Canadian Auto Workers Surrender Right to Strike, Shop Floor Independence in Magna Agreement

The Canadian Auto Workers unveiled a plan in mid-October for organizing Magna, the largest automotive employer north of the border and a notoriously anti-union company.

According to the terms of what the CAW and management at the auto parts giant call the Framework For Fairness, Magna will not interfere in organizing in return for the CAW’s refusing to build an independent union presence on the shop floor and surrendering the right to strike.

Like their UAW counterparts who moved against critics of concessionary agreements in the auto sector (see page 5), CAW leaders have struck out to limit opposition to the deal. Members opposing the deal are preparing to battle the agreement at an early December leadership meeting despite heavy pressure from officials.

DEAL RESTRICTS UNION

The CAW’s agreement with Magna, which could unionize 18,000 workers in 45 workplaces over the next decade, has been in negotiations for two years. To access these new workers, the CAW accepted several restrictions on the union inside the plants.

Each shop, some of which employ more than 1,500 workers, would have only one union representative. Called an employee advocate—a term lifted from Magna’s non-union jointness structure—the representative would be selected by the CAW’s assistant to the president from a pool recommended by a “fairness committee.” That committee, another tool of the current labor-management collaboration scheme, is split between 51 percent union members and 49 percent management and non-union workers.

Members would be unable to either vote for or oust their representative for three years. Among the responsibilities of the employee advocate is to “work with all parties to develop continuous improvement ideas to make the division more competitive.”

The union members on the fairness committee are not allowed to act as stewards, and are required to have good disciplinary records and a commitment to the Magna Employee Charter in order to run.

Without stewards, resolving disputes under the framework would look much different than workplaces with independent union structures. The agreement encourages workers to appeal directly to management or approach the fairness committee to resolve their grievances.

Magna CAW members would have no right to strike, and all collective agreements that weren’t settled at the bargaining table would be subject to binding arbitration.

The impact of Asian imports and cuts in domestic auto parts industry demanded close cooperation with management, said CAW President Buzz Hargrove.

“Why would we waste our efforts in fighting one another over whether there’s going to be a union in a particular division of Magna,” said Hargrove to the Toronto Star, “when it makes more sense to sit down and have a relationship that’s non-traditional, that’s not adversarial in nature?”

AGAINST THE DRIFT

Opponents of the deal say it marks another retreat from the union’s militant roots. Former CAW research director Sam Gindin, writing in The Bullet, argued that the union cripples itself by forgoing a steward system and by adopting the language of competitiveness and common interests with the employer.

In spite of the difficult conditions faced by the union in the sector, he said, it is better to develop a real organizing campaign to bring in workers, instead of bringing new dues-paying members into a hollow shell. “It doesn’t make much sense to kill the patient to cure the disease,” wrote Gindin.

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Gindin said the agreement accelerates the drift away the CAW’s founding principles, a current that is reflected by its embrace of the corporate Liberal Party, its acceptance of “shelf agreements” that gave up shop-floor rights in order to attract new products, and its inability to build mass campaigns to organize workers in companies such as Magna, Toyota, and Honda.

Workers across the union have challenged the agreement. A number of key locals, including Local 222 in Oshawa, Ontario—the largest GM plant in the country—and Local 88 in Ingersoll, Ontario, passed resolutions against the deal at general membership meetings.

“It is obvious the threat Magna will pose to our parts jobs should the Magna agreement go forward in its current state,” said Local 222 President Chris Buckley. “The process of awarding contracts for product is in a cut-throat state already. Suppliers employing my members completely lose any level playing field if the right to strike becomes a factor in the competition’s favor.”

A HARD SELL

Concern over the Magna deal has sparked a debate within the union—something that hasn’t happened in many decades. Workers across different sectors of the union, such as auto, parts, transportation equipment, and services, began to organize independently of the leadership.

Jim Reid, vice president of CAW Local 27, a major parts and health care local in London, Ontario, commented: “I am struck by how this agreement sets aside union democracy at nearly every turn…It is an affront to anyone who believes in union members having a free and unfettered right to elect their representatives.”

The CAW leaders responded to the criticism with a campaign of their own.

Given widespread job losses and outsourcing in the parts sector—and the difficulties in organizing in this context—they argued the CAW had to do something radically different to increase union density. The overall strength of the union and its militant traditions, they said, would allow them eventually to build a strong union in Magna.

They enlisted former CAW President Bob White, who called the framework “innovative” and said it was so significant it was comparable to the CAW’s 1985 break-away from the U.S. auto workers’ union over their concessionary bargaining.

Anxious to quell resistance to the Magna deal, CAW leaders have produced materials defending the agreement and angled for votes within the CAW council, the “parliament” of the union, which ratifies key policy issues and meets three times a year. The council, made up of representatives directly elected by the members in locals across the country, is a unique institution in the union that has the power to challenge policies of the leadership.

CAW officials say the Magna framework provides for wage levels that would reflect the average in the sector and include standard CAW features, such as collective bargaining, grievance procedure, layoff, recall and transfer rights, a paid relief period, paid time off the job, paid education leave, and social justice fund contributions.

The CAW is speeding up plant certification votes to undercut critics. Touting a $3-per-hour wage improvement, union leaders announced that 250 workers had certified the first framework agreement at a plant in Windsor, Ontario.

Critics said the vote was timed to forestall honest debate at the December council meeting and ensure the framework’s easy passage.


Herman Rosenfeld is a retired CAW education department staff member and former GM production worker.