Canadian Auto Workers Brings Members Into Discussion of Union and Politics

The Canadian Auto Workers is in the midst of a timely and unique project--a national task force to encourage discussion and debate about the future of working class politics in Canada.

The centerpiece of the task force’s work is a series of frank and open discussions about the union and politics. The discussions are being held in 26 communities throughout Canada with randomly selected groups from CAW workplaces.

The crisis that the task force seeks to address is not unique to Canada or the CAW. The task force’s documents talk about the inability of the left within the workers’ movement to challenge the strength of right-wing political ideas; the weakness and failure of traditional working class parties, like Canada’s New Democratic Party, to provide a real alternative; and the growing alienation of workers from the electoral system. And, where members have become politically active, a disturbing number have turned to right-wing political parties, such as the new Canadian Alliance.

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The task force notes that while most members strongly support the union’s role in the workplace, there is a growing gap between the political positions taken by the leadership and the rank and file. Members don’t regard the union as their political spokesperson in their communities. And even within the various leadership levels, there is “a great deal of uncertainty and even confusion about where we are going politically.”

Where members have become politically active, a disturbing number have turned to right-wing political parties, such as the new Canadian Alliance.

While these have been long-term trends, the union was spurred into action by the 1999 re-election of the conservative Harris government in Ontario. In that vote, the NDP barely held onto its official status in the legislature, and many CAW members continued to vote for the Conservatives.

In the December 2000 federal elections, the NDP, with an inconsistent message and a narrow electoral focus, did very poorly.

In the aftermath of that vote, many in the New Democratic Party’s traditional constituency have argued that the NDP should rethink its policies, practices, and future. CAW President Buzz Hargrove has played a prominent role in this movement. Further to the left, another group of labour-based activists, including former CAW presidential assistant Sam Gindin, have helped to form a different political project. It describes itself as anti-capitalist, extra-parliamentary, and activist-oriented, and says it is “more than a movement and less than a party.” It is developing in Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, and Toronto.

ALL-DAY DISCUSSIONS

The task force has just completed discussions with 350 participants from 90 locals. After an introductory evening session, participants spent an entire day talking about the union’s political role. Most participants were:

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very supportive of the union’s role in the workplace. They want the union to act on work-related political issues such as health and safety, but they were mixed about their attitudes towards the union’s role on broader political issues.

reluctant to identify themselves with the union in their lives outside of the workplace. Even when participants agreed with the union’s goals on different political issues, they often had completely different ideas about how best to attain them (such as, through the market, private initiatives, etc...

extremely frustrated and cynical about electoral politics. They were also all over the map when it came to discussing electoral parties.

unable to identify any of the union’s past political campaigns, when asked about them. The vast majority reported that they hadn’t had much opportunity to talk about political issues with their co-workers in the workplace, although they thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss politics in these groups.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The discussion groups also listed a series of recommendations. Among the most common were demands that the union leadership consult with the rank and file on the political direction of the union, through surveys, referenda, discussion groups, and local union meetings where these issues could be raised.

They also wanted clear, available information about union campaigns, policies, and ongoing activities of other local unions. People were also very clear that they did not want the union dictating to them.

In addition to the discussion groups, the task force is also planning an in-depth survey of rank and file and leadership; regional forums; an international conference; and finally, a report to the upcoming CAW convention.

Herman Rosenfeld works in the education department of the Canadian Auto Workers.