CAW vote moves Canada toward mega-union

CEP to decide on merger at October convention

TORONTO (Reuters) — One of Canada's most influential unions on Wednesday approved a radical plan to merge with a smaller rival to create what would be the country's largest private sector union.

Delegates at the Canadian Auto Workers' (CAW) convention approved a plan to join up with Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) in a new union that would have more than 300,000 members.

Union leaders had billed their plan as the best way to revive the flagging fortunes of the Canadian labour movement, and the CAW said the vote was unanimous. CEP members must now decide on the merger at their convention in October.

"Brothers and sisters, our shoulders must be bigger. Our hearts must be stronger," said CAW national president Ken Lewenza, his voice breaking as he backed the creation of a new union that forces the auto workers' union out of existence.

He grasped upraised hands with CEP president Dave Coles, and wiped away tears.

The CAW, currently in talks with Detroit's Big Three automakers, was formed in 1985 when Canadian locals broke away from the United Auto Workers. Mergers and layoffs have changed the face of the union, now only about 20 per cent auto workers.

A well-paid membership and charismatic, media-savvy leaders have given the CAW outsized political influence. But the recession hit it hard, and membership has dropped 26 per cent since 2005, to 195,000, according to convention documents.

CEP's membership has fallen more than 20 per cent over five years, to about 110,000, according to government data.

But even with falling unionization rates, Canadian private sector workers are still more than twice as likely to belong to a union than their United States counterparts, official statistics show.

The as-yet unnamed new union would devote 10 per cent of its estimated $100 million annual revenue to organizing, twice what the two unions combined currently spend.

It would span growing resource sectors such as Alberta's oil sands as well as central Canada's shrinking manufacturing economy.

"This new union that we're creating has the potential to have explosive growth," said Fred Wilson, assistant to the president at CEP, in a video shown ahead of the vote.

Selling the merger may prove harder at CEP, which is much less tightly controlled by senior leaders than the CAW.

The union must approve a 45-page blueprint in full, without amendments, and the document does not decide potentially divisive issues, like who will lead the new organization, and whether it will be affiliated with a political party.

CAW members work at dozens of firms across Canada, including Air Canada, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway.

CEP, itself the product of a series of mergers, organizes in the energy and other resource sectors, as well as at telecom giant Bell Canada among many other companies.

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