LABOUR RE­LA­TIONS Unions can­not af­ford more Magna-type deals

Toronto Star - - Ideas Pink Plastic Web Forum - SAM GINDIN Sam Gindin

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.

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