Taking the Offensive Position

Does size matter? This simple question has long been
the subject of thought, debate and considerable anxiety. The Canadian Auto
Workers Unions (CAW) and the Communication Energy and Paper Workers Union of
Canada (CEP) have recently waded into the debate and have bet heavily that it
does in fact matter.

In a much publicized development, the CAW and the
CEP will merge to form a new union to be named Unifor. The new union will be
national and massive, representing roughly 300,000 members across 20 different
economic sectors[1].
The merger will swell union membership and create the largest private sector
union in the country. But Unifor’s scope will not be limited to the private
sector – the union will also represent many workers from the public sector,
including workers in the health, transit and education sectors[2].   

the merger makes sense

As we all know, recent decades have seen organized
labour besieged by any number of negative influences, from government interference
with the collective bargaining process, to the introduction of anti-union
legislation like Bill C-377, to a public that is increasingly convinced unions
have outlived their usefulness. This has all quite naturally kept unions on
their heels. As Ken Lewenza, president of the CAW notes: “we have certainly
been on defence.”[3]
But there’s a chance that Unifor will allow unions to go on the offence, and this
merger may just be a major step toward turning the tide for organized workers.

Jerry Dias has been endorsed to become president of
Unifor by both Lewenza and Dave Coles, president of the CEP. Dias is an
experienced CAW leader. He argues that the merger will better prepare the union
to push back against anti-union government policies and corporations that would
seek to diminish the power of workers to demand decent wages and working
conditions through organization.

The math is simple: the more members, the larger the
unions’ voice and ability to defend the rights of workers all across the
country. The potential this merger brings is not lost on Mr. Dias, who has
stated: “our combined efforts between the two unions are to make a bold
statement that we’re going to fight to maintain the middle class.”[4]
Indeed, politicians at several levels of government have so obviously
redirected their support away from organized labour that some believe this
merger is necessary if many Canadians are to have a fighting chance at decent
wages and a middle-class lifestyle.


But the flipside is also worth considering. Though
there may be numerous and compelling reasons that justify the creation of
Unifor, it would be naïve to think that size alone will solve the woes
afflicting today’s labour movement. Size means very little if it doesn’t come
with fresh ideas and a well-defined strategy for tackling the issues of the
day. Unifor does have ideas, but it’s too early to tell whether these ideas are
sufficiently innovative to permit Unifor to fully capitalize on its numbers. A
certain focus on the “new” seems to underlie the creation of Unifor. The union
will stress “generational change”, encouraging union leaders to voluntarily
retire at age 65 or earlier in order to make room for fresh blood and fresh

Further, in addition to representing its 300,000
members, the new union will reach out and bring unorganized workers into the
fold. Unifor intends to organize workplaces and recruit new members, improving
the lives of more Canadians and stimulating the economy through a stronger and
broader middle class with more disposable income. Comittees will be established
to respond to the needs of different groups within the union and councils for
the different industry groups under the Unifor umbrella will be formed. All of
the groups will meet at least once per year to ensure the union continues to
harmonize its interests[6]. The
new union is also said to be in the process of designing a mechanism to permit
groups as diverse as students, the unemployed and others on the margins of the
economy to join Unifor.

bigger really better?

But, of course, greater size must not be confused
with superior service. It’s important that Unifor develop a plan to ensure the
needs of its members are not sacrificed in the interests of expanding size. A
large union can have many benefits, but those benefits can be eclipsed if
members feel a sense of distance from their own union. A mega-union, for
instance, may be in danger of becoming such a large institutional body that it
forgets the spirit of the underdog and becomes mired in bureaucratic
considerations. If Unifor is to truly be a success, it must never begin to
regard its members as mere numbers.

Unifor must move forward with a continued focus on
serving the needs of its members. The quality of such service is one of the
tests of a successful union. Unions of smaller size have proven time and again
that they are capable of diligently and effectively representing the needs of
their members. Only if Unifor can show that it is likewise capable will it be
able to claim it is a success. The Committees appear to be an effort to address
this issue, but it remains to be seen whether they will adequately respond to
the needs of members.

That being said, Unifor does open up exciting
possibilities for Canadian workers. This merger is unprecedented in the scope
of its membership and could yield far-reaching benefits for the whole country.
As reported in an earlier post, students and people under 30 years of age
strongly favour unions. That group alone could increase union membership and
strengthen support for organized labour for decades to come, revitalizing the
labour movement.

The results of these efforts won’t be apparent for
years to come, but Unifor could very well signal a renewal of labour support in
this country. At the very least, it’s a bold attempt to alter the unenviable
position unions have found themselves in over these years. Unifor will change
the status quo. All anyone can do is hope it’s a change that benefits the

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