Bold innovation or Trojan Horse? (Guest commentary)

There are four main issues in the CAW-Magna deal, and two of them haven’t received much press

A number of months have passed since the earth moved in Canadian labour relations — that fateful day when the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and Magna International signed the Framework of Fairness Agreement (FFA).

The FFA will allow Magna production workers across Ontario to vote on joining the CAW, unimpeded by company pressure. Currently, there are about 18,000 production workers in 45 manufacturing facilities in Ontario, few of whom are unionized. In return for Magna not blocking union recognition elections, the CAW agrees that strikes are to be replaced by binding arbitration for at least three years and there will be no union-based grievance procedure.

The deal raises a lot of questions. Is it good for workers? Is it good for sectoral and provincial prosperity? What does it mean for job security? Is it bold new thinking or a Trojan Horse?

If you’re anywhere in the labour movement outside the CAW, the FFA is a small rock slide that may well become an avalanche. The leaders of six unions affiliated with the Ontario Federation of Labour published an open letter to that effect in the National Post on Nov. 23.

If you’re in the business community, chances are you’ll fear the competitive advantage Magna gains by domesticating Canada’s vanguard union. You might also herald the FFA as “innovative” and try to present the union in your company with a similar offer it can’t refuse. After all, if the CAW agreed to it…

Two elements of the FFA have attracted the most attention since October.

The first of these is the no-strike clause. For centuries, there have been four uses for strikes:

a powerful tool in collective bargaining;

a hard-to-handle, tricky tool in constructing workers’ ties to their union;

a threat held in reserve; and

an individual statement of the working person’s ownership of his labour and knowledge, whether as a professional, manual or service worker.

The right to withdraw one’s work speaks to one’s ownership of skill and labour — citizenship in the workplace. While the CAW may say nothing real is lost by sacrificing the right to strike, the reality is powerfully symbolic.

Further, the CAW’s sacrifice of the right to strike may be picked up by employers in more chaotic industries, weakening groups of workers not as well-defended as auto workers. For example, Quebec labour’s experience in the 1990s in signing 10-year contracts effectively ended the possibility of strikes and substantially weakened the unions involved.

In addition to giving up the right to strike, the CAW’s traditional grievance process will be replaced by a “concern resolution process” modelled on Magna’s non-union conflict-resolution practices. One of the CAW’s great strengths — as it was for its parent union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States — has been its well-organized and very visible presence in the daily life of workers.

In the auto sector, the union provides the framework for interpreting the workplace for workers, rather than the company. It defends individual, as well as collective, issues.

But the “concern resolution process” which supplants the CAW grievance process thins out the union’s presence in Magna workplaces. In the Magna-defined process, the union cedes its clear role as worker advocate to individuals and committees chosen by the employer and the union together. Internally, the long-term effect may weaken the CAW’s presence as worker advocates. Externally, it may encourage employers in other companies and sectors to do away with real grievance structures.

These are the two issues that have attracted the most criticism inside the CAW and throughout the Canadian labour movement. There are two additional issues, however, which, while not attracting as much attention, reveal a great deal about the impact of the Magna deal. The first concerns the culture of power and leadership in a major Canadian union. The second concerns the Canadian union movement as a whole.

While the CAW is justifiably proud of the union structure and culture it created after it seceded in the 1980s from the UAW, it remains a surprisingly American union — despite its creative nationalism — in a number of important ways.

First, the culture of power and cult of leadership, which discourage even principled dissent from a position taken by a president and his team. Second, the emphasis on extensive and intensive union education programs as a vehicle for creating next-generation leadership and activist involvement. Third, the strategic response to a decline in employment in the core industry that involves organizing anything that moves in any sector. Fourth, the difficulty within the union in coming to grips with, and allowing a voice for, the varied and sometimes economically precarious position of the more than 50 per cent of members who do not work in the auto sector.

The cult of leadership has led the CAW into repeated strife with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Ontario labour movement. From a decision to support the Liberal Party to an all-out raiding of a sister union in the CLC (using the thin excuse that it was an American union), the CAW has been expelled or suspended from many of the labour movement’s sites of decision and co-ordination.

That the CAW continues to be seen as, and sees itself as, the vanguard of the Canadian labour movement makes the Magna-CAW deal a thorny problem for Canadian unions all over the country.

Stay tuned for Magna-like deals shaking up labour relations in a lot of industrial sectors.

Carla Lipsig-Mumme is the co-ordinator of the labour studies program at York University in Toronto.

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