'We have to grow the tent of activism': The CAW's Ken Lewenza on the transition to Unifor

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Ken Lewenza's story could be used as a parable about the benefits of unionized employment. After working as a teen at a gas station for just $1.65 an hour he joined the unionized Chrysler plant in Windsor, Ontario, in the early seventies. From there he rose through the ranks of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), becoming president of the union in 2008, just in time to watch the American auto industry that is the lifeblood of manufacturing undergo its biggest ever crisis.

Now, Lewenza is shepherding CAW through its next transformation as it joins the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) to form Unifor, the largest union in Canada. rabble.ca labour reporter H.G. Watson spoke to Lewenza about his time as president at CAW and the transition to Unifor. This is a condensed and edited version of the conversation. 

H.G. Watson: You took over the CAW presidency at a turbulent time for the auto industry. What was your strategy then? Did you have to change?

 Ken Lewenza: At that time it was about survival. It was about instincts and making sure that General Motors and Chrysler survived the longer haul. There's a whole lot of difference in marketing when you're faced with bankruptcy in a crisis situation.

The experience and instincts went into play. Consequently we were able to make sacrifices but were able to save jobs for the long haul. It was a successful endeavour when one takes a look at what the alternatives are. 

HW: The Globe and Mail recently published an op-ed that argued that unions have to make concessions to survive into today’s economy. How do you respond to that?

KL: I wish those media reports were true. Unions resisted sacrifices or concessionary bargaining but in the last four or five years in many sectors -- especially manufacturing -- we haven't been in a bargaining strength area. For the last four or five years we've been bargaining for survival [by] holding on to our past gains and loosening up some of what we call the low fruit in the bargaining chain.

We've had to be flexible, creative and we've had to be militant from time to time in terms of the over zealousness of the employers. If people knew what employers were asking for and what the end result was one would argue that unions are still strong determined and militant organizations.

HW: You spoke to CBC News a few months ago and told them that this job is much different than it was 40 years ago. How so?

KL: It's much different today. We're in an economy today where capital can move to one community to another, from one country to another ... and there are no consequences to be paid to the workers.

Let's take a look at the Green Energy Act of Dalton McGuinty. It was good legislation. It talked about a new economy and it talked about sustainability, but it also talked about jobs where a certain amount of content had to be done in Ontario -- recently that incredible legislation was struck down by trading partners.

When I grew up, Dominion grocery store workers made a good reasonable wage and they were considered long term jobs, permanent jobs that people could retire on. Today the entire retail sector is constantly restructuring … what does that mean to the workers in that industry? It means that workers that get to a reasonable level [of pay] after decades of working are forced to loose their job or take jobs a minimum wage.

The economy is much different than it was four years ago. Therefore unions and activists in the union have to be more politically active today in defense of our members because the rules have shifted totally in the interest of companies.

HW: Unifor's new constitution certainly reflects a more political tone -- it mentions social justice as a goal.

KL: The fact of the matter is that we have to grow the tent of activism. Many groups in society that are progressive groups that have no voice and no ability to organize or no ability to organize themselves in a meaningful way. We want to grow the tent. 

HW: The make-up of your own union has changed very significantly over the last 20 years. Is that what Unifor is trying to represent?

KL: There's no question the strength of Unifor, with the combination of CEP and CAW, has complimented what was already was a diverse union. When health care workers joined our union a little over a decade ago that brought women, people of colour and equity groups in.

CEP is a compliment to what the CAW has achieved in the last decade, which is expanding that diversity. We represent majority sectors of the economy to retail to manufacturing to everything in between.

HW: Was that the idea behind combining CEP and CAW? Making a more diverse union? 

KL: Is it because we're bigger we're going to be stronger? No, not in isolation, but we're going to have a much more significant strike fund. We're going to focus attention on our members needs as a first priority and expand that to the community.

Unions compete with each other. We try to organize the same workers and we try and grow the union and increase density so in many ways we work in solidarity with one another, but we are also working to grow our union to increase union density. So when you put CAW and CEP together you right off the bat eliminate any friction as a result of both unions trying to increase union density...

HW: Do you think it's harder for unions to organize today because people have lower expectations about what they deserve from their employers?

KL: That's the easiest thing to challenge. The reality is that the Canadian Labour Congress just did a study on this … unionized workers on a weighted average make about $5.50 more than an unorganized worker and that doesn't include the reality that 70 per cent [of organized workers] have pensions where 30 per cent of unorganized have pensions.

We just have to keep pounding away and showing the difference between being unionized and not unionized.


H.G. Watson is the labour beat reporter for rabble.ca. She's also the editor-in-chief of the Cord Community Edition in Waterloo, Ontario and has contributed to The Grid, Hamilton Magazine, Worn Fashion Journal Blog and the Story Board. 

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