The CAW and Magna: Disorganizing the Working Class

In the neoconservative Canada of the late 1990s, the labour movement needs to become more militant, less accommodating to the demands of corporations and governments.  If this sounds like a return to the days of the 1930s or 1950s, so be it.  It’s either that or watch decades of hard-won gains disappear.  This resistance will mean arrests, charges, maybe even jail terms for some of our leaders and members.  But if we are to check this massive wave of unfairness, we simply have no alternative.

                  Buzz Hargrove, Labour of Love (1998), pp. 88-9.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the attacks on past working class gains intensified, the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) was widely recognized — not just in North America but abroad — as standing at the forefront of working-class resistance.  With the Magna-CAW Agreement signed on October 15, 2007, the CAW now seems at the forefront of working class desperation and defeat. 

This startling agreement raises three sets of questions.

  • What is in it for Magna?
  • What did the CAW get out of this (other than dues)?
  • What are the implications for the labour movement as a whole?

Before getting to these questions, it is useful to return to the foundations of independent unionism (still taught in CAW educationals) and consider how they relate to the ‘Magna Model’ the CAW has turned to.

What Are Unions as Independent Organizations?

The contradiction that has always faced working people is that they are dependent on their employers for work, yet need to create a degree of independence so they can address their own, distinct needs.

The foundation for that independence was a democratic organization of workers — a ‘union’.  It resonated with workers because it was truly ‘theirs’; it was a space within which the employer had no say.  In practice the innovation of shop stewards, workers elected from various sections of the workplace, was crucial.  The stewards represented workers in their daily struggles with management and also acted as mentors and leaders in the development of a culture of solidarity.  Against the god of profits and the devil of competitiveness, workers and their unions developed their own understanding of the world and formulated distinct working-class values.

But all this would come to naught if workers didn’t also have an independent basis of power to offset, if not match, the power of the employer.  That power rested on the right to withdraw their labour — a basic democratic right that was only reluctantly recognized, and even then limited, by governments and employers.  Pierre Trudeau summarized this well in his early years, before he entered formal politics:

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. . . .  [Without it] the trade union movement becomes nothing more than one institution among many in the service of capitalism: a convenient organization for disciplining the workers, occupying their leisure time, and ensuring their profitability for business.  (The Asbestos Strike, 1956)

What’s In It for Magna?

Magna has been able to limit the CAW to only three of its 45 units and faces no major organizing drives today.  Why then has it suddenly opened the door to the CAW (even if it’s on Magna’s own terms)?  Bringing the union in, even on the company’s terms, does mean new administrative headaches (at a minimum, more meetings and consultations take time) and possible hazards for Magna (things are stable now — why risk something blowing up in your face?).  Other companies, even if they could get the CAW deal, would likely reject it unless the point was to co-opt an actual organizing drive.  In fact, it’s no secret that even most of Magna’s top management is not all that enamoured with this new step.

The new relationship to the CAW starts and ends with Frank Stronach.  Frank Stronach, Magna’s founder and current top officer, has always had a paternalistic vision of workplace relations.  Fairness is good as long as he gets to define it.  Unions are okay if they are certain kinds of unions.  The CAW, which left the American international union in the mid-1980s over how close its leadership had gotten to the companies and how far they had gotten from the membership, was certainly not a potential partner for Stronach.  Nor was the Buzz Hargrove of the years following that separation Stronach’s ideal labour leader.  But over the past few years Stronach had clearly decided that the new CAW — made desperate by a loss of jobs and with a president vain enough to declare victory no matter the scale of the concessions — does get his stamp of approval.  And so Stronach moved ahead to, as he says, ‘transform North American labour relations.’

In the Magna model, these foundations for independent unionism are, to all intents and purposes, erased.  It is true and important that the company has agreed to open the door to the union contacting its workers.  But that comes at the cost of the kind of union the workers can then have.

  • The right to strike is fully erased; it is gone forever.  As the CAW press kit puts it: ‘There will be no strikes or lockouts under this system’ (emphasis added).  When the agreement ends, if the members reject the new offer, it goes to arbitration.  Period.  (The kit goes on to suggest that the strike weapon is, in any case, not really that important.)
  • Shop stewards do not exist.  The CAW has accepted this.  Stewards are replaced by a ‘fairness committee’ staffed by equal numbers of labour and management reps (who are part of the ‘concern resolution process’).  The key union rep under this structure is the ‘Employee Advocate’, a carryover from Magna’s traditional practice who seems to be the formal equivalent of a plant chairperson.  According to the Toronto Star (October 16, 2007), the Employee Advocate is not elected from the membership at large but screened by a committee which included both labour representatives and management(!).  To date it is not public information how the final selection is made.  This system is reminiscent in some ways to the ‘controlled democracy’ in communist Europe a while back, where managers — in that case as union members — prepared lists from which the leaders could be chosen.
  • The Magna units will be part of one Canada-wide — effectively Ontario-wide — amalgamated local.  (This in itself may tend to isolate each unit form interaction with other units in the community).  The above Employee Advocates will make up the executive of that local and constitute, along with representatives from the national union, the bargaining committee.  The local officers — for example, the President and Secretary-Treasurer — will be chosen by this executive rather than, as in current CAW practice, via a vote of the membership.
  • As for ideology, the CAW president has proudly declared his enthusiasm for a ‘non-adversarial’ relationship, repeating (without embarrassment) all the mushy clichés about ‘teamwork’ and ‘being in this together’ that he not so long ago scorned for their rank hypocrisy.  This, it is important to emphasize, is not just about rhetoric.  The attitude to labour-management relations is one of the criteria that will be used in evaluating acceptability for being the Employee Advocate.  Trouble-makers — those who challenge the system, ‘stir up trouble’, and have always been the backbone of independent unionism — need not apply.

Magna workers, it is clear, need a union.  There are, for example, questions of internal wage parity, equity across jobs, and contract workers.  And Magna has often undercut other Canadian producers in overall wages, benefits, and working conditions.  Magna argues that it sets its wages at the average manufacturing wage for the particular work, that its raises follow that average, and that it has no intention of changing this practice.  Given that Magna is the largest employer in the industry — larger even then General Motors — and in the face of its profitability and provision of outrageous compensation to its executives (Stronach’s earnings over the past three years have totalled over $100 million), it would seem that the union is positioned to demand that Magna should actually lead in setting higher standards.

But given the constraints on the union of the Magna model, above all with the possibility of a strike not on the table, it’s questionable how much collective bargaining will accomplish.  As well, the union has already agreed to set aside its own practice of establishing defined benefit pension plans at major employers and accept Magna’s alternative of a savings and profit-sharing plan.  As for workplace itself, Magna is steadfast on its absolute control in running the plant; with the union agreeing to ensure the company’s competitiveness, it is not simply credible to suggest that the union will introduce any significant challenge to the company on working conditions.

Why Did the CAW Do This?

The union might be defended on two grounds.  The first is that the union is engaging in a scam: once it has a foothold it will revert to traditional unionism.  But suggestions that this is the hidden agenda do not stand up.  In the 1980s, when the CAW was at its peak in terms of confidence, it might have been argued that such an experiment would draw Magna workers into the CAW orbit.  Today, when the CAW has itself been drifting more and more towards corporatist partnerships with the Detroit Big Three, other CAW locals are likely to be drawn into the orbit of the type of trade unionism this deal with Frank Stronach represents.

In any case, it is difficult enough to build a union presence in the best of circumstances; it is virtually impossible when, as in the Magna model, the ideological framework and internal structures all work against you.  As well, the path to the full unionization agreed to here is spread over a 9-10 year period in which the CAW gets access to about five plants yearly.  This implies a self-disciplining incentive: if the union wants all the plants, it will have to behave — and get the members to behave in the initial plants where the union is recognized — in a way that doesn’t disrupt the agreement before all the units are in the CAW.  And by the time all the plants are in the union, a decade or so from now at best, a culture will have been established that will not be easily changed.

In fact, the more likely scenario for the development of a ‘real’ union might come from the outside.  Frustrated with a union that draws dues but acts like the industrial relations arm of the company, workers might rebel and look to another union to come in, this time to join workers ready to challenge the status quo.  It should however be noted that this leads to murky legal territory.  Since the units will be under one collective agreement, the Labour Board might rule that they must all stay or go together and can’t be picked off one at a time — making a change in unions difficult if not impossible (as was seen in the failed attempt at organizing the banks in the 1980s).

A more traditional defence of this new CAW policy would be that the unionization of Magna is critical to the rest of the parts industry and the auto industry more generally, but the only way to accomplish this is by way of a tactical retreat from principle.  The problem addressed in this argument is serious.  There is no question that unionization in today’s climate of overwhelming restructuring is extremely difficult and this is all the truer at Magna where keeping unions out has been one of its major investments.

The main point of course is one raised earlier: it doesn’t make much sense to kill the patient to cure the disease; the union is better off without Magna than getting Magna but giving up what the union stands for.  But that’s not all.  A number of other hard questions are relevant here.

  • Before the Harris revolution and even under Conservative administrations, Ontario had labour laws and regulations which, though the union movement never thought they went far enough, allowed for a meaningful right to organize.  With the victory of McGuinty, there was an opportunity to reverse what Harris imposed.  Why did the CAW not join the labour movement to mount and sustain through the election the kind of campaign that might have given us a better alternative than ‘collective begging’?  Why, instead, did the President of the CAW endorse the Liberals without any commitment on such changes (and do so, incidentally, without a mandate from his members)?
  • The CAW has in the past insisted that part of its relationship to the Big Three include a corporate rule of conduct that calls on parts suppliers to show ‘neutrality’ in workers’ decisions on whether or not to join a union.  (This was, in fact, an element in the CAW’s victory at Magna’s Integram unit in Windsor.)  Why is this now not getting the same or more emphasis?
  • Any serious campaign to bring Magna into the fold would indeed cost a small fortune.  The CAW is financially strong and the issue is a matter of priorities.  The CAW has, for example, found the resources to provide $5 million in financial support for what some consider a shady break-away local of the Labourers’ International when this could have gone into an organizing drive.  More important, can the CAW continue to realistically rely on its full-time staff to organize modestly-paid workers?  Would it not be more sensible (and less of a strain on resources) to combine experienced full-time staff with dozens of young, energetic workers — paid at their existing wage rate and drawn from CAW workplaces across the country — to organize within their communities?
  • It has to be recognized that unionization is not just about what the organizing department does; it’s also about the drive and vision within the union as a whole.  How far can unions go in attracting new members if they demand dues but sound like management?  If there is no larger vision of building the working class through unionization, what reason is there to expect members and staff to make the material commitments and sacrifices to do what is necessary?
  • In the face of the increased corporate aggressiveness, competition between unions over whose institution will expand can be especially destructive.  Where the goal is a major organizing breakthrough, how can some degree of cooperation among unions be established?  Can this happen without unions coming to identify the main goal as being to build the working class as a whole?

What Are the Larger Implications for the CAW as a Whole and for Other Unions?

The importance of the unionization of Magna was always seen in the CAW as of value in itself but also as being about the protection of standards in the rest of the auto parts sector.  But now it is almost inevitable that, in any new bargaining, companies will demand the same structures as Magna.  If not a permanent no-strike ban, then at least six-year Agreements during which strikes are banned.  If getting rid of stewards is not on, maybe having fewer stewards will be accepted.

This may have implications outside the parts sector.  In response to a question at the press conference announcing the deal, Hargrove bizarrely commented (Globe and Mail, October 15, 2007) that he would ‘make a similar arrangement available to General Motors Corp., or other auto makers that wanted to build a new greenfield plant in Canada’ (meaning an entirely new plant, not an addition).  GM workers, fully aware that a more modern plant with radically lower standards will over time erode their existing standards if not their jobs, might be surprised to hear this.

The CAW’s abandonment of the right to strike at Magna has enormous implications in terms of the labour movement’s struggles (including in the CAW) to win this democratic right.  And it mindlessly undermines those workers who never had this right or have seen it eroded as governments expanded the scope of ‘essential services’ or introduced back-to-work legislation.  If it is the case that, as the CAW press kit claims, 30,000 CAW members don’t have the right to strike, is this not of concern to the union?  (Ironically, the first section on the CAW web page has a runner giving the latest ‘News Flash’; included here is the formation of a cross-union alliance, including the CAW, to resist the Nova Scotia government’s threat to bring in legislation curtailing the right to strike for health care workers).

Hargrove has already declared that if other companies offer something similar to the Magna model, the union will jump at the chance (‘Invite us in’, Hargrove says [Toronto Star, October 16, 2007]).  But other union leaders, some who were not as outspoken as Hargrove in the confrontation with the Rae government’s imposition of conditions on workers, have reacted negatively.  Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, warned of the precedent being set.  And Wayne Fraser, Ontario-Atlantic director of the United Steelworkers, rightfully asked: ‘What’s to stop other employers, especially Magna competitors, from rightfully asking the CAW for the same no-strike right’ (Toronto Star, October 16, 2007)?

Where in all this are the militants of the CAW — the activists, staff, and local and national leaders who not long ago so clearly understood that they couldn’t ‘watch decades of hard-won gains disappear’?  Where is their outrage?

Sam Gindin teaches political economy at York University.  This essay was first published in Socialist Project‘s E-Bulletin The Bullet (No. 65) on 19 October 2007.

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