New York Times

A Rift Deepens in Canadian Labor

"The appeal of the C.A.W. is that it can get more than other unions, so those other unions will also have to be more aggressive," he said. "That will show up at the bargaining table, and it will affect all of us." Roland Sheppard


October 10, 2000

Canada has long been a stronghold of organized labor. But now two of its biggest union organizations are slugging it out in a very public power struggle.

The animosity between the two, the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Canadian Labor Congress, has reached such a point that at last month's Labor Day celebration in Toronto the auto workers boycotted the parade attended by other Labor Congress members and held a party in a hotel instead.

It was the first time that the 220,000-member Canadian Auto Workers union, the largest private-sector union in Canada, had not turned out in force for the parade.

Many leaders in the Labor Congress, an umbrella group that represents 2.4 million workers, or two-thirds of all unionize employees in Canada, say the rift is a result of a blatant grab for members and power by the auto workers. Members of the auto workers say their union is fighting for workers' democratic rights, including the right to break away from foreign-controlled unions.

Without a resolution soon, organized labor runs the risk of looking decidedly disorganized. And businesses, which see this fight as a barometer of labor militancy in Canada, are watching closely.

At the center of the dispute is an attempt by potentially as many as 30,000 Canadian members of the Service Employees International Union, about one-third of the union's total membership in Canada, to leave their Washington-based parent and join the Canadian Auto Workers.

The Canadian Labor Congress, to which the service employees union also belongs, found that the auto workers had raided the service employees' locals, and the congress imposed sanctions against the auto workers in early July. The measures prevent auto worker officials from speaking or voting at congress meetings.

Basil E. Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers, said his union was not guilty of raiding because it did not initiate recruiting. Dissident service employees union leaders approached his union, he said.

Kenneth Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, says his group's handling of the issue has been entirely in keeping with its constitution, one that was created with the help of the Canadian Auto Workers. The auto workers union, he said "was found by an independent third party to have violated the C.L.C. constitution" by raiding the service employees locals. "The sanctions being applied are not arbitrary," he added.

Changing affiliations, though rare, is nothing new for Canada's labor movement, and ideology is usually the uniting or dividing factor. But now, said Anil Verma, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto, "there is more self-interest," more of an emphasis on growth.

"Mergers and takeovers are fair game in the business world," he added, "and they are also fair game in the labor world."

Although he and other experts doubt that the quarrel will change Canada's labor movement greatly, the auto workers union's strong stance on labor issues has wide appeal among workers. In time, that could prove important.

Unions have bigger social and economic role in Canada than in the United States. A third of Canadian workers belong to unions, about twice the level in the United States.

The auto workers' discontent with the labor congress has been simmering for years. Canadian nationalism runs strong in the union, which split acrimoniously from the United Automobile Workers in 1985. Among other things, the union wants to end foreign, " that mostly means United States, control of Canadian union units.

Membership in foreign unions, once dominant in the Canadian Labor Congress, has fallen to about 30 percent, "and I believe that in time they will all change over," Mr. Hargrove said.

He acknowledged that some unions based in the United States provide responsible leadership for Canadians, but he said he did not count the service employees among them.

In a letter to Canadian Auto Workers members in mid-August, he said the Washington-based group had "seized local union assets, fired staff, and sued dissident leaders personally for millions of dollars."

According to court filings by the service employees union, five employees who the union said had been secretly working for the Canadian Auto Workers turned over membership lists, destroyed records and put about $1 million of service employee locals' funds into Canadian Auto Workers trust accounts. The money was returned by court order, and the former employees are being sued for destruction of property.

"An aggressive, powerful union is putting the labor movement back many years with this feud," said Sharleen Stewart, Canadian vice president of the service employees union. But fighting the auto workers is not going to be her focus any longer. Members are more concerned about government cuts to health care spending, she said, and the service employees union is close to creating a separate Canadian arm, with Washington's blessing.

Mr. Georgetti of the labor congress has tried to smooth matters by explaining that the auto workers union is only under sanction, a step short of expulsion. But Mr. Hargrove says his union has been exiled. In July, the Canadian Auto Workers board passed a resolution to explore the creation of an alternative umbrella group.

The auto workers union, meanwhile, is adding more service employees locals to its membership rolls. So far, 6,600 workers have voted to switch and only 40 have voted to stay.

Growth has been a primary objective of the Canadian Auto Workers since it broke away from the United Auto Workers. Membership since then has increased 80 percent, 100,000 people, and now less than 40 percent of all members are employed in the auto industry.

The Canadian subsidiaries of Detroit's Big Three automakers are assembling more vehicles than ever in Canada, but with fewer workers, and the Canadian Auto Workers has been unable to crack the new Japanese-owned plants. It has also failed to win over workers in factories owned by Canada's largest auto parts supplier, Magna International Inc.

If the Canadian Auto Workers forms a rival coalition, there could be a noticeable increase in labor militancy, Professor Verma said. "The appeal of the C.A.W. is that it can get more than other unions, so those other unions will also have to be more aggressive," he said. "That will show up at the bargaining table, and it will affect all of us."


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

Return to

(c) All orginal work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved..