Saturday, September 3, 2011

Remember When The CAW Was A Militant Union?

Ah, it's nice to reminisce about the good old days sometimes, isn't it? Since we're on the verge of Labour Day Weekend, let's hop into the Way Back Machine for a few, shall we, and review some find old chestnuts from when the Canadian Auto Workers used to fight for workers with the kind of teeth-gritting fierceness that we associate with winning gains and stopping concessions.

Of course, we could go back to 1945 when a militant strike by the United Auto Workers (UAW), forged in the militant sit-down strikes of the 1930s, won recognition at Ford in Oshawa and helped lay the foundation of the modern Canadian industrial union movement by winning automatic dues deductions and the closed shop in what has become known as The Rand Formula, after the mediating judge, Justice Ivan Rand. It also won medical benefits for the Ford workers.

Fast forward to 1984 and the negotiations between GM and the United Auto Workers. From the point of view of Bob White, president of the Canadian region of the UAW, along with his assistance Buzz Hargrove and Bob Nickerson, the parent UAW was giving away the farm in concessions. As well, the UAW, under the leadership of Owen Bieber, were lobbying the US Congress to bring auto production back to the USA from Canada. This was the tail end of the Reagan Recession of the early 80s. Chrysler was about to go belly up ("the more things change, the more they stay the same...") and Canadian auto production - guaranteed under the terms of the Auto Pact - was able to undercut American production because of the low value of the US dollar and the fact that Canada has socialized medicine. The lower cost of production and Canadian workers also meant that there was less pressure on GM and the other Big Three to squeeze concessions out of Canadian workers. With Bieber refusing to take the differential situation in Canada seriously - and putting Canadian members' jobs at risk by campaigning against them - Bob White led the Canadian region out of the UAW. The CAW was born. And while the logic of the split was never as much about militancy as the CAW hagiographies would have it, it did lead to a popular slogan "no concessions" to define how the CAW was supposedly different than the UAW.

Buzz Hargrove took over from Bob White in 1992 and was president of the CAW until 2008. During the 1990s the CAW continued it's "no concessions" stand at a time when many other unions were facing rollbacks, particularly in the public sector. Perhaps it was this apparent militancy that made the CAW a natural ally of those public sector unions who felt betrayed by the Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae and, then, with the election of Mike Harris' Tories, spearheaded the Days of Action movement. Though, when push came to shove, the CAW and the public sector unions didn't break with the conservative Pink Paper unions to call a province-wide general strike. They allowed the right wing leadership to veto the movement and were thereby complicit in the defeat.

If anything this defeat strengthened the impression of the CAW as a militant union, along with Hargrove's tough talk and self-identification as a socialist. The existence of the CAW flying squads - groups of activists that would show up to support the picket lines of other unions or to anti-poverty struggles added to this perception - as did the CAW's support for extra-parliamentary activist groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Even the CAW's support for raids on other unions in the private sector, notably the SEIU (a Pink Paper union), was justified by the CAW's supposedly greater militancy, expansive democracy and no concessions strategy. However, ultimately, the flying squads were wound up and the CAW's expulsion from the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress (which groups all the unions at the provincial and federal level) didn't lead to the foundation of a new, "radical" labour central as they predicted. And after a semi-riot at an OCAP rally at Queens Park, the CAW pulled funding from OCAP. Finally, the CAW under Hargrove used their left wing rhetoric to justify a right wing move - endorsing Liberal candidates in the Ontario provincial election. This led to their expulsion from the NDP. Of course, ultimately, this gallop rightwards under the influence of a set of politics that sees no real role for the rank and file, only the brilliance of great leaders, led to the CAW accepting concessions contracts in negotiations with the Big Three during the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed it. The differential advantage of a cheap dollar was now over and the Auto Pact was gone. The only way to defend past gains or win news ones is to fight and, "no concessions" rhetoric aside, the CAW hasn't actually done much fighting in recent years.

All of this brings us back to the present day and CAW president Ken Lewenza's call for a Liberal/NDP merger. They are now attempting to validate their move to the right by bringing along the entire labour movement into an unholy alliance with the other party of big business, the Liberals. It is like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And it is utterly stupid, tactically speaking, for the NDP to seek to dissolve itself just at the moment when it is on the rise and has the potential to eclipse the Liberals on the basis of winning their supporters to an open party of the Labour movement. And it would be an absolute disaster to surrender the hard fought existence of an independent party of the labour movement - for all its warts and weaknesses. One look at the state of working class politics in the United States should make that obvious enough. One of the few countries in the developed world that doesn't have a labour party, the United States also has seen the biggest retreats in workers' rights and levels of unionization in the developed world. The United States has the biggest economy on the planet and has the largest gap between the richest and the poorest on the planet - a gap that has grown exponentially since the 1970s. Even under the supposedly "union friendly" Democrats, workers' rights have not advanced, handouts have gone to the banks that caused the crisis and tax breaks for the rich have been continued. Do we really want to replicate that model? Do we really want another party like the Democrats in which the labour movement is the junior partner whose fundamental role is to get out the vote for representatives of the wealthy and then to shut up while the people they got elected screw them over?

It is indeed a sad and sorry day to see the depths to which the once mighty Auto Workers have fallen. It speaks to the desperate need to renew the House of Labour.

CAW chief Lewenza urges NDP to consider merger with Liberals - The Globe and Mail
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