Magna, CAW sign 'Framework of Fairness'

Deal has potential to add 18,000 members

Many eyebrows were raised last week when Frank Stronach, founder of Magna International and outspoken union critic, made a deal with Buzz Hargrove to negotiate a collective agreement that could potentially apply to all Magna’s Canadian operations.

The idea for the so-called “Framework of Fairness,” which has taken many by surprise, was first announced by Stronach during an annual shareholders’ meeting in early 2006 and has been under negotiation since. In explaining it, he stated that “business has one mandate, to make a profit. But that has to be tempered.” Stronach’s experience working with the union on relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina is mentioned in the material produced for the announcement. Magna’s growth in Europe, where sector-wide bargaining and “works councils” are the norm, may also have played a part.

Magna is adopting a hands-off approach to CAW organizing activities. In fact, Stronach went as far as to encourage employees to vote in favour of the union. Certification votes will take place at roughly five of Magna’s Canadian operations each year and will follow established labour board rules. A national collective agreement will be negotiated independently, and Magna employees will vote for both contract coverage and union membership in one process.

The collective agreement is advertised as being a standard one, reflecting what the CAW would normally achieve, except for a few interesting deviations. First, grievances will not be handled in the normal manner. This is a concession to the existing system of a plant-level Fairness Committee, an open-door process and a corporate hotline. Provided the employee has used the appropriate channels first, arbitration will also be available. And, if an employee has been fired and the union objects, his or her peers will be able to have them reinstated through a simple majority vote.

Second, and more controversial, is the CAW agreement to abandon the strike weapon and to settle collective agreements by final-offer selection. Ontario Federation of Labour president Wayne Samuelson claimed it “set a precedent working people need to be concerned about.” Wayne Fraser, Ontario-Atlantic director for the Steelworkers, fears a stampede of employers trying to get a no-strike clause. As long as they are non-union and invite the union in as Magna did, bring them on, says Hargrove.

The current crisis in the North American auto parts and auto assembly industries is generating innovative solutions. If Magna, which continues to be successful and now employs more workers than GM, sees the benefit of having its workers represented by a union when it could continue to avoid it, we should probably consider Frank Stronach’s reasons seriously. And if Buzz Hargrove, whose union continues to represent the lion’s share of the auto assemblers and the unionized auto parts sector, thinks it’s better to organize workers in a different fashion than to leave them non-union, perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt as well. If they have stumbled on a model that can work for both employers and employees, even if it isn’t what we are used to, more power to them.

The three existing CAW units at Magna, two in Windsor and one in Mississauga, will be given the option of choosing to be part of the new structure.

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