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 member.)
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 sector workers.
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 the future
Five years later, amid great bitterness and disputes over money, that merged union fractured.