Unions unite to fight the good fight

Randy Simms
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For many working Canadians, it was a surprise announcement. Only those well connected inside the labour movement nationally seemed to know what was coming, despite a very public discussion. And while it’s big news, with all kinds of implications for workers in this country, we haven’t been hearing much.

I’m referring to the announcement last week that two of Canada’s biggest unions are finally going to merge.

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) will soon become one massive body with well over 300,000 members.

They even have a new name picked out — Unifor.

It was not an easy task. CAW president Ken Lewenza and CEP president Dave Coles decided to resign their positions to allow for new leadership. The new union is expected to become a reality on Labour Day.

Unifor will be the largest private-sector union in the country, representing workers from 20 different sectors of the economy.

Most will still be in manufacturing and transportation but members will come from other sectors, including the public sector.

Traditionally, unions have not been quick to give up territory to others. Most compete for members just like retailers compete for customers, so a merger of this type raises questions. Why these two unions, and why now?

The answer may be simple —


Union membership is in decline and right-wing governments, especially the Stephen Harper administration, are seen as being anti-labour and have willingly used legislatures to erode union power.

Tactics such as not allowing the bargaining process to play out properly by forcing people back to work, intervening directly in negotiations, and warning of legislation to come if a work stoppage should occur have all hit the labour movement hard. The government’s justification for this interference is the belief that they are protecting the economy. A lot of Canadians agree with that sentiment, especially when it’s your flight that’s grounded by a strike.

The percentage of Canadians in the private sector that are in a union today stands at 13.4 per cent, down from 16.7 per cent in 1997.

This slow erosion in membership has to bring consequences, and this merger is an attempt to reverse a growing trend.

The first thing Unifor is going to do, according to the organizers, is set out on a membership drive. They are going to use some 10 per cent of their revenues — which is substantial — to grow the new union. It will not be easy given our current economic climate, but climate change can occur in the economy just as it can in nature.

This should be a warning to big business. This merger is being driven by a sense of urgency and a belief that hard-earned benefits are being eroded. It’s being driven by the belief that the middle class is under attack by greedy Bay Street types who are saying one thing but doing another. True or not, perception is reality. This is not just economics at work — this is politics.

How long can the capital markets expect to hold on to all of its cash while union contracts are stripped? How long before so many people are affected by changing pension plans and eroding benefits that they find an avenue to protest effectively? How long before people start looking at the so-called fat cats and demanding a bigger share of the pie? It’s hard to keep arguing for corporate tax cuts so you can grow the economy, when the only thing that’s grown in recent years is the corporate bank account.

When the announcement of the merger was wrapping up last week, Ken Lewenza made an interesting statement. “We have certainly been on defence,” he said, implying that those days are now coming to an end.

Jerry Dias, formerly of the CAW and pegged to be the new leader of Unifor, also said something interesting.

“Our combined efforts between the two unions are to make a bold statement that we are going to maintain the middle class.”

Sounds like fighting words to me.

Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached

at rsimms@nf.sympatico.ca

Twitter: @RandyRsimms

Organizations: Canadian Auto Workers, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Bay Street

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Recent comments

  • a business man
    August 18, 2013 - 11:20

    My approach to the potential unionization in Canada is two fold: Firstly, I avoid permanant workers to the best of my abilities. Usually, I hire in cycles, and I hire 200+ people for 75 jobs. I start them all part-time, and rank their performance based on how much profit they make for me per minute. that means if they walk slow to the bathroom, or if they take long in the bathroom, their ranking is lower. It is not personal, it is not discrimination, it is just math and stats. Then I only extend full time hours to the top 60 people who make the most profit. That means that the remaining 140 average workers compete for the remaining 15 seats on a given day. The bottom 30% will likely never get offered a shift. Then, within 90 days, I fire everyone in accordance with the law, and start over. The objective is to have a flexible and temperory workforce. I tell the workers from the outset, verbally and in contract, that this is a temp job that will end in 90 days. I set the expectation that it is a temp job so that they see that there is no point in trying to unionize. Also, I use temp agencies and just rotate bodies in and out. The bottom line is that I do not give full time jobs to anyone (other than family and friends)....I do not create jobs that are worth unionizing (for the workers or for the unions)...this strategy has served me well. I have a willing workforce that accepts minimum wage on a perminant basis, and my profits and MY salary has gone up in every year of the last 5 years. It has also served me well because I am a lawyer by trade. I have a full time job, so I don't personally run my companies. So knowing that I have a profitable strategy that is no likely to get unionized means that I have a steady and reliable flow of extra money coming in with no effort on my part. My second approach to unionization in Canada is to move companies to right to work states. Laws that make unionization hard are good for me, which is why over 70% of my companies are in right to work US states. Every one of those jobs were once in Canada, but I have moved them becuase I get more money. I still pay the Canadian government capital gains on the profits that I make from the US. I still pay my fair share. But the reality is that I have increased my Canadian wealth by cutting out Canadian workers. And I chose to do so because I am scared of unionization cutting my profits. I would not be scared if there was no union. So tell me, at the end of the day, will unions create jobs or cause employers to flee. Frankly, I don't care either way because I will always find a way to do what is best for me. As far as I am concerned, nothing else matters. It is workers in Canada who have to worry about the supply of jobs in Canada. As an employers, I have a global pool of workers, so I will hand pick the workers who will accept the terms that facilitates the maximum amount of profitability.