CAW, CEP Talk About Creating New Larger Union
In the face of diminishing power and a hostile economic climate, two of Canada’s largest labour unions are considering joining forces and rebuilding from the ground up.
In the aftermath of a recession that bore down hard on Canada’s struggling manufacturing sector and already fragmented labour movement, CEP President Dave Coles says the talks represent an escalation in the battle to shore up unions -- and their membership.
“Our members are paying the price right now for the economic and political situation in Canada and the world right now,” he says. “I’m not about to stand by and let it happen without at least attempting to throw a few punches.”
The consolidation effort was first reported by the Toronto Star on Friday, which described the discussions as “merger talks.”
But in an interview with The Huffington Post, Coles took issue with the characterization.
“What we’re trying to do here is create a new union. It’s not one joining the other, or merging together, it’s actually starting from the ground up, and building a new union,” he says. “It starts from the bottom up and it will require a significant amount of grassroots involvement. We’ll attempt to design something that doesn’t reflect either union but respects the histories of our unions … [and] our fundamental beliefs.”
CAW President Ken Lewenza echoed this sentiment.
"It wouldn't be a takeover of CAW or vice versa. It would really be re-defining the labour movement based on best practices of our members, and trying to form a culture of providing the best of both organizations," said Lewenza. "It wouldn't be a merger. It would really be a couple of unions -- even more, I think, are going to fall into some of the conversations over the next few months -- [discussing] how we strengthen our desire to have more influence at the bargaining table, more influence in the public policy initiatives."
Traditional mergers, however, have also been a common strategy. Both the CAW and CEP have subsumed smaller unions in an attempt to retain power and membership in an increasingly tough economic and political climate.
The difficulties plaguing organized labour have been felt most acutely in the private sector, where union density, the percentage of workers belonging to organized labour, has slipped from about 30 per cent in the mid-1970s to 18 per cent.
Read our story on the decline of Canada's unions and what it means for income inequalityFor Coles, the talks come after much soul-searching about the actions unions should have taken in recent years -- and developing a new play book going forward.
“[I] underestimated the political and economic tsunami that was ahead of us,” says Coles. “We should have been far more politically active. We should have not trusted the marketplace to do anything other than destroy the economy.”
In particular, Coles questions the wisdom of investing pension funds in stock markets and allowing corporations such as Nortel to self-insure long-term disability and pension plans.
“It’s bullsh**t that the left, progressives, got sucked into this market-driven stuff. It’s destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Canadian retirees,” he says. “We really made a mistake around that.”
He says the talks have also centred around strategies for expanding union organizing drives to other segments of the labour market, including freelance writers and the banking sector.
“We’re having very heady discussions about how do you represent workers that are in precarious work? How do you get stronger at the bargaining table? How do you get stronger at having political influence? These are the kinds of things that you would question and work on in the development of a new organization,” he says.
Still in the preliminary stages, Coles anticipates that the consolidation, if it goes ahead, will not be finalized until 2013.
But in the meantime, the effort has won the approval of at least one other labour leader.
Following a press conference in Toronto on Friday, the president of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) voiced his support.
“Unions have many tools to deal with the challenges of the economy. One of them is to talk about how to partner and grow the strength of our movement,” said Fred Hahn. “Having two unions speak about how they may be able to come together to create more strength for working people -- not just those in unions, but we would say for everyone in the economy -- is good for all of us.”