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CAW-CEP merger: debates and next steps

Ritch Whyman

October 5, 2012

Two of Canada’s largest and most important private sector unions—the auto workers (CAW) and the communications, energy and paperworkers union (CEP)—are engaged in discussions about merging. The two unions represent over 300,000 workers (CAW 193,000 and CEP 110,000) and any merger would create the largest private sector union in Canada.
The discussion by the leaderships of these unions has created excitement on the left inside and outside of the unions. Part of this is because both unions have at different times seen themselves on the progressive side of the union movement, supporting left wing causes—anti-war, environmental, and other social justice issues.
Most of the excitement has been generated by the fact that this merger is being floated by the unions as a possible solution to the crisis unions and workers face today. The discussion documents about why and how to merge have been posted on a public website
Both CEP and CAW are the productions of mergers between smaller industry-specific unions mergeing with a larger one (CAW) or a series of unions in declining industries mergring with previously merged unions (CEP). The case in previous mergers has been of two unions or more merging because they were shrinking and wanted a larger body to be in.
This merger is much more open and based on facing up to serious problems unions and the working class are facing, not just problems of the bureaucracy. The merger documents clearly outline the need for a new union movement. The original public presentation about why a merger and a new union is needed identified some critical issues for any union and for workers as a whole to face.
The document argues that unions are declining in density, that old organizing strategies have been unable to win gains in new workplaces, that corporations and governments are more determined to undermine the remaining power of unions. The examples of VALE/INCO, Caterpillar, US Steel are mentioned to identify a new terrain unionised workers have to deal with. Interestingly GM, FORD, and various Pulp companies are not mentioned.
The documents argue that in times like these a new revitalised labour movement is needed and that operating in old ways isn’t sufficient. Furthermore, both union leaderships—Ken Lewenza (CAW) and Dave Coles (CEP)—have openly speculated about the need for unions to open up membership beyond the ranks of those covered by collective agreements.
There has been open discussions about reaching out opening union membership to contract, temporary and unemployed workers along with workers not covered by collective agreements. While what this would mean has not been spelt out, it represents an important acknowledgement of two major unions opening the door to broader discussion about how unions respond to a climate of decline and hostility to workers.
That a discussion about the crisis facing workers is happening at the level of two of the largest unions is to be welcomed. But it also begs the question of whether a merger between CAW and CEP will resolve these problems.
Neither union claims that the merger will solve the problem but they do claim that that by merging they will create a new union and embark on a process of changing the terrain workers are fighting on. At this point unfortunately details about how this new union will do are few.
The merger discussion doesn’t tackle the question of how or why neither of these unions have been able to make these changes on their own. The documents state that combined the two unions will have a “critical mass” in many industries. But already the CAW has had a “critical mass” in the auto industry, both in terms of assembly plants and in the parts industry. CEP has “critical mass” in several industries such as refineries, pulp and paper and telecommunications.
Yet neither union has embarked on broad-based industry organising campaigns, nor in many of the same industries have they engaged in industry-wide bargaining. Instead many workers at different plants of the same company have different expiry dates that prevent serious co-ordinated bargaining.
Worryingly, the document praises the breadth of different industries and parts of the economy the two unions have members in. In reality this is a weakness of not just the CAW and CEP but most unions in Canada. Instead of focussing on fighting to unionise their key industries and feeder industries, unions in Canada have instead opted to organise anyone without any strategic direction.
Furthermore, neither union despite talk at conventions has committed deep resources to organising. In 2006 motions were made to have the 2008 CEP convention raise dues going to organising to 7 per cent of the budget. In the CAW the organising department is allotted 2 per cent and matching funds are given to locals that hire organisers on their staff.
The growth for both unions over the past series of years has come not from organizing drives amongst the unorganised but from mergers with smaller unions or from raids. The case is most pronounced with the CAW. It is reasonable to assume that this will continue as the discussion documents make no mention of focussing on the much more difficult task of organising the unorganized rather than raiding. There should be skepticism about whether the new union would change this. In Britain when two large unions merged to create UNITE it was with similar fanfare. Yet in the years since the merger the new union has actually gotten smaller.
It is also unclear why either union would have to wait for a new merged union to increase organising efforts or embark on restructuring their union to better build more powerful industry-wide bargaining.
The previous time the CAW leadership put a serious change on the table it was under previous president Buzz Hargrove and was about the need for a new political expression and leaving the NDP. The whole argument was presented from the left but in reality was about moving the union closer towards the Liberals.The questions posed by the merger acknowledge that the different approaches to parliamentary politics will have to be sorted out—the CAW endorses tactical voting and isn’t affliated to the NDP, whereas the CEP is affiliated to the NDP.
The discussion documents also in smaller print talk about the efficiency of merger and saving resources. There is also discussion about restructuring the union into larger amalgamated locals. This would actually decrease democracy in the union. The strategy of mega locals has not been a panacea for unions in Canada or the US, as the examples of SEIU and UFCW show.
Rank-and-file organizing
The discussion by CEP and CAW has opened the door to a wider discussion about the problems facing workers today, but it is still short on answers. Discussions have been held at various membership meetings and the decision to merge or not will be debated at both union conventions, but the process is driven by the top leadership and chosen staff people from both unions.
Critical will be the left inside these unions pushing for more concrete details: what sort of organising, what sort of resources will go to building fightbacks, and will the leaderships allow more serious industry bargaining to take place? Will the new union support factory occupations at places such as EMD in London, or at pulp mills? The crucial piece will be the ability of the rank-and-file to push forward.
Time will tell whether this process and the potential space it opens inside the two unions will create a larger more combative union. Regardless of the outcome, a new merged union won’t be the solution for the crisis workers face. It will take a much larger process of resistance in the workplace and on the streets—as workers in Greece and students in Quebec have shown.

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