Auto Workers Sanctioned Over Raiding Charges

A dispute over which union will represent 30,000 Ontario health care workers is threatening to split the Canadian labor movement.

The Canadian Labour Congress has imposed far-reaching sanctions on the Canadian Auto Workers, following accusations that the CAW had attempted to raid eight Ontario locals of the Service Employees International Union. The CLC stripped CAW delegates of the right to vote in district labor councils, provincial labor federations, and other CLC bodies.

In votes held in March at local union halls, the SEIU members in question had voted massively in favor of leaving the SEIU and merging with the CAW. About one-third of the members turned out for these votes.

The SEIU moved immediately to place the locals under trusteeship. In April an impartial CLC umpire declared that the Auto Workers had violated the CLC constitution and should stop further raiding. The CAW said it would not abide by the decision, and filed formal applications to replace the SEIU in these bargaining units. To date, 6,000 SEIU members have officially voted to re-certify as members of the CAW.

Various attempts to resolve the conflict have failed. "The CAW needs to play by the rules," said Collin Gribbons, a spokesperson for SEIU Canada. (The CLC constitution does allow for unions to apply for "justification" of an action like leaving a parent union. But Ken Brown, who resigned as SEIU international vice president to lead the eight locals into the CAW, says that this process was unsatisfactory).

UNION DEMOCRACY

Buzz Hargrove, president of the CAW, does not agree with the CLC's rules. He argues that in reality the CLC constitution make it practically impossible for workers to leave their union for another, even if this decision is democratically made. He says this is not a case of one union actively soliciting members of another, but about the right of workers to democratically choose their own union.

Although Hargrove is still working toward a compromise, he says the CAW will not abandon its position.

"The affiliates to the CLC must agree on a mechanism for workers to be able to exercise the democratic process to leave their home union and join another CLC affiliate if they desire," he says. "The labor movement must protect the democratic rights of its members, or CLC affiliates such as the CAW who believe in democracy will have no choice but to take up the fight."

Even if the SEIU conflict is resolved, the CAW indicates that this broader issue of union democracy will remain.

Both unions seem locked in their positions. The SEIU is re-establishing the locals under trusteeship. It appears also to be engaged in an intensive leafleting and publicity campaign, aimed at stemming the flow of SEIU members voting to re-certify with the CAW.

The SEIU international has since made amendments to its constitution, addressing concerns for national autonomy of the Canadian locals. But Ken Brown says that the amendments are simply not sufficient. For all intent and purposes, he says, they still make it close to impossible for Canadian members to exercise their right of self-determination and national autonomy.

The CAW is discussing internally what the consequences of the CLC sanctions will be. The CAW is the largest union in Ontario, with many delegates to the district labor councils and the provincial federation of labor. Many are executive board members. (Of the approximately 900,000 CLC members in Ontario, the CAW has 120,000.)

Some labor councils, such as the one in Windsor which has a predominantly CAW executive, are choosing to defy the sanctions to a greater or lesser degree. Overall, however, the sanctions will end up excluding many CAW members from local and provincial labor decision-making bodies.

Hargrove has not excluded the possibility of the CAW setting up an independent labor federation. Although people within certain unions have expressed sympathy and interest in the CAW's militancy, it is too early to know if other unions would join a new labor federation. In the meantime, the CAW is withholding its dues to the CLC.

LOSS OF LABOR UNITY

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This affair has deepened divisions in the Canadian labor movement. At a basic level the CLC has suffered a significant loss of financial and human resources. But at a more fundamental level, most established Canadian unions are pointing to a loss of labor unity.

Sharleen Stewart, the newly-appointed SEIU international vice president, said that "the current raid by the CAW has touched off one of the greatest crises in modern Canadian labor history." Stewart accuses the CAW of "planned and deliberate destruction of inter-union solidarity" and "cannibalizing already organized workers instead of trying to reach Ontario's hundreds of thousands of unorganized workers."

Other unions have joined in rejecting the CAW's actions. Fears abound of raiding wars, of the risk that the labor movement is incapable of acting collectively--in short, of a debilitating rift that can no longer be bridged.

The CAW maintains, however, that the split has been present for years. It says that there is a fundamental disagreement as to a direction and strategy for labor.

What is at stake here this is not just the issue of raiding, the CAW claims. In supporting the dissident SEIU locals, the CAW says it is also upholding the right of Canadian workers to self-determination and national autonomy.

Hargrove says he is shocked that the Canadian unions in the CLC have not chosen to send a united message to international unions that Canadian workers must have the right to leave an international union and join a Canadian union. He points out that 70 percent of Canadian unionized workers belonged to international unions ten years ago. Now only 30 percent do.

ROLE OF A LABOR FEDERATION

However, the dispute also raises questions about the role of a labor federation, claims the CAW. In the Toronto Globe and Mail, Hargrove writes that, "The CLC needs new rules governing membership disputes between unions. It also needs to facilitate more creative and militant tactics on the part of the movement as a whole. If it fails, then the cozy non-aggression pact between member unions will soon become the CLC's very raison d'être--and that's no basis on which to build a vibrant and effective federation."

The CAW is challenging the kind of unionism that the other leaders of the major unions practice. It is calling on unions to mobilize and to fight, instead of making concessions.

What is unfortunate is that this affair will not help to mitigate the resentment felt by many to the CAW. Yet, the CAW, says Sam Gindin, former assistant to Hargrove, cannot be marginalized. It has the power and presence to raise issues and push debates that are often controversial. It has done this consistently on crucial issues. The CAW believes that these sensitive issues should not be avoided if the labor movement is to move forward.

Often the debates it engenders have no easy answers. For example, the CAW has publicly distanced itself from Ontario's New Democratic Party, maintaining that the labor-backed NDP no longer effectively represent the best interests of the labor movement. However, in the absence of an alternative political party, this raises a real dilemma and leaves many confused as to "what now?"

"We tried to follow the rules," insists Ken Brown. The CAW, too, regrets the turn these events have taken. But there are those who view the changing circumstances as an opportunity as well.

If the CAW is permanently excluded from CLC bodies, suggests Jim Pare, former director of organizing for SEIU Canada and now a CAW staff member, thought will need to be given to the way in which CAW locals will coordinate locally and regionally, among themselves and with broader community and social movements. That new organizations might have to be formed allows to think about how better to further the goals of social movement unionism.


Marsha Niemeijer is a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, representing teaching and graduate assistants at York University in Toronto.