Viewpoint: Canadian Auto Workers Moves from Fighting Back to Cooperating

CAW President Buzz Hargrove. After accepting the need to become more competitive, the union has lost the knack for fighting back where it counts the most—in the workplace. Photo: Jim West/

For many labor activists around the world, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), a union born in the refusal to accept the concessions agenda of the 1980s, has been an inspiring example. Over the past two decades, the union’s track record sparkled: it fought efforts to impose concessions across various sectors, stood up to attacks on public sector workers, challenged lean production, led the one-day mass strikes of the Ontario Days of Action, and built path-breaking union education programs. The union’s slogan, “fighting back makes a difference,” suggested its leading role.

But recently the CAW has changed course. The union has stopped criticizing the major auto employers and instead seeks to help these U.S.-based companies deal with their competition through government subsidies and opening foreign markets for their goods.

Exchange on
Militancy in the CAW

Herman Rosenfeld:
Canadian Auto Workers Moves from Fighting Back to Cooperating, February, 2008

Jim O'Neil:
CAW Committed to Militancy, Movement Unionism, March, 2008

Herman Rosenfeld:
Things Aren’t Always What They Appear to Be, April, 2008

Last year the union’s leadership orchestrated a series of “shelf” agreements in its Big 3 plants, voluntarily giving up workplace rights like relief time and outsourcing “non-core” jobs, such as janitors. These agreements wait on the shelf until the corporations bring in new-product investments.

Politically, it moved closer to the business-oriented Liberal Party and began to emphasize lobbying instead of mass movements. And last November, the union brokered a deal with the parts firm Magna that traded the right to strike and an independent union presence in the workplace for organizing rights at the company’s plants (see Labor Notes, December 2007).

What has happened to the CAW? How did the union get where it is?


For starters, free trade deals and economic restructuring have narrowed the space for the kind of economic gains (from employers) and political reforms (from the government) that union leaders relied on previously. This has had particularly strong effects on the auto sector, with the main employers of Canadian auto workers facing new challenges from Japanese competitors, both as transplants and as importers.

Corporate restructuring strategies, such as outsourcing, jettisoning “non-core” operations, and lean production have led to massive layoffs. Neoliberal globalization has also brought the dismantling of regulatory policy frameworks, like the U.S.-Canada Auto Pact, that in the past limited market excesses.

CAW leaders have long argued that what gave the union space to fight and make gains, was the productivity levels of its workplaces, and the cost advantage of the Canadian dollar and health care system. Increasingly they’ve come to emphasize that new employer workplace systems provided the profitability advantages that made it possible for Canadian workers to demand higher wages and benefits. The bargaining goals became centered on material gains only—more money, better benefits, even more time off—but didn’t touch the workplaces, considered to be the source of Canada’s competitive advantage.

CAW is weakest in the workplace today. After accepting the need to become more competitive, the union has lost the knack for fighting back where it counts the most. This has developed over time, as many stewards and workplace representatives have been told by their local leaders and staff not to rock the boat and threaten new investment. With the acceptance of corporate goals and the lack of a union steward network at the new Magna units, this outlook may become standardized.


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Internal union developments have also played a big hand in the shift. The union’s leadership structure concentrates power in the president’s office, which has been strengthened under current leader Buzz Hargrove. The elected national executive board has become more of a rubber stamp. Spaces where members used to organize around their own points of view, such as councils and conferences, have become subject to greater control by the leadership to limit dissent.

Ironically, the positive role that leaders and staff played under former president Bob White and in the first decade of Hargrove’s reign helped undermine the independent, militant, rank-and-file opposition that had existed in the union’s earlier days. They took activist, mobilizing positions on all kinds of issues and led important struggles against employers. With a progressive leadership, there seemed to be no need to develop any autonomous capacity to challenge them.

When things went sour, there was no informal or formal grouping that could even pretend to represent an organized opposition. This also coincided with the general decline of rank-and-file (or left) organizations inside and outside the union in the 1990s. Whatever happened in the union became mainly dependent on the personal role and whims of the individual leader and the group around him.

Hargrove inherited an organization with a rich history of struggle and a tradition of challenging concessions. He extended those traditions for the first 10 years of his presidency. But since the early part of this decade, there has been a steady retreat.


The CAW has given ground in all areas. Their auto campaign centered on handing subsidies to the Big 3, encouraging greater worker dependence on their employers rather than creating the confidence to challenge them. They showed a face of public opposition to concessions, while engineering shelf agreements at GM, Ford, Chrysler, and CAMI that accepted local workplace concessions in exchange for promises of new products. (They justified the move by generating a panic over the rising value of the Canadian dollar, even when it was at the 85-cent level). The union has shifted away from broad political contests in favor of lobbying politicians, most clearly seen in its absence from the anti-war or anti-globalization movements beyond progressive resolutions and statements.

Instead of mobilization, current practice is to ridicule and insult critical speakers at the CAW council—the union’s legislative body—and cut the CAW off from sister unions. The CAW remains outside the Ontario Federation of Labor, and criticizes and demeans the role of other unions.

Activists share the blame for the CAW’s slide. Because of the conservatism of internal workplace structures in many locals, many activists direct their energies elsewhere, avoiding the arduous work of building a base for struggle at the workplace. They usually don’t run for office, and when they do, they aren’t viewed favorably and are almost never elected. Instead of building rank-and-file power, they ignore those issues and help reinforce the basic conservatism and irrelevance of the union in the workplace.


Many CAW leaders, members, and activists work to change this script and rebuild the union’s traditions of militancy and mobilization.

Despite all these setbacks, they pressure the leadership. The ongoing campaign to save manufacturing jobs is one result of that pressure. Last summer, for the first time in almost five years, the campaign mobilized thousands of activists throughout southern Ontario. They seek to move beyond the leadership’s limiting of demands and tactics to those compatible with employers’ interests.

The leadership says it is committed to keeping the two-tier system negotiated by the UAW out of Canada, and the activists want to hold them to it. Even with the Magna defeat, activists argue that the Magna model must be limited to that employer and kept from threatening the rights of workers in other sectors and workplaces. Such internal struggles continue, although the balance of forces strongly favors the administration.

The small band of activists who challenged the Magna deal—organized as CAW Members for Real Fairness—and the local unions that took a critical stand, including those in Ingersoll, Oshawa, Thunder Bay, Dominion Stores, and Toronto (where 15 leaders and rank-and-file members handed out their own leaflets against the Magna deal at December’s CAW council meeting), are in the earliest stages of building a larger autonomous opposition to the current trends that dominate the union.

At present, the CAW’s orientation isn’t all that different from many other unions in Canada. This mixed role is a far cry from the union’s past, reflecting the need for a larger renewal movement across all of Canadian labor.

Herman Rosenfeld is a former GM production worker who recently retired from the Canadian Auto Workers education department.