Tony Van Alphen
May 23 2012
The two unions contemplating the biggest merger in Canadian labour history want to open membership to workers who don’t have bargaining rights.
In a revolutionary move for the labour movement in North America, a committee of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions will reveal the proposal Wednesday as part of an “innovative plan” to attract and organize many more employees, a centrepiece in their merger talks.
“We would be opening up the union to a whole new group of workers who we can’t reach right now,” Gaétan Ménard, CEP’s secretary treasurer and a committee member, said Tuesday. “We get to really walk the talk.”
Representatives for the two unions view the proposal, obtained by the Star, as critical in building a stronger and more influential force in the community and at the bargaining table, where organized labour’s clout has weakened over the past two decades.
The CAW, which has 195,000 members, and the CEP, representing another 120,000 workers, confirmed merger talks late last year. In a surprisingly blunt assessment of organized labour’s difficulties, they said in January that unions must overhaul themselves quickly and become more relevant or face a slow demise.
The proposal, which still needs work, indicates one way of meeting that challenge is a new membership category with includes workers who are unemployed, laid off, part time, as well as young people.
“Millions of Canadian workers, like part-time workers and contract workers, have no effective possibility of forming a traditional union,” said CAW economist Jim Stanford. “These unorganized workers should not be cannon fodder for unethical employers. We can find other ways for them to use the power of numbers.”
The two unions say governments have implemented tougher union certification procedures that are business-friendly and allow for more employer intimidation. Furthermore, economic downturns have made bargaining progress for workers more difficult and reduced interest in unions.
“Eroding union density (especially in the private sector) and the daunting obstacles to new organizing mean that a majority of Canadian workers have no effective access to unionization and they can come to see unions as distant or even ‘privileged,’ ” one discussion paper noted.
Sources close to the merger talks say the unions are contemplating nominal fees for members in the special category, much lower than regular union dues at an organized workplace. For example, CAW monthly dues range from about $25 to $75 based on earnings.
In exchange, those members could tap the union for help in understanding their labour rights, how to protect themselves from management abuses and for strategic advice in perhaps starting an organizing drive, according to the proposal.
Other advantages for those members include possibly joining union health benefit programs where they could get preferential rates.
“In reaching out to these hard-to-organize segments of the working class, the new union would demonstrate its commitment to be a relevant force fighting on behalf of all working Canadians,” the merger committee adds in its report.
At the same time, the committee warns that the CAW and CEP must ensure the new membership category doesn’t undermine traditional organizing, the core strength of the two unions.
The committee’s proposal also calls for a “powerful and ambitious wave of new organizing campaigns” and more financial resources for those drives if the new union forms next year.
Leaders of the two unions are optimistic about the merger but they must still agree on a number of issues including organizational and financial structure and a new name. The CAW is holding a major convention in August and the CEP plans a similar event in October with further merger talks scheduled after those meetings.