Reflections on the Birth of the Canadian Auto Workers

This July marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW was created out of a split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers, at the beginning of a difficult era that is still with us.

The CAW split with the UAW over a series of fundamental differences. The CAW’s leaders believed that unions—and the workers they represent—have interests that are independent and different from those of their employers; that the role of a union is to fight for workers’ interests—not to sell the agenda of employers; that the competitiveness of employers is a constraint on unions and workers, not something that unions should see as their goal.

The CAW’s birth marked a major shift in the Canadian labor movement. The split was seen both as a statement that Canadian workers can build their own union movement free of U.S. tutelage and as a bold challenge to the employer offensive that sought to change the very nature of unionism.

CONFLICT OVER CONCESSIONS

In the early 1980s, U.S. auto companies and the UAW agreed to radically change the role of unions. Accepting the Big Three’s argument that U.S. automakers’ success against offshore competitors could only be assured by worker concessions—like replacing wage increases with lump-sums and profit sharing—UAW leaders saw their role as selling this perspective to their members.

It began in 1979, with Chrysler on the verge of bankruptcy. Both the UAW and its Canadian leadership agreed to temporary concessions. But when the U.S. Congress demanded more concessions as the price of further aid, the Canadians balked.

In subsequent negotiations, as Chrysler’s outlook improved, the Canadian UAW demanded and won back the concessions in the face of opposition from UAW leadership.

When GM and Ford followed suit, calling on the union to re-open their collective agreements in 1982 bargaining, the UAW leadership accepted. But they had to organize a campaign to “sell” concessions to their own members, and quash or marginalize any opposition.

In fact, when GM and the UAW first tested the waters amongst GM workers in the United States, the workers rejected concessions. Traditions of resistance remained in the union and it took years of effort by the leadership to try and root it out.

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The Canadian UAW refused, carrying out its own internal campaign against concessions.

This campaign was based upon the recent experience of the union in challenging wage controls and plant closures. It mobilized elected leaders in various workplaces to convince their co-workers that unions must remain independent of their employers; that concessions to employers only lead to more of the same, and that unions have to make gains, even in the toughest of times. Canadian Director and later CAW President Bob White’s approach was summarized by the slogan, “You don’t need a union to walk backwards.”

The last straw was the GM strike of 1984, when UAW President Owen Bieber threatened to withhold strike funds from the Canadians if they rejected lump sums and profit-sharing. White led a successful strike which defeated GM but also held off the threats coming from UAW headquarters.

Soon after the GM strike, the Canadian District Council—an elected, rank-and-file body that had been meeting regularly since the 1930s—overwhelmingly accepted White’s proposal to ask the UAW leadership to give the Canadians full autonomy. The proposal was rejected by the UAW International Executive Board and the Canadians moved to form our own union.

GENERATING NEW ENERGY

The CAW arguments for union independence from employers and against concessions inspired others. Newfoundland fishers, West Coast industrial workers, railway carmen, and Ontario electrical workers all looked to join the union in order take on employers. The union soon grew through a series of mergers and organizing.

This is not to say that everything is rosy. This era presents many challenges to the union, but that is a story for another day.

The UAW hasn’t fared so well. It has lost members and has taken the road of selling competitiveness and concessions to its logical conclusion. Politically, like the U.S. labor movement as a whole, it has been unable to stand as an alternative to neoliberalism, free trade, and the drive to the right.

Separation was clearly a good thing in this instance. But what made it positive was a clear set of principles, a set of traditions on which to build, a solid rank-and-file engagement with the issues involved, and a larger context in which a split made sense.