Mega-union already impacting industry: Leaders

CAW, CEP say merger will broaden impact in health-care, mining, telecom sectors

With the merger between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions all but complete, discussion within the proposed mega-union is shifting toward the creation of industry councils and how they might influence the future of those industries.

The mega-union will be Canada’s largest private-sector union with 300,000 members covering all provinces and territories.

“Where we’re weak, they’re strong. Where we’re strong, they’re weak,” says Ken Lewenza, president of the CAW.

The goal of the proposed industry councils is two-pronged: to increase bargaining power while also boosting lobbying efforts aimed at provincial and federal governments.

Within the auto sector, for example, a mega-union will have more influence on policy and will be a more formidable foe for employers, Lewenza says.

“With any company, when we go into bargaining we’re looking at everything. We look at their financial strength, their viability, their assets and their reputation. Well guess what? Companies are doing the same with unions,” he says. “With a multi-sector union with members in every province, the reality is that if we had a fight it would be from one end of the country to the other.”

Within health care, the move toward a larger union could open more doors to government, says Katha Fortier, CAW director of health care.

She is among thousands of former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members who moved to the CAW years ago to gain more influence, and she expects the merger with CEP to broaden that impact.

Fortier points to Thunder Bay, Ont., by way of example. The CAW has had a limited presence there, while the CEP has some of its largest locals in that community. Together, she hopes they can organize a greater share of health-care workers.

“This goes hand-in-hand at building a profile of us in the community,” she says.

This is a big year of bargaining for the CAW in health care and already the awareness of the future union is carrying some clout at the negotiating table, Fortier says.

Mining presents an interesting challenge for the new union because it’s one of the few sectors currently represented by both the CAW and CEP. However this could be an opportunity for mine workers to push for a broader national mining strategy, says Jerry Dias, assistant to the CAW president.

“International mining unions are starting to get together to discuss things like what are minimum standards for pay, how can we organize in Canada and Australia to help miners in Africa and so on. Likewise, the new union will give us a bigger role to work together here at home,” he says.

He looks to Alberta where there has been less unionization and less of a unified front when it comes to demanding policies that would see more oil refined here in Canada.

“Governments have done a heck of a job of not listening to the trade union movement because there have been a lot of different groups,” Dias says. “The difference is that now it’s not like they can pit one group against another.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan are traditionally not well-represented by the CAW, Dias adds, but the CEP has a toehold there, so he foresees a change in the dynamics of the industry.

“There’s no question, everyone is watching,” he says. “We’re going into negotiations with Xstrata and the merger will be a prelude to discussions.”

Those in forestry and pulp and paper are counting on the mega-union to boost organization efforts, especially in specific areas such as coverage of woodlands workers in Ontario and Quebec where unionization rates have tended to be weaker, according to Kim Ginter, CEP Ontario-region vice president.

“If we can garner a majority of the industry to organize then we can look at pattern bargaining,” he says, adding that by pooling research and education resources the mega-union may also find a larger voice on the national stage.

For example, more research needs to be done on issues such as the value of keeping round logs in Canada for processing, and the benefits of sending chips to local mills for paper production, Ginter says.

“We’ll have a lot more focused, stronger research that will, in some cases, benefit employers too,” he says.

Some members of the telecom sector have already seen the potential power of the partnership. The CAW recently sent about 800 members to picket at a Bell TV facility in Toronto where 114 workers represented by CEP have been locked out since July.

“That’s something the CEP has had difficulty with in the past — organizing,” says Myles McLaughlin, secretary with CEP Local 34 in Ottawa. “I’m happy to have that power behind us.”

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