideas.
Incidentally, these new ideas don't always work. In 2004,
UNITE HERE was formed as a merger between skilled needle-trade
operatives and low-wage hotel workers. Dedicated to
progressive, social unionism, it was heralded as the model of
Five years later, amid great bitterness and disputes over
money, that merged union fractured.
[Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star national affairs columnist,
writes on political economy.
The winner of two national newspaper awards (foreign reporting
and column writing), he was the Star's Queen's Park columnist
for eight years. Before that, he wrote for the Globe and Mail
- first as an Ottawa parliamentary reporter, then as Tokyo
He has a PhD in economics from the University of Toronto and
is author of Rae Days: the rise and follies of the NDP, a book
on Ontario's first New Democratic Party government, that
managed to make the best sellers' list for about five minutes.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday, Thursday and
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