LABOUR RELATIONS Unions cannot afford more Magna-type deals
The newly announced deal between Magna and the Canadian Auto Workers reflects a trade-off: The CAW gets in and Magna gets the kind of union it wants. Magna, it should be noted, has now surpassed even General Motors as Canada’s largest and most successful employer in the auto industry. It is evident from previous CAW attempts at trying to organize Magna that its workers need a union. They also have a right to a union, one that has been frustrated over the years by Magna’s interventions to prevent unionization.
The CAW left the American international union in the early 1980s over how close the U.S. leadership had gotten to the companies and how far they had strayed from the membership. The new Canadian union did not then have much appeal for Frank Stronach, Magna’s founder and chief officer. The CAW today — made desperate by a loss of jobs and with a president seemingly ready to declare victory no matter the scale of the concessions — gets Stronach’s stamp of approval.
Anticipating criticism, the CAW has asserted that this agreement is not a tactical retreat but a “bold” step forward that contains “all the features of a high quality collective agreement.” Not so. The CAW has embraced the Magna model and thus given up what workers have historically fought for, above all the need for independent unions as a counterweight to the power of the corporations that employ them.
At the time of the fight for union rights in Quebec in the 1950s, Pierre Trudeau said: “In the present state of society, in fact, it is the possibility of the strike which enables workers to negotiate with their employers on terms of approximate equality.” Indeed, given management’s control over production, the possibility of a strike is the minimum condition for workers bargaining some of the conditions of their lives. The CAW now stunningly commits itselft to disposing with that right forever at Magna. It also accepts the language of “we’re all in this together,” even while Magna pays wages that have undercut the rates won in CAW collective agreements with other corporations while Stronach has, over the past three years, paid himself a total cumulative salary of more than $100 million.
In the Magna model, there are no shop stewards. This crucial element in union democracy, whereby workers elect one of their own in each department of the workplace to deal with management, has no place here. The deal with Magna allows instead for a singular “employee advocate” to cover the whole plant. It is not yet clear how they will be selected but this will involve a plant committee on which managers have half the seats. “Troublemakers” — those who challenge the status quo and stir up the members — need not apply.
In this context, it’s hard to see how the union will carry out its responsibility to Magna workers, but not at all hard to see how the deal with Magna will negatively affect workers in other places. What auto company won’t turn to its union and say: “If giving up the right to strike and elect shop stewards is what you are prepared to do for one of Canada’s leading companies, why not do this for us? And if competitiveness is accepted as the bottom line for them, why not for our corporation?” Indeed, CAW president Buzz Hargrove has already publicly offered a similar deal to General Motors in any new plants it establishes in Canada. What government, facing union criticism for limiting the right to strike or introducing backto-work legislation, won’t smugly hold up the Magna deal as justification?
So why, other than the new dues it will collect, did the CAW move in this direction? Some would argue that this is where the union has been heading for years, gradually departing from what made it famous in North America in the 1980s and 1990s when it identified its ultimate strength as its capacity to mobilize its own members, and to act in solidarity with social movements. Rather than keep up its pressure on the Big Three to not deal with suppliers that oppose unionization drives, rather than devote adequate resources to involve young activists in those drives in their own communities, it has now encumbered itself within the Magna model. Perhaps this is not surprising from a CAW president who personally campaigned for the Ontario Liberal government that ignored labour movement pressure to remove the barriers to unionization the Harris government introduced and to follow other provinces in introducing anti-scab legislation.
Other union leaders, including some of those once rightly chastised by Hargrove for supporting the NDP despite Bob Rae’s infamous removal of public sector workers’ rights during his social contract, have criticized this deal with Magna. The question is, where are the militants in the CAW — the activists, staff and leaders who know full well what the Magna model means for the labour movement? Where is their outrage?
is former assistant to CAW presidents Buzz Hargrove and Bob White.
Magna founder Frank Stronach, left, and CAW president Buzz Hargrove sign a deal to unionize Magna plants.