The importance of unions: Lessons from the auto industry

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At the recent Convention of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada, delegates heard Ed Broadbent speak on "Equality and the Importance of Unions," and we wanted to find out what their unions had meant to them. This column is the second in a series of columns based on interviews carried out at the convention by Angus Ricker.

Lance Livingstone well remembers the Canadian Auto Workers slogan "30 and out" -- referring to a contract provision that allows autoworkers with 30 years service to retire with a full pension -- from when he joined the CAW. He was also fortunate enough to retire early and says he has no regrets over his experience with now Unifor Local 222 at GM Oshawa.

When he began in 1973, there were 20,000 workers at GM Oshawa, now there are 4,000. Lance has seen a reduction in bargaining power with the reduction in workers and points to the loss of the cost of living allowance for wages.

He said the bargaining pressures have been particularly intense when the future of the entire auto industry was bargained during the 2008 recession. He also emphasized  that the NAFTA treaty as a key development as it allowed Mexico with its low labour costs to integrate into North American vehicle production.

"When there is a substantial disparity in wages, the quality product we make in Oshawa doesn't make up the difference. In looking at the industry today we can see that in the U.S. it is driven by politics, in Mexico it is costs and in Canada we are squeezed out."

Lance is an active retiree but finds little response from his local MP who lives in Ottawa. In order to change these indifferent attitudes, he says unions must get stronger. "That's when non-union workers will join and important steps such as substantial raises in the minimum wage will be taken."

He doesn't believe that a $14 minimum wage is beyond the means of Canadian employers. "It is really only a few cents on goods sold, yet it would be an increase in purchasing power of $4 an hour for employees -- money that would be spent in the community on locally sold goods and services. There also should be a cost of living increase annually in wages to offset the continuing decline in living standards."

Lance says "unions aren't the bad guys in this" and points to elected union officers, not the so-called "union bosses" in the right-wing press. He also sees positive signs ahead with the 300,000 membership in Unifor and others joining. "Bob White made a very good point when he called for one union for all workers in Canada. There is strength in numbers."

Lance says his union has been reasonable at the bargaining table. "The biggest raise I ever got was three per cent plus benefits. The pension plan which they negotiated meant a good retirement income. And I am now working for an expanded CPP to help non-union workers."

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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