Interview: Sweetheart Deals & Solidarity Unionism
Following the announcement of a no-strike contract between the Canadian Auto Workers and Magna International a number of CAW local leaders criticized Buzz Hargrove for pushing the deal. Bruce Allen, vice-president of Local 199 at GM in St. Catharines, described the deal as "a betrayal of the reason why we established ourselves as an independent union." Bruce founded the CAW Left Caucus and was involved in publishing the anarchist paper Strike in the 1980's. Linchpin contacted Bruce and in the following interview he outlines in detail the problems with the deal and the direction of the CAW and the Labour movement in general.
LINCHPIN>> I guess the first question is how you view the recent sweet heart deal between Magna and the CAW?
BRUCE ALLEN>> I view it as the culmination of trends that have been developing in the CAW over the past ten years. I outlined those trends in some detail in an article that was published last year called “Inside the CAW Jacket”. That article was prompted by the spectacle, a year or so ago, of Buzz Hargrove giving a CAW jacket to Paul Martin at the CAW council. This was at a time when Buzz Hargrove was embracing the Liberals and making an absolute rupture with the traditional alliance between the CAW, organized labour and the New Democratic Party.
Really the point simply put is that this is just taking a trend that was already there to another level, consolidating it in the form of an agreement with a traditionally very anti-union transnational corporation, MAGNA, and completely embracing the very things that the CAW was founded to oppose back in the mid-1980's.
You may recall the premise and essential reason for the CAW breaking from the United Auto Workers in the mid 1980's was a rejection of the UAW's pro-corporation orientation. In so far as they accepted team concepts, embraced profit sharing as opposed to wage increases, and all forms of management labour co-operation, basically they embraced an agenda of making the corporation more competitive and successful regardless of whether that was in the interests of their members.
The CAW broke from that, it was the right thing to do at the time – it was a break to the left of the UAW. What this agreement with MAGNA does is it takes things full circle and it casts us in a role where essentially there is no difference between what we stand for and what the UAW stands for. Arguably this deal is even worse than what the UAW contracts typically involve right now.
So in more ideological terms its a complete subordination to the agenda of capital, it’s a complete acceptance of capitalism. There isn't the slightest hint of anti-capitalist politics in the CAW anymore, where ten to fifteen years ago the CAW was decisively to the left of the NDP and was willing to engage in far more extra-parliamentary political action. It was essentially socialist in its political orientation – there is absolutely nothing socialist in its politics now. This deal is the culmination of all that and taking it to another level.
What's really significant about this deal and important in terms of understanding where we were and where we are now, is that really this is the product of an organization which at the national level is completely un-democratic, completely top down in its orientation. Hargove does what he wants and expects everyone to fall in line after the fact. He is completely un-accountable for what he does and he uses a combination of coercion through the bureaucratic apparatus and co option to maintain order to preserve the control of the existing hierarchy of the CAW.
Consequently as he moves more and more to the right and becomes more accommodating to the corporations he brings the organization with him in its orientation. The lack of democracy obstructs any attempt to put a break on that.
LINCHPIN>> Can you envision any knock on effects for the general labour movement as a result of this deal?
BRUCE ALLEN>> This deal has far reaching effects for all other unions because it will have an impact on collective bargaining throughout the entire manufacturing sector in this country. It will encourage employers in all industries, particularly in the private sector and manufacturing, to put pressure on all unions, not just the CAW, to negotiate similar agreements and be conducive to ending up in a situation where this becomes the norm between capital and organised labour in this country.
LINCHPIN>> What sort of forces if any are there as a left opposition in the CAW? Where's that at? Do you see possibility for worker's action on the shop floor in resistance to this trend in the CAW?
BRUCE ALLEN>> There is no organised left opposition. Several years ago there was a small CAW left caucus which I was the driving force behind, basically it would never have formed if it hadn't have been for me. It took some good positions, did some good work but it never managed to grow to the point where it became a formidable force. You had a lot of fear, a lot of people within it were not willing to seriously take on the leadership and consequently that had a corrosive effect and ultimately it shriveled and died.
Today there is no organized left opposition. But there is a growing number of people who are expressing dissatisfaction given the concessions that have been made in places like Oshawa with the Shelf Agreement and more so now with this MAGNA agreement. But they are not organised into a force. There are diverse, basically informal networks around certain individuals. The most notable being Sam Gindin, who used to be the research director in the union and the best known critic of Hargrove’s politics, or at least the most high profile critic.
Another problem is that of the most notable in opposition a lot of them are retired members, there is very little at least in terms of opposition involving the secondary leadership, at the level of the local union. They are generally biting their tongues, they are reluctant to defy the national union.
The national union in the way it operates is openly hostile to any local union leadership that goes against the direction set by the national union. There are pressures that are applied and there is also a relationship of dependencies. In all level of negotiations there are national reps involved and they play a pivotal role. There is always the risk that it will be disadvantageous if you alienate yourself from the national rep who take orders from the top leadership.
They can put the gears to you and really hurt you at a local level. Again its a matter of a lack of democracy within the organization, the real concentration of power is at the top and it emanates from the top down. That's very obstructive and very conducive to suppressing the emergence of any local opposition.
LINCHPIN>> I am often under the impression that these sort of deals are struck in the union movement as a result of a general weakness, that they are attempts to stabilise declining memberships. Are there any other strategies that can be used to reverse that trend?
BRUCE ALLEN>> A deal like this is certainly a product of weakness, and a product of a declining membership base in manufacturing and especially auto and auto parts sector. There the CAW has experienced massive membership losses due to corporate down-sizing and plant closures and that has definitely created some sense of desperation. Desperation is conducive to obviously making an accommodation with employers in any way they can in order to maintain the dues base and you can see this agreement in this context. It definitely plays in to it and a major driving force is the CAW's national office desire to maintain the dues base in order to sustain the organization.
You only need to look to the United States in that respect, the UAW at the end of the 1970's had 1.5 million members, today its about a third of that. You can't maintain the organisation, the bureaucratic structure and all the rest if you have a shriveling dues base.
Speaking from a local level, I'm in a local union that has as its biggest unit General Motors. At the beginning of the 1980's we had nearly 10,000 General Motors workers in St Catherines, that number today is 2,500 and by the end of next year probably down to 2,000. We have a union hall, long term I don't know how we are going to maintain it, the income from union dues is not there to sustain it. There is another union local in St Catherines that organised the Dana plant, their union hall was sold off and pretty much the only Dana workers that will be left will be retirees.
The same dynamic is evident where I am. There are far more retired members of our local union now than active members because the corporation is encouraging people to take buy outs, like retirement packages, and people are running for the door. They have a take the money and run attitude, without any consideration for what the future holds. What they don't understand and what I tell people all the time, is that you can grab the money and run and retire – but if the union keeps getting weaker and weaker, who is going to protect your pensions and benefits after you retire? I tell them that and the look on their faces is as if I told them their mother has died. But it is brutally true.
These dynamics and trends are a major reason why a deal like this is struck. There is a quiet desperation about it. But touching on your other question – is this the way to build the union? In the short term, sure it could get you additional members. But the other way to look at it, from more a class perspective, is if the union is going to be weak and defective, unable to win things for you, make substantial gains for you and improve the quality of life; your standard of living; day to day reality on the shop floor, people are not going to want to join a union. What's the point of joining a union if it doesn't do anything for you? If all a union is, is something that takes money off your pay check?
LINCHPIN>> Following up and this is the question, what actions can we take as a class to reverse that?
BRUCE ALLEN>> Frankly my opinion is this, the existing union structures have reached a point of no return. I've long believed that the existing union structures like the Canadian Labour Congress and the CAW have passed the point of no return. The labour movement is going to have to be built from the ground up.
I'm not advocating building outside of the existing structures yet as you have to be inside them to be relevant, to interact with workers. But we have to build on the things that made the union strong in the first place. Stand by the principles that got us what we got. You do not join a union to go backwards, you join a union to make gains and improve your life and be prepared to do whatever is necessary to realise those gains.
From my vantage point that means do what ever you can to build strong local unions and labour councils. I really believe in the concept and always have that Lynd outline of solidarity unionism. He wrote a book about it, about networking and building in the existing unions, at a local level and at local labour councils. In a horizontal rather than a vertical way, networking.
LINCHPIN>> For people that may want to touch base on that form of solidarity unionism, is there any examples in Ontario to suggest that form developing?
BRUCE ALLEN>> There are no real examples I can think of. The challenge before us is to build them, to get involved in our local unions and labour councils. To start the process of networking and building that is conducive to fostering solidarity unionism, its the base of the movement and the labour movement grows and survives at the base. Don't waste your time trying to change the CLC, the Ontario Federation of Labour or the CAW from the top because for the same reason they are so top down and controlled from above – you can't break that.
You've got to build around it, its like going down a road and encountering an obstacle – you don't run head first into it, you go around it. You build local networks around strikes and issues. I'm heavily involved in activities around injured workers, my specialty in terms of the union is fighting worker compensations and there are all kinds of possibilities to realise through that work.
I take a class struggle approach to workers' compensation. You can maintain and continue a really adversarial orientation to employers. I maintain a totally adversarial orientation with GM through fighting for injured workers. You have to find niches and possibilities where ever you are in order to move in that direction. That is what I am doing to the extent that I can do it.
PODCAST>> This interview on the MAGNA deal is available at Linchpin.ca as a MP3.
OFF THE CUFF>> Our blog carries links to culled mainstream media articles on the CAW/MAGNA deal, as well as some commentary on Hargrove’s leadership.