Canadian Auto Workers members will be putting the wheels on the next generation Camaro in Oshawa. Local 222 won the right to assemble a vehicle General Motors hopes will help bring it back to financial health. CAW President Buzz Hargrove and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, a Liberal, were photographed in vintage Camaros arriving at the ceremony outside the plant this week.

The deal to bring a new product line to Canada was struck with Detroit following efforts made by the CAW to promote the productivity and quality performance of Oshawa Plants 1 and 2. Investments by the Federal and provincial governments of $435 million helped lever $740 in GM money. Dealing with giant corporations headquartered outside Canada requires industrial policy. Neo-conservative governments do not favour such an approach.

But, auto-related jobs account for about one of every six jobs in Ontario. That gives the workers and their union some bargaining power — not as much as they would like; the union made concessions — but enough to have guaranteed a better future for assembling cars in Oshawa.

At the CAW convention in Vancouver last week, former CAW (and CLC) President Bob White related how a U.S. autoworker leader responded to the news that Canadian autoworkers were going to build the first passenger mini-vans, which subsequently became very popular. White, plus the Federal Minister of Industry and the Ontario government had used financial penalties due Canada under the Auto Pact to prod Chrysler to choose Canada.

The UAW President said he now understood the difference between Canada and the U.S. In his country, the company and the union had to agree to convince the government. In Canada, the union and the government teamed up against the company.

At the Vancouver convention the CAW voted to discontinue funding political parties. By doing so they formally terminated a long-term relationship with the NDP, which really ended the day the Ontario NDP expelled the CAW president from the party.

If the Federal political world were all that mattered, there would be no need to announce such a policy. Financial contributions by unions (and corporations) are now banned by political party finance legislation initiated by the Chrétien Liberals. But unions can still contribute in most provinces, and notably in Ontario.

Before taking their decision, CAW activists debated a convention policy paper on the re-making of Canadian politics. The reality is things are not good in the manufacturing sector. Ford announced new layoffs on top of already steep job cutbacks. Compared to U.S. production costs, the higher Canadian dollar hurts. But automakers pay lower medical expenses in Canada because CAW members are covered by government sponsored medicare, while UAW members have to negotiate health care packages with auto companies.

Looming over every industrial decision is China, becoming the world’s factory, and India, with aspiration to be the world’s office.

In this world, the Ontario NDP can talk about envisioning a comprehensive industrial strategy, and point out the number of manufacturing jobs lost in Ontario, but its political weakness means it is not a player in industrial policy. However, governments in Ottawa and Toronto are crucial to what happens. When Liberal Paul Martin agreed to sit down with the CAW to figure out how to make Ontario a bigger auto producer than Michigan, for Buzz Hargrove, jobs and the other issues at stake for his members, overshadowed party politics.

The Federal NDP has been concentrating on social policy in recent election campaigns; its industrial policy measures do not get airtime. This goes as far back as the free trade election of 1988 when the NDP talked about the threat to medicare, rather than the abandonment of active industrial policy, when they talked about free trade at all.

The CAW has decided to move away from the link with the NDP, and the politics behind it are on display when union and government leaders wheel up in old Camaros to announce that Oshawa gets to build the new one.

Following its split with the NDP, the CAW has put out a challenge to its social partners: what kind of society do we want to build, and how do we get there?

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...