Faced with declining membership, plant closures, weak economics and political hostility, the Canadian labour movement is resorting to drastic measures. The Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers have the blessing of their respective members to merge and transform for a new era of labour relations. The new entity, which will be the largest ever industrial union in Canada, will be designed around an unprecedented plan to champion the disenfranchised. It’s a high-risk gambit, and much stands in the way of this union of unions.
Pulling off the merger itself will be no small feat. Crafting a common framework for two unions covering disparate industries and more than 300,000 workers will inevitably create tensions. Multiple committees will have to trudge through months of negotiations. “The key challenge they’re going to face is merging the two internal cultures,” says McMaster University economics professor Arthur Sweetman.
“It’s going to take recognition that there’s got to be compromises on both sides,” says CAW president Ken Lewenza. Yet compromise has not always been the strong suit of private-sector unions, whose internal squabbles are hardly rare. Lewenza says he wants to avoid playing politics during merger talks, but wouldn’t rule out vying for the leadership. “I think it would be a privilege to run the new organization,” he said. “But that’s not my priority right now.”
The priority is to reclaim relevance and credibility. Membership in private-sector unions has fallen steadily over the past 25 years and now represents just 17% of the private-sector labour force. “A lot of the things unions used to argue for they won, and governments have extended those benefits to all Canadian workers,” Sweetman says. “The value-added of unions is not what it used to be.”
As the merger proposal sees things, the global recession and its aftermath have poisoned the political attitude toward unions. It points to federal interference in collective bargaining for workers at Air Canada, CP Rail and Canada Post as evidence.
The mega-union aims to start the turnaround with a rebranding: new name, new logo, and a new mandate to open up its membership to contract workers, the self-employed and even the unemployed. A new focus on social advocacy is a key feature of the proposal, Lewenza says.
But others are foggy on how the change will benefit existing members or put the unions on more solid footing. “You’re expanding into areas that are not going to generate revenues, and you’re going to incur costs doing it,” says Philip Cross, research co-ordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “It’s hard to see this as a business model that would work.”