It’s hardly news that the economic climate has grown increasingly harsh for working Canadians. In recent years, they have faced stagnating wages and a steady attrition of secure, well-paying jobs with decent retirement benefits. There has been a stunning growth in precarious employment: short-term, often part-time positions with little security and few if any benefits. In Hamilton, once the proud Steel Capital of Canada, such employment now accounts for 60 percent of all jobs. And across the country, millennials have been particularly hard hit. Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau advises them to get used to it.
Organized labour is a historically formidable force, one that shortened the work week, helped win the minimum wage, and advocated for workplace health and safety legislation, unemployment insurance, and public health care. But, so far, it has proven itself unable to reverse the latest trends. Rapid change in the labour landscape, inimical to traditional union organizing, plays a frustrating role. Institutional lethargy — along with a failure of nerve, vision, and imagination — is also a big part of the problem.
Until recently, the share of workers belonging to unions in the private sector was in steady decline. While it appears to have stabilized, membership is not increasing. The rise of so-called fissured workplaces — corporate networks of middleman contractors, franchises, and outsourced production — has presented formidable challenges to effective organizing. So too has the fragmented service sector, with its small workplaces, high turnover, and the ever-present threat of parent companies shutting down stores when unions do gain a foothold (in the early 2000s, McDonald’s closed two Quebec restaurants that organized).
Things couldn’t have looked bleaker for labour after Stephen Harper won his majority government in May 2011. Besides the practical obstacles to effective organizing, the political norms were shifting. Interference in collective bargaining, in the form of back-to-work legislation, had become commonplace at the provincial level; anti-labour legislation had been implemented in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. In Ontario, the opposition Progressive Conservatives were campaigning for a full-blown right-to-work regime, where workers would no longer have to pay union dues but could still enjoy the benefits of a union-won contract — if such a thing continued to exist. Now similar obstacles appeared on the horizon at the federal level.
A few days after Harper’s electoral victory, the Canadian Labour Congress held its triennial convention in Vancouver. The CLC’s response to the growing labour crisis was yet another of those flabby “action plans,” all too familiar to union activists, coupled with a multi-million-dollar PR exercise to convince the public that unions are a good thing. The “plan” wasn’t even debated.
For Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), and Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers of Canada (CEP), enough was enough. “We have to be able to do better than this,” Coles said at the time. If organized labour were to survive the challenges ahead, they agreed, something fundamentally different was needed. By joining their unions together, they could set a new course for labour in this country.
Fred Wilson was CEP’s director of strategic planning in 2011, and in A New Kind of Union, he outlines what transpired after that year’s CLC gathering. He describes it as an unprecedented exercise in back-to-basics institutional engineering, “fuelled by idealism and adrenalin.”
Neither Lewenza nor Coles was a starry-eyed newcomer to the scene: they were tough, savvy leaders with years of experience under their belts. Their unions, themselves the products of numerous mergers, were large and powerful, representing approximately 300,000 members from coast to coast to coast. But Lewenza and Coles were not about to embark on just another merger. The whole enterprise, in their view, needed to be reconceived.
The first step in the eventual New Union Project was a discussion paper, co-authored by the CAW labour economist Jim Stanford and Wilson himself. “A Moment of Truth for Canadian Unions” offered a historical and cultural survey: years of reverses and defeats; the dysfunction, even paralysis, of some central labour bodies; and an alleged public hostility toward unions. (The latter seems somewhat overblown, incidentally. Recent polls show strong public support for unions in both Canada and the United States.)
Merely tinkering with the status quo would not do, yet the pitfalls and vertical climbs ahead were daunting. Unions are democratic organizations, and any fundamental rearrangement of their structure and function requires massive grassroots buy‑in. Many unionists are wary of making changes without nuts-and-bolts detail; they demand more than broad-strokes proposals before committing. Moreover, union roots run deep, and dramatic change can mean culture shock.
What’s more, CAW and CEP had considerable, long-standing political differences, particularly in Ontario. Bob Rae’s NDP government, elected in 1990, introduced an anti-scab law and made other bold moves to support labour in the face of an unrelenting corporate onslaught — in which the media gleefully took part. But Rae imposed salary cuts on provincial public employees — in the form of unpaid “Rae Days” — and split the province’s labour movement by so doing. CAW stood with the public servants, CEP unswervingly with the NDP.
Structurally, too, the two unions were radically dissimilar. CEP’s membership was spread across the country, in relatively small locals; CAW’s members were concentrated in Quebec and Ontario, in fairly large locals. Even as things were reshaped at the national level, change at the local level posed significant risk. Pressed by a tight deadline, the parties decided to kick that can down the road: “Local unions would remain intact, with no forced mergers,” Wilson explains. “The broader issues of local union structures would be referred to as a ‘local union task force’ to be carried out by the new union.”
To build that new union — and to ensure the larger CAW would not swamp the smaller CEP — a bipartite proposal committee would go right back to first principles. If the new membership would be defined by “what we think and what we do,” rather than “who we are,” what would its values be? How would the interests of all members be protected, and what were those interests? Who could be a member? What could the union offer, by way of charting a new course, within organized labour and the wider community?
Structure was an immediate, key issue. Mergers are not known for streamlined efficiency, and there tend to be winners and losers. Institutional inertia can quickly become resistance. Despite tense, almost deal-breaking moments, the fundamental questions — representative elected leadership, the distinct status of Quebec, and the various roles of local, regional, equity-seeking, retiree, and sectoral bodies — somehow got resolved.
The proposals were put through a wind tunnel of input and critique from thousands of activists and rank-and-file members. Separate union conventions in 2012 unanimously agreed that a model would be brought to a special convention in fall 2013; six working groups were struck to assemble it. Another round of national consultations was held, as was a union staff conference.
Complete with a new slogan — “A union for everyone” — the finished product included a radical notion of membership: it would be open to unorganized workers, who could join community chapters. The related issue of their potential involvement in collective bargaining was considered, if not resolved. On one hand, workplace-centred “Wagner Act” bargaining could not accommodate the unorganized; on the other, sectoral and other bargaining approaches could include their voices. (More than five years after Unifor was founded, there are only two community chapters in operation. The full potential of “everyone” remains far from realized.)
It was only toward the end of the process, before the founding convention in 2013, that a name was chosen: Unifor. The portmanteau did not mention specific industries (and hence saved considerable length), and it signified a new way of doing things. The union’s creation on August 31, writes Wilson,
was emotional and laced with anxious moments and momentous decisions. It revealed a tension between the new union’s careful construction and mission and its commitment to rank-and-file democracy and dissent. These aspects of the first day put a stamp on the new union and established the characteristics of union culture and democracy that would stay a part of Unifor.
Ultimately, it was approved by 96 percent of convention voters — a remarkable margin given the focus groups, activists, and tens of thousands of members involved.
The near-miraculous triumph of forming Unifor and bringing it to life, in a mere two years, cannot be exaggerated. It was realized by a combination of careful, step-by-step planning, skillful facilitation, ceaseless information flows and communications, broad member involvement, and an enormous amount of good will, with fiercely held differences put aside in pursuit of a common goal.
But what of the aftermath? Here things get a little tricky — both on the ground and in the book.
Wilson clearly and logically lays out the towering obstacles Unifor faced, and the manner in which they were overcome, one by one. Although it feels like inside baseball at times, A New Kind of Union will be of considerable interest to labour historians, institutional theorists, and, of course, leaders, staff, and rank-and-file activists. Where it falters, however, is in its concluding sections, which strictly observe the party line and leave a lot out.
Take, for example, the new entity’s push for a different kind of politics, one that would not tie the union to the NDP, the traditional labour party. “There is a great need for a new politics that advances the interests of workers,” Unifor states in one policy document, “but there are no easy answers for a ‘worker politics’ that will accomplish this. . . . Our Project cannot be described simply by the goal of electing a particular government or by ideological pronouncements about a future society.”
This seems a little disingenuous. Buzz Hargrove, a former CAW head, was embracing the Liberals as early as 2006. Certainly, by drifting to the centre, the NDP no longer presented a genuine alternative, many working people thought; in fact, the Liberals managed to outflank the NDP on the left in Ontario’s 2014 election, as well as in the 2015 federal election. Without some kind of strategic ideological focus, the “new politics” really comes down to short-term pragmatism: What can the parties offer in return for Unifor’s electoral support? And there is nothing particularly new about such a political quid pro quo.
The allied issue of Unifor’s support for “strategic voting” for Liberals, in order to beat Conservatives where the NDP seems weak, is still a vexed question in the movement. It’s really not a strategy at all, only a tactic, and for many it’s a short-sighted one. The Trudeau government changed its mind on proposed federal-sector anti-scab legislation in fall 2016, and just a few months ago it legislated postal workers back to work. The Ontario Liberals undertook an explicitly anti-labour campaign during their government’s last few days in 2018. Pragmatism, as it turns out, cuts both ways.
What about effective bargaining and organizing by the new union? At the outset, Unifor committed 10 percent of its budget to organizing, and it has gained more than 20,000 new members over the six years since, but not all of them were unorganized. Contracts with the profitable auto industry still contain a two-tier wage structure, where new hires work for less than the previous starting wage; and GM and Chrysler are busy shutting down their Canadian operations.
Unifor’s decision to leave the CLC in January 2018 has left many of its grassroots activists high and dry, no longer able to remain involved in CLC-affiliated local labour councils across the country or to take part in their campaigns. Unifor’s raiding of other unions — the bone of contention with the CLC — hasn’t even been effective: support among Allied Transit Union members fizzled, and most of UNITE HERE’s hotel workers in Toronto have elected to stay put. Certainly, Unifor has proven “disruptive,” to use Wilson’s favoured term, but it has isolated itself from the mainstream labour movement, which, for all its faults, is where most unionized workers are still to be found.
Wilson describes a visionary, community-based aspect of the “new kind of union.” While Unifor has put serious money and commitment behind social justice issues, president Jerry Dias’s scathing criticism of the pro-environment Leap Manifesto, on behalf of fossil-fuel workers, seems a tad old school. (“You need to think a little bit, periodically. It would be helpful,” he has snorted.)
Jim Stanford’s afterword to A New Kind of Union celebrates Unifor’s contribution to a recent improvement in Canadian union fortunes. But that puts too shiny a polish on it. The Progressive Conservative right-to-work agenda in Ontario was decisively beaten back without Unifor, and Harper’s legislation targeting unions was repealed by Trudeau’s Liberals. Union participation has stabilized for the moment, and labour’s share of the GDP has improved somewhat, after years of decline. As even Stanford concedes, many factors were at play in all this, as were many players other than Unifor.
There is no doubt, however, that a 315,000-member union has major clout and potential, and it may yet steer Canada’s labour movement, and Canadian workers in general, toward a viable alternative to business as usual, as conducted either by austerity-prone governments or by ossified labour institutions. It may be a trifle premature, however, to refer to its creation as “the birth of the modern Canadian union.” A bright new vessel, painstakingly constructed, Unifor is presently sailing uncharted waters. It’s just too early to tell whether it will founder or prosper.
John Baglow reads and writes in Ottawa.