by Moshe ben Velvl and Megan Kinch
Two of Canada’s biggest unions, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Canadian Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) have merged into a new mega-union, Unifor. They have sketched out an ambitious vision that promises to revolutionize the way unions have traditionally organized and the way they have related to the rest of society and the working class who are not organized in unions. Unifor is now Canada’s largest private sector union. But is it a new day for the labour movement, or is it business as usual?
Rank and file workers, especially in the auto sector, have long been demanding a more democratic unionism — for example, Soldiers of Solidarity in the United States. But in a disappointing turn, the “Unity Team” slate ran almost unopposed for 25 leadership positions at the Unifor convention. Long time union leaders Dave Coles of CEP and Ken Lewenza of CAW resigned their presidential positions shortly before the new convention, paving the way for the official choice for new president, Jerry Dias. Dias was being referred to as the new president before the convention even took place, as if it was just a formality. And that’s almost what it was. All of the leadership positions had “Unity Team” members acclaimed, meaning no one ran against them. All, that is, except for one.
Lindsay Hinshelwood, a rank and file worker at Oakville Ford and member of Unifor Local 707, threw in her hat to challenge the leadership at the last minute. Not only that, but she provided a real alternative vision to the business-as-usual attitudes.
Hinshelwood gave an interview to BASICS, in which she was also quite critical of the cheerleading culture being promoted at the convention:
At the CAW convention yesterday, Ken Lewenza gave the exact same speech. We didn’t address the issues that are really affecting us. It was the old cheerleading speech, we fought for this, we fought for that, rah, rah, rah, and meanwhile our economy’s been going backwards for the last 40 years. We weren’t addressing the problems and we weren’t offering solutions to those problems.
After Hinshelwood was nominated to run for the election, co-chair Dave Coles (the outgoing CEP leader) wasn’t even going to allow her to make a speech, supposedly because of time constraints and the fact that there were 24 more “elections” scheduled for that afternoon.
He only changed his mind after someone issued a challenge to the chair from the floor, meaning that he would no longer be able to run the meeting if it was actually put up to a vote and passed. He noticed that the rest of the room was very upset with the fact that he wouldn’t let her speak and probably would have ousted him as chair if he continued to refuse her this right. Hinshelwood had this to say about that important moment at convention:
I’m very proud that the crowd challenged the chair and allowed me to speak. I really appreciate getting the time to speak. And that wasn’t rehearsed, that just came out of my mouth without me thinking about it, and it was really great that the audience responded to it, so obviously people were identifying with what I had to say.
Hinshelwood’s speech made strong criticisms of the practice of the CAW heading into the convention, for agreeing to continuing concessions over the course of the past 15 years that would essentially sell out the new hires and lead to continually declining wages and benefits for workers in the automotive sector.
In the election for president of the union, Hinshelwood got 17.5% of the vote against Jerry Dias. This is an impressive number for a last-minute candidacy with no campaign literature or official backing.
This raises the question of how Unifor can claim to be forging a vision for new fights against corporations and governments, and new organizing drives, when the CAW leadership has shown little desire to actually fight against concessions that will hurt their members. In the last round of negotiations with the big three automakers in 2012, CAW leadership agreed to a concessionary contract without calling a strike in any of the three negotiations. This despite the fact that they had received strike mandate votes of 97% or higher at all three automakers, with Chrysler having a 99% strike mandate overall and the Chrysler Etobicoke plant garnering a rare 100% strike mandate vote. What a strike mandate vote does is give the union representatives a mandate to call a strike at any time during the negotiation of a new collective agreement. The fact that the CAW representatives at Chrysler failed to utilize a strike in 2012 as a bargaining tactic despite the obvious willingness of their members to do so does not provide much promise that the new union, Unifor, will do things any differently.
On the second day of the convention, Hinshelwood provided more concrete ideas about how to fight back:
I’d like to see improvements to the Rand Formula. Workers should have the right to strike between contracts. And I have a question about the Supplemental Workers (SWEs) in the union. For example the SWs on GM lines who pay union dues but are not covered under the collective agreement. How are you going to convince these workers who have no representation but pay dues to fight to protect the first-tier workers?
Currently, the Rand Formula only allows workers to strike at designated times when a contract is over and negotiations are occurring for the signing of a new contract. What Hinshelwood was calling for was for workers to be able to strike between contract negotiations at essentially any time, which has historically been the quickest and most effective way to deal with dangerous conditions or any violations of the collective agreement by the employer.
In this very short comment and question on the second day of the convention, she brought up two of the main problems with the way unionism has been done since World War Two. While Unifor is working to bring the SWEs into the union as regular full members with full union rights at work, the new leader Jerry Dias did not even respond to her first recommendation about the right to strike between contract negotiations and updating the Rand formula. This is despite the rhetoric of Dias and other leaders about the need to change the way unionism is done in this country and really go on the offensive.
It remains to be seen how Unifor will fulfill the tasks it has set itself in the coming years and how it can be changed by rank and file activists like Hinshelwood, who had this to say to BASICS about how Unifor could address these issues and the consequences that will result it if doesn’t:
They have to listen to the dissidents instead of trying to shut the dissidents down. The dissidents are speaking for a lot of people and a lot of people are afraid to speak within their unions because you get the ‘union shun’. And you have to acknowledge where you’ve gone wrong and you have to acknowledge what people are angry about and address that situation. Sometimes it’s okay to do some cheerleading, but not when we’re facing losing our country. When you drive workers down, your social structure declines, your infrastructure declines and your civil liberties disappear too.