TORONTO - Growing weariness in Canada's labour movement coupled with the federal government's "assault on labour rights" have made it necessary for two of the country's largest private sector unions to merge, the key players said Wednesday.
The Canadian Auto Workers Union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada said the two groups must join forces in order to ensure protection for existing members and inject some life back into the national labour movement.
A 16-member committee of representatives from both unions unanimously urged the organizations to formally merge by 2013 in a report tabled on Wednesday.
The recommendation is still subject to approval from both unions, which will vote on the proposal at their respective conventions later this year.
"We view the New Union Project involving the CAW and the CEP as a part of a broader process of renewal and revitalization for the labour movement as a whole," the committee wrote in its report.
"The formation of a new, larger union, incorporating improved practices in all areas of our work (organizing, bargaining, and activism), can be part of a necessary response to a historic challenge facing workers and their unions."
The report traced the roots of those challenges back to the 1970s, when it says growing hostility towards organized labour began surfacing in most western countries.
Trade union membership as a share of total employment has slid 10 percentage points to 30 per cent since the late 1970s, the report said, adding the situation is even more pronounced in the U.S. where fewer than seven per cent of workers are union members.
The general global antipathy has shifted to "attacks on unions and collective bargaining" under the Harper Conservatives, the unions argued, citing several pieces of legislation that forcibly ended labour disputes at Canada Post, Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) and Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP).
"The new union will have a particularly strong presence in federally regulated sectors such as communications and transportation," the report reads.
"Here we are on the front lines of the federal government's assault on labour rights and are well-placed to respond."
Both unions said they had discussed the need to find creative solutions to engage its members in labour-related causes. The proposed merger, they said, was the product of those discussions.
"By combining the workplace experience of our members with our dealings with management and our ongoing relationships with governments, we are uniquely positioned to argue for industrial strategies that promote good jobs and sound economic development," the report said.
The new union would represent more than 300,000 workers across roughly 20 economic sectors. Most of the membership would be concentrated in manufacturing, communications and transportation.
While the bulk of the membership would come from the private sector, CAW and CEP said the new entity would also represent some public sector employees working in health, education and transit roles.
Ontario would be the hub of activity in the new union, which would have half its membership based in that province.
The new organization would be named only after the merger has gone through, but the committee has spelled out many details of its potential structure.
Existing chapters of the CAW and CEP would remain as chartered locals of the new union and would report to five regional councils across the country.
The organization will feature a 25-member national executive board consisting of representatives of the various industries, races and regions under the union's purview.
National dues have been set at 0.7 per cent of a worker's regular salary, roughly in line with CAW members' current rate and slightly lower than the rate of 0.8 per cent currently paid by CEP members.
The union will also have a strike fund of more than $135 million to provide support to those caught up in work stoppages, the report said.
Revenues will also be funnelled into organizing and educating current and future members, it added.
The CAW is set to vote on the proposed merger at its convention later this month. CEP members will weigh in when they meet in October.
Labour Day: A Canadian Invention
Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.
The Regina Riot
During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.
In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.
Giant Mine Bombing
In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.
The Toronto G20
The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.
When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.