Canadian Auto Workers Take on SEIU/AFL-CIO


The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), headed by its president, Buzz Hargrove, has once again come head to head with the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. In 1984, during contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and General Motors (GM), the Canadian section of the UAW came into sharp conflict with the UAW bureaucracy headed at the time by the auto union’s president, Owen Beiber.

In a nutshell, UAW President Beiber had negotiated a concessionary contract with GM and succeeded in overcoming resistance by GM union members in the United States. Bob White, director of the UAW’s Canadian Division at the time, under heavy pressure from his more militant rank and file, refused to go along with Beiber’s give-back deal with GM and led Canadian auto workers in a strike against GM.

Then despite Beiber’s attempts to block the Canadians from exercising their democratic right to reject the contract and go on strike, the UAW president was forced to grant strike sanction. But later, after the strike was under way, Beiber sabotaged the Canadian Division of his union by making a back room deal with GM, stiffening the company’s opposition and prolonging the strike.

Despite this treachery, the Canadian Division of the UAW succeeded in extracting a contract from GM with much better terms for its membership than the one Beiber tried to force down the throats of the UAW Canadian Division’s membership.

The following year Canadian auto workers broke with the UAW and declared their independence. That was the genesis of the independent Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

Now, in a letter published in the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 30, 2000), Hargrove reported that eight local unions in Ontario, representing some 30,000 service workers, decided to disaffiliate from the U.S.-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and applied to join the CAW.

(The CAW claims a total membership of 240,000, only one-third of whom are auto workers. This practice of unions in one industry organizing workers in other industries-wherever they can find more dues payers-has become generalized in both the U.S. and Canada.)

In Canada, unlike here in the United States, local unions affiliated with a parent international still have the legal right to sever their relations with one international and join another when they are convinced that their democratic rights have been violated-without having to abide by strict, government-imposed rules that, if abided by, would lead to the loss of all legal rights for the union seeking to either switch affiliation from one parent union to another or to go independent.

According to the Hargrove letter, the decision to join the CAW was supported unanimously by the elected leaders of eight SEIU local unions in the Canadian province of Ontario. The decision, he points out, “has since been ratified by more than 95 percent of the thousands of individual workers who have been allowed to vote on the issue.”

But their parent union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), refused to accept the verdict of its membership. Hargrove further reports that the SEIU bureaucracy is presently “suing the dissident local leaders personally for millions of dollars.”

However, although there are no virtually insurmountable government restrictions barring local unions from switching affiliation as in the United States, the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), the umbrella organization for most unions in Canada (like our AFL-CIO), does bar such practices in the name of discouraging the “raiding” by one union of the members of another union. Thus, according to Hargrove, “the CLC has closed ranks with the SEIU” against the CAW and the eight former SEIU local unions.

“As of July 1,” Hargrove writes, “we at the CAW will be effectively thrown out of the Congress, our leaders and members barred from participating in events ranging from national-level conferences to nitty-gritty local labor council meetings.” He further explains that, according to Congress rules, “it is virtually impossible for workers to switch their membership from one union to another; as a result, the decision of the eight locals to join the CAW technically constitutes ‘raiding.'”

Hargrove rebukes the CLC’s moves toward expulsion of the CAW: “It doesn’t matter how badly a union represents its members, or how much it loses the confidence of those who pay its bills. Its members can’t switch affiliations without serious risk of losing their certification and their hard-fought bargaining gains altogether. And as long as dues money keeps flowing in from workers who are treated more like indentured servants than trade unionists, then the picture of happy solidarity is preserved-for the union leaders, anyway.”

The Canadian auto union president argues in his open letter that his union’s motives for having risked splitting the CLC are motivated by a “deep-seated commitment to union democracy, informed by our own bitter experiences with unaccountable leaders.” (The bitter experience Hargrove speaks of is a reference to the UAW bureaucracy’s disloyalty in giving the GM bosses surreptitious aid and comfort during the 1984 strike referred to above.)

Hargrove further lashes out at “cozy business unionism, in which union leaders take few risks and actively co-operate with employers in return for annual wage increases…” He further argues: “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.”

Hargrove ends with the following statement clarifying his position further:

“Some leaders seem content to accept huge concessions and other setbacks so long as the dues kept coming. And if union members are prevented from democratically selecting new representatives, then the gradual decline and bureaucratization of Canada’s labor movement will continue.

It may be a rocky road for the Canadian labor movement in coming years. But there are other times in our history when we reinvented and restructured ourselves to reflect new challenges, and new ways of facing them. It’s far better to take a few risks to revitalize the hopes and dreams of rank-and-file union members than to watch the steady degeneration of a business-as-usual institution.”

Which side should unionists take?

In the first place, it must be said that this newspaper doesn’t take sides when factions of the capitalist class are in conflict with each other. Thus, Socialist Action stands in opposition to all capitalist politicians; Democrats, Republicans, Greens or, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a capitalist politician by any other name would smell as foul.

Neither do we take sides when capitalists in one country get into a conflict with capitalists of another country. And, most importantly, while we are opposed to all capitalists, our main fire is always focused on the class enemy in our own country.

The reasoning behind this is not at all complicated. It is first of all based on the indisputable fact that the class interests of all workers, everywhere, are in irreconcilable conflict with interests of the capitalist class everywhere. Capitalists are entirely motivated by their inexorable compulsion to maximize profits.

And secondly, the erroneous policy of focusing fire on capitalists in other countries that are in conflict with one’s own capitalists leads inexorably to siding with one’s own capitalists against their competitors in other lands-and by the same token, against the other country’s workers as well.

There is no common ground between the two main social classes in the world today. An increase in wages and living standards in general means a reduction in profits; and a reduction in the workers’ share of their labor product means an increase in profits-all other things being equal.

And conversely, we have everything in common with the class interests of working people everywhere.

However, in contrast to our principled opposition to capitalists of any variety, we may indeed take sides between opposing factions of union bureaucrats. Unlike capitalists, bureaucrats are a highly contradictory social category. On the one hand, bureaucrats tend to place their privileged positions-better pay, more comfortable life style-above that of the workers whose interests they are paid to represent.

But on the other, their privileged position depends on the continued existence of their union and the approval (getting reelected) of their dues-paying membership. Thus, in order for bureaucrats to keep their privileged positions, they are often compelled-to one extent or another-to defend the union as the source of their privileges.

Besides, all bureaucrats are not the same-some are truly worse than others. In fact, on rare occasions a union official comes along that adds up to taking real leadership.

The Teamster’s Ron Carey, for instance, was one of those rare exceptions. In fact, he was the first-and so far the only-top international union officials to have shown real leadership in the years since the American labor bureaucracy joined forces with the capitalist class in 1947. That was when virtually the entire top leadership of the AFL and the CIO meekly allowed Republicans and Democrats to impose what they had initially called the “slave labor Taft-Hartley Act.”(The most well known exception being the head of the coal miners international union, UMWA President and former CIO President John L. Lewis.)

And worse, the misleadership of both labor federations at the time, the AFL and the CIO, not only ordered their affiliates to sign the non-Communist oath required by the new antilabor legislation (as a condition before elected officials could hold office), they used the red-baiting capitalist attack on the unions to drive out of the union or silence virtually all dissidents, whether members of the Communist Party or not.

But after Ron Carey came along and led his Teamster rank and file to what could well have become a tide-turning strike victory over the United Parcel Service in 1997, the bipartisan capitalist government framed him up, removed him from office and expelled him from the Teamsters Union for life! It is patently obvious that they decided that it would be best to crush him and the movement he sparked in the egg-before it could gain a momentum that could not so easily be stopped.

Thus we don’t shrink from siding with one faction of union officials against another, even when we have serious criticisms of those we may support. Our criterion, simply, is that we have the option of supporting those union officials who in the given context represent a position that serves the class interests of working people.

Let’s take a look at the issues in dispute between the CAW and the the SEIU in the context of the current state of the unions in Canada and the United States. We must also take into account the relative levels of consciousness of workers in the two countries. The latter factor-the higher level of class consciousness of Canadian workers-has a lot to do with the better record of the CAW officialdom in contrast to that of the American labor bureaucracy.

Class-struggle & workers’ democracy

It’s impossible to understand the cause of the decline of unions in the United States in particular without taking account of the given country’s history, the extent to which the bureaucratization of the unions has succeeded in curtailing union democracy and, by the same token, the degree to which the labor bureaucracy has succeeded in subordinating the interests of their rank and file to capitalist profits, buying off or repressing potential militants and stamping out insurgencies.

In regard to Hargrove’s characterization of the SEIU international bureaucracy as “business unionists,” let’s take a look at the appointed Canadian vice-president of the SEIU, Sharleen Stewart’s, written response to Hargrove’s open letter.

In her response, Stewart adopted a stance that is almost a caricature of “business unionism.” She starts off with the following characterization of the alleged “crimes” of the elected officials in the eight SEIU locals in Ontario that broke from the SEIU international and joined the CAW:

Imagine this: You get a fax on Sunday night from your senior vice-president tersely announcing his immediate resignation, as well as that of several others in senior management, who have collectively decided to move over to your competitor.

You arrive at your offices on Monday morning to find all your customer records missing, all your computers’ hard drives gone or erased, and all the money in your bank accounts cleaned out by your ex-employees, who later explain that they have given it all to their lawyers for “safekeeping.”

Upon investigation, you discover that the defectors have been secretly plotting this breakaway with your competitor for at least six months, probably longer, which is why your operation has been stripped so cleanly and efficiently of the records and money it needs to continue in business. [Emphasis added]

This gross example of a “business unionist,” bureaucratic mentality has been so completely ingrained in the SEIU top bureaucracy that their appointee is completely oblivious of the impact of her statement on ordinary trade-union activists.*

Whatever his faults, Hargrove’s defense of the democratic rights of the members of both the SEIU and the CAW to control their own affairs is not merely correct, it objectively advances the cause of the workers’ movement and strikes a blow against the widely prevalent abuse of trade-union democracy by the labor bureaucracy.

But those who talk about how bad raiding is mean something else by the term. Union bureaucrats institute so-called anti-raiding rules and regulations primarily to stop union members from seeking to protect themselves from such abuses as the unjustified bureaucratic imposition of trusteeships, the unseating of duly elected officials from their posts and thereby abrogating the democratic rights of members of local unions.

In fact, when trade-union democracy is the norm, “raiding”-that is, the practice of a gang of bureaucrats in one union, stealing members from another-is pure nonsense. No one can do that if the union membership has the right to say no!

As a matter of fact, many of us active in the unions at the beginning of the 1940s or earlier cut our teeth, as it were, on such widely accepted truisms in the dynamic union movement of those days as there was really no such thing as a “jurisdictional dispute.” Some of us learned the hard way-from experience-that hidden behind every alleged “jurisdictional dispute” between unions lies the class struggle between workers and bosses!

Thus, the CAW’s acceptance of the eight SEIU locals in Ontario into membership was a progressive act of the first order. That becomes clear once we know how the decision to merge with the CAW evolved.

The CAW leadership were so far removed from the charge of “raiding,” that when approached by the leaders of the eight SEIU unions, they asked if they had first sought to resolve their grievances within the organizational framework of their International.

The leaders of the Ontario SEIU locals told the CAW that they had exhausted every means provided by SEIU by-laws and its International constitution without success. And failing in their attempt to gain redress of their grievances, they had first approached the Canadian Labor Congress for help, which is the next highest body in their country’s labor movement. It was only after the CLC officialdom turned them away that they approached the CAW.

Furthermore, American labor history testifies to the long accepted democratic right of local unions to switch from one parent body to another.

In fact, when the AFL and CIO were rival national labor federations before their merger in 1955, local unions subjected to such acts of bureaucratic abuse had the option of taking advantage of the rivalry between the AFL and the CIO and had the option of switching from one to another of the two federations.

Consequently, whatever the limitations of the CAW officialdom may be, in the current instance they stand at the head of a progressive struggle by the rank and file of their merged unions. And that, in the final analysis, is our criterion for taking sides in a struggle between factions in the workers’ movement.

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