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