The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) has rejoined the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) after a 10-year absence, a move CAW president Ken Lewenza hopes will strengthen the labour movement in Ontario.
“I thought we would be in a better position to influence government with a united labour movement,” he says. “It’s very significant if we can put the issues of common purpose on the front page of our agenda.”
The CAW split from the OFL in 2000 over a number of differences, among them concern that the CAW was not adequately represented within the federation’s executive. Lewenza stands behind the decision of CAW leaders at the time, but says union leaders face a different climate today and solidarity is the priority.
“Our decision to leave the Ontario Federation of Labour really never changed our purpose,” he says. “We still fully participated and led the activism base. But it is important that the labour union unites for a common purpose. There are so many things we have in common that we shouldn’t spend five minutes on a division.”
The OFL, which represents about 700,000 members in the public and private sectors, could potentially add 100,000 CAW members within the province. CAW locals must decide themselves whether to join over the course of the next few months. Sid Ryan, president of the OFL, has said the move could add $600,000 in additional revenue to the larger organization.
Lewenza hopes that under a common umbrella once again, unions can identify their common issues and push a consistent, effective message. He cites the recent organization around pension reform as an example.
On the other hand, he points to the absence of replacement worker legislation or “card-check” certification as cases of what happens when unions don’t have a common purpose.
“The reason the construction trade has got it, quite frankly, is because they’re united as building trades,” he says. “You can assume that all organized labour sees that as a reason to fight for, but there’s one thing about raising it consistently. Anti-scab legislation, for example, comes up during a time of dispute but it should be indoctrinated.”
Lewenza hopes some of the more divisive issues, such as “raiding,” can also be put to rest. He says only about three to five per cent of disputes that come to the attention of the Canadian Labour Congress are a result of overzealousness by union leaders.
“It’s not the massive issue that the labour movement portrays it to be,” he says. “It’s just that when it happens, it lingers for a longer period of time.”
However, Lewenza notes “there’s nobody in the labour movement who can say that they haven’t been part of ‘raiding’.” He says while “a little competition is healthy,” there needs to be a process in place that allows workers to choose the union they want to represent them.
“It can’t be, ‘well, why are you taking them?’ It has to be, ‘why do they want to leave?’” he says. “We’re not out there advocating, we’re not handing out leaflets or organizing workplaces, but I can honestly say that my approach is a little bit different. I’d call the heads of unions and try to get them to intervene in the issues raised by their members.”
Lewenza says it’s time for unions in Ontario to turn the page on the past, which is partly behind his push to rejoin the OFL. He says the labour movement is under pressure in both the private and public sector and the disputes that led to divisions years ago, under different leadership at both the OFL and CAW, should be laid to rest.
“Maybe some of the skeletons in the closets are no longer worth talking about because the ones that created the skeletons are all gone,” he says.
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