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The New Union Project: From bureaucratic crisis to rank and file opportunity

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This long weekend I sat down to read the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) final draft proposal for a new union. I must admit when I first heard about this merger I was more than a little skeptical. I immediately thought of the rash of union mergers in Canada and the United States that have happened over the past 30 years where dying unions merge instead of actually organizing new members.

After an initial reading of the document I was surprisingly less cynical than before. Now this is not because my fears have been alleviated, rather the document opens up a space for a long overdue honest discussion in the labour movement.

It starts off by assessing the hard realities that face the labour movement: declining density, decreasing quality of contracts, coordinated government and business attacks and the increased power of transnational corporations. The document is frank and bleak in terms of its assessment of the current state of the left and the labour movement. The recent wave of management lockouts and the eager Tory support for employers has scared not only rank and file activists and lefties but has jolted the labour bureaucracy into action. There is a growing consensus in the labour movement that things are bad and the tide needs to be turned somehow.

The proposal committee’s final report lays out a number of recommendations and sets out a time limit upon which this merger will be voted on and specified. The new union will have over 300,000 members in more than 800 locals across the country in every sector of the economy. The union will also be composed of regional and industry councils that will coordinate resources, strategize organizing and political outreach and be able to have their own separate dues base to do so. 

The National Executive Board will consist of three elected officers at a delegated convention, regional council chairpersons, industrial council representatives, three regional directors, and one representative each for racialized and aboriginal workers, skilled trades and retirees. The board will maintain regional balance and reflect the gender make-up of the membership.       

Membership dues will be transitioned for all workers to a percentage of wages. The dues base will be approximately 130 million dollars of which seventy percent will go to a general fund for day-to-day expenses. Ten percent will be set aside for a strike fund, ten percent for organizing and the rest for education and a convention every three years. The union will be committed to organizing new workers, building density and the principles of social unionism. There will even be avenues for unemployed and workers in non-union workplaces to join the new union.

There are plenty of criticisms one could make of this proposal. For instance I think there is not enough money as a percentage of the dues spent on new organizing. It is unclear what the actual resources devoted to internal organizing will be. What will the power of the rank and file be in this new structure? What role and power will the unemployed and non-contract workers have?

I think there should be a clear mandate to increase the number of elected staff positions. Elected and staff positions should have their salaries capped and tied to some measure of membership salaries. I also believe that there should be a discussion of term limits for elected officials and the value and risk of delegated conventions that elect national officers. There are legitimate structural questions that the proposal leaves unanswered.

If after reading the document you were left with the impression that it all seems a little vague, that’s because it is. On one level it is really hard to understand exactly how this union will work and if it will be effective. The structural questions are still up in the air. Thus, you will probably hear and read lots of criticism and analysis that focuses on union structure. However, to only read the proposal document this way misses a more fundamental political reading.

Sure the structures are ambiguous, but the merger has opened up a space to actually talk about the big ideas and questions facing labour: what does it mean to be a trade unionist, where are we, where do we want to go and how can we get there? We are witnessing one of the biggest shakeups in the Canadian union movement in years. The possibility for rank and file activists to assert more control, to talk about more radical politics, and to push the labour bureaucracy toward more creative and effective action is the true gift of this merger. The space for questioning and action this opens up is not limited to the CEP and CAW, it is a chance for all labour activists to take bolder steps.

So we should see the ambiguity of this document as an opportunity. Activists can now take the language of neoliberal critique and of creative and bold action and begin to put it to use at a local level. Labour activists must strike while the iron is hot and recognize the potential to take militant and unorthodox action. We need to reinvigorate rank and file networks, discuss in a serious manner workplace occupations, solidarity strikes and creative direct actions. And if segments of the labour bureaucracy recoil at the site of the militant rank and file action, activists can use the language of this document as cover.

So while there are many structural concerns about this proposed new union let us not miss the opportunity for the assertion of militant rank and file power. The crisis of labour and the left is also the opportunity for something much more effective and democratic. This opportunity will not come through the discussion and implementation of the “correct” structure by the top union brass. Rather it will come through the militant action of the rank and file in this moment of transition. Whatever one thinks of this merger it has opened up space to discuss, debate and push for radical change. The real question is, are we, through rank and file action, able to turn this crisis into an opportunity? 

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