Caw Urgently Needs Democratic Renewal
Back in May the CAW (Canadian Autoworkers) ratified contracts that made concessions to the Big Three. The concessions the CAW made were not as significant as those earlier made by the UAW (their
A few weeks ago, while reading the CAW Local 1498 meeting minutes, I came across the following statement by my union representative, Paul:
“Being part of the bargaining committee my question to the people who voted against the contract; I would really like to know why you voted NO and what do you think we could have done better? At ratification there didn’t appear to be much disappointed in the contract so why the NO vote? I know we all have a right to our opinion, I’m just curious as to what more you were looking for in these times!"
I’m one of those people who voted “no”, so I’ll reply to Paul.
I’m very glad he asked the question because one of the reasons I voted “no” was to hopefully prompt our leaders to ask more questions of their members and of themselves.
The membership was understandably relieved by the contract. Many, including me, thought we might get whacked even harder than we were. It was obvious just prior to the vote that it would be approved with near unanimity, but it seemed very unwise to me to send a message of 100% approval.
The CAW is not responsible for the downturn in the auto industry and the economy. Executives, who are paid outrageous salaries to steer their companies, failed to anticipate changes in automotive market. Contrary to what CEOs claim, they should have seen those changes coming long ago. Anyone who has read the work of Dean Baker must feel like they’ve been watching a train wreck in slow motion since the mid 1990s. Baker, unlike most economists, predicted the stock market crash of 2000 long before it happened. For years he has been warning that the devastating collapse of the
Ironically, Jim Stanford, the CAW’s economist, recently put together a slide show presentation that justifies a harsh assessment of the CAW.  His presentation attempts to sell workers on an agreement the CAW made with Magna. Stanford’s presentation showed that since about 1975 the percentage of private sector workers who are unionized has steadily fallen. The share of
It’s no mystery why this happened. The corporate and political elite have successfully taken back much of what was won by workers in the post WWII period. Working people have been taking a vicious beating for over 30 years and the labor movement still hasn’t fought back effectively. Thirty plus years of getting kicked in the ass explains why the contract we just ratified was greeted with sighs of relief rather than outrage. Expectations have been systematically lowered.
Now I can imagine Paul (my union rep) objecting to all this saying
“Wait a second. I asked why you voted against the latest contract, not about the long term strategy of the CAW. What could we possibly have done better at the negotiating table last May given the conditions we faced?”
But to me, this is like saying “Never mind that we painted ourselves into a corner for over thirty years. How well did we manoeuver inside that corner?”
I admit that a more appropriate time to use my vote to express dissatisfaction with the CAW’s direction would have been during the election for CAW president - but there is a problem. Like the overwhelming majority of CAW members, I did not get to vote directly for the CAW president this year. In fact, even the democratically deficient process used to select a president was manipulated to ensure a smooth transfer of authority from Buzz Hargrove to Ken Lewensa.  A wonderful opportunity for members learn about, debate, and refine the CAW’s long term strategy was squandered.
Sam Ginden, a former advisor to the CAW, has put out very strong criticism of the CAW in recent years from a passionately pro-union perspective. He has argued that deepening union democracy is essential if unions are to reverse their long term decline. You won’t find his criticism on the CAW website with rank and file members commenting on where they agree or disagree. Instead, a debate of sorts between Ginden and former CAW president Bob White was moderated by the Toronto Star, a corporate newspaper. Why should CAW members not find this kind of debate on the CAW’s website? 
There is little reason to fear that deepening union democracy will make Canadian unions weaker -- quite the contrary. Consider public opinion in the US, where pro-business propaganda is arguably even more dominant than it is in Canada. The US public is almost twice as likely to say big corporations (rather than unions) have “too much power”; twice as likely to take the side of unions during labor disputes; and they approve of unions generally by a three to one margin.  A survey done for the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) in 2003 found similar attitudes among Canadian workers. Two-thirds of Canadians believe it is worthwhile to belong to a union, even if doesn't result in a wage increase. Seven in ten unorganized employees would prefer to join a union that is “active in community issues”. However, the results also showed that 45% of rank and file members believe they have no say in how their union operates, and that lack of internal democracy is a major reason cited by workers who do not want to join a union. 
By now we should see a labor movement in Canada vigorous enough to generate a real alternative to the dominant political parties that have relentlessly assaulted workers. But after a thirty year walloping the best the CAW can do is cozy up to the Liberal party. We can debate how much worse the Tories are than the Liberals, but after decades of getting trounced by both we should be setting much more ambitious goals than keeping the Tories out. I don’t deny that the Tories are worse. I agree with voting Liberal in any riding where that is the only realistic way to defeat them. However, I do object strongly to Buzz Hargrove literally embracing Paul Martin as if the Liberals were friends to working people rather than enemies.
There are people who hate unions and who very selectively push union democracy when they think it may weaken them. Most ridiculously, corporations like Wal-Mart - outright dictatorships - will accuse unions of being undemocratic. There are also union members who unfairly throw out words like “dictatorship” in frustration at the way debate has been squelched by their leaders. To state the obvious, if the CAW were a dictatorship then I wouldn’t dare to publicly criticize its leadership. But after decades of decline shouldn’t all unions, especially one as important as the CAW, have seriously contested elections for their top job?
Our leaders say we weren’t in a position to “go to war” over the latest contract. That may true (though I doubt it) , but we will have to go to war at some point to reverse organized labor’s decline. If we don’t then we will continue to follow US unions into irrelevance. It is hard to imagine the labor movement rebounding without the help of the CAW, but it is hard to imagine that happening without democratic renewal within the CAW itself.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Read Dean Baker's blog at http://www.prospect.org/
 Sam Ginden Democracy: Too Important to Leave to the Members? http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/bullet124.html
 Sam Ginden's article in the Toronto Star http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/270608
Bob White's response is here http://www.thestar.com/article/271628
More debate between Ginden and White can be found here:
 Candian Labor Congress; "Canadians Talk About Unions"