Raising difficult questions for the Left

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<b>Editor's note:</b> <i>CAW president Buzz Hargrove's membership in the Ontario NDP was suspended over the weekend. The reason given was his call for strategic voting during the recent election campaign and his frequent expression of support for a Liber

Sam Gindin

Dear Buzz,

A number of questions about the CAW's general political and more specific electoral orientation are being asked both inside and outside the union. These are questions of importance to the Canadian Left as a whole. We cite a few such questions and invite comment.

First, coming out of GM bargaining in October, 2005 the union proudly declared that GM had agreed to limit job losses to 1,700 due to “efficiencies.” Within a few short weeks — and with nothing changing that wasn't known — GM announced some 3,000 additional job losses including the closure and loss of a shift at its two best plants in North America (measured in terms of productivity, quality and a $10/hr cost advantage relative to the U.S.).

Yet the union offered no criticism of GM. Where was the union's anger or sense of betrayal? Where was any challenge to the neo-liberal promise that competitiveness brings job security?

Furthermore, the CAW had virtually led the lobbying to get GM $450 million in public funds to save jobs. Again, what happened to the job guarantees? It might have been too much to expect the union to admit the failure of its policy, but why — having gone in this mistaken direction — did it at least not challenge GM and call for withholding that subsidy until the company reversed its decision?

Second, the subsidies policy has led the union to also publicly support subsidies for Toyota. But is there no concern that such a further increase in North American capacity will only lead to further job losses at the Big Three plants?

Third, the CAW has recently joined the Big Three call to open up the Japanese and South Korean markets. But how does this help workers here? Even if those markets were fully open, won't they be met with either direct Big Three investment into Japan and South Korea, or from facilities in China and the rest of Southeast Asia? Doesn't making such an argument further legitimate free trade, in contrast to arguments against free trade based on using the leverage of our market to regulate investment? (When the Liberals called for free trade agreements with South Korea and Japan, the union was trapped into rightly — but uncomfortably and confusingly — rejecting such agreements).

Fourth, the CAW recently held a conference of auto parts workers that passed a strong resolution against concessions — a very positive and commendable initiative. Yet questions remain about concessions that have already been made, and about the definition of concessions: Will only wages and benefits be treated as concessions and attacks on hours and working conditions ignored?

In the airlines, the CAW did give up significant workplace gains won in earlier periods, but refused to consider this “concessions.” (The issue here is not whether the union really had any choice in that tough round of bargaining — some felt that the union should have politicized the issue by reviving its demand for public ownership — but where the line will now be drawn). In any case, the test will be in whether this important conference will be followed up by education, mobilization, and support for, and encouragement of, local struggles.

It is this larger context which frames the argument surrounding strategic (tactical) voting. In part at least, this has emerged because the NDP has itself become a pragmatic party and so inadvertently invites pragmatic responses even from its own constituencies. In the absence of a system of proportional representation — once emphasized by unions and the NDP but now ignored — controversies over strategic voting will continue to resurface at election time. But the context in which this was announced by the CAW, has not surprisingly raised suspicions amongst people both inside and outside the union about the leadership's actual agenda.

Why the panic over a possible Stephen Harper victory and the action taken when polls showed Harper significantly behind? Why was this decision — which can only be carried out with collective discipline — not preceded by a discussion with other unions? Why was there no prior consultation/discussion with the much-heralded CAW's formation of local political action committees?

Why was Jack Layton not there at the same time as Paul Martin? Why was Martin there at all, since the strategy could have been decided without him? Why the embarrassment of the big mutual hug and beaming faces, of the ceremony and symbolism of putting a CAW jacket on the shoulders of a Liberal Prime Minister — all photo ops and references that Martin, to no-one's great surprise, exploited to the hilt in southern Ontario and against the NDP? But above all, was this really about what was best for the Canadian working class — a legitimate debate — or simply about a new relationship to the Liberals and more subsidies to the auto industry?

Will we see the same turn provincially in Ontario, and for much the same reasons, with regards to support for [Ontario Premier Dalton] McGuinty? Is that what the CAW's apparent reluctance — at least to date — to criticize McGuinty, and especially to speak out publicly against P3s is about?

The over-riding issue is whether there has been a turn within the CAW toward the centre or centre right. Such a political shift would not be a unique occurrence amongst formerly progressive individuals and institutions (including, it should be added, among social democratic parties themselves). In such instances, the common defense has been to redefine the nature of being “left” today, and insist that only tactics, and not principles and goals, have changed.

However, observing this through recent events makes it hard to accept that expectations and possibilities at the top have not been lowered. It is certainly true that many of the union's official policies remain very progressive, but this is now overshadowed by the impact on all perspectives in the union of the centrality of corporate subsidies for auto, as well as the growing emphasis on “élite politics” as opposed to confidence in the independent ideological and organizational potentials of the membership. No-one would, of course, argue against meeting company and state officials; the issue is whether such lobbying has come to replace pressures from below rather than complementing such mobilization.

This debate will be clarified in the months to come, but more than confirming who is right is at stake. The most important question — and one that will have a crucial impact on the direction of the Canadian labour movement as a whole — is what role the CAW's own rank-and-file and rich cadre of activists, developed and nurtured through struggles and the union's still impressive educational programs, will play. Will they simply wait to see the outcome, or become a decisive factor in its determination?

Sam Gindin teaches political economy at York University, Toronto and is the former chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers.

Buzz Hargrove

Dear Sam,

I would like to respond to a couple of statements you made in your December 14, Socialist Project e-bulletin #10.

At no time did we state that we had, in our 2005 bargaining, limited job losses at GM to 1,700 due to efficiencies. We did say that we stood to lose at least 1,700 to 2,500 jobs over the next three years due to productivity improvements.

During the 2005 bargaining we fought hard to get a commitment for a new product for Oshawa Plant 2 after the end of production of the 2008 models. Because of all the uncertainty at GM in the U.S. during our bargaining, after much discussion, we came to the conclusion that a strike could not force a commitment from GM for Plant 2. The Oshawa bargaining committee decided a strike may even further jeopardize future opportunities for Plant 2.

We were faced with major challenges in Big 3 2005 negotiations, especially at GM with the Delphi crisis, GM's pending announcement of closure and layoffs and the fact that the UAW was in bargaining with GM, clearly willing to give concessions. In addition, much like 1996, we had the investment community pushing GM for UAW-type concessions in Canada.

The announced closures and layoffs in the U.S. and Canada followed closely the decision of Delphi to file for bankruptcy and the announcement of an agreement on concessions by the UAW on behalf of GM retirees as well as active workers.

These concessions were ratified by GM/UAW members and the UAW quickly followed suit at Ford even though the health care cost argument was not the same and they are currently in bargaining with Daimler/Chrysler for concessions.

We left the bargaining table with the bargaining committee realizing the uncertainty of the future of Plant 2 and the knowledge that if sales of the Impala and Monte Carlo did not sustain three full shifts of production, we would lose the third shift at Plant One.

Therefore, when the announcement came, there was no public outcry of anger and/or betrayal because the facts had been before us in bargaining. In spite of that we were unanimous on the bargaining committee with unanimous support from all GM local union leadership when we presented the tentative agreement to them.

We did publicly express surprise and frustration that GM was closing its #1 assembly plant in North America as well as the timing of the announcement. After discussion with the Local 222 leadership, we agreed that at least we'd have time to try to turn the decision around.

We have continued, at every opportunity, to highlight the fallacy of the neo-liberal promise that competitiveness would bring job security. Not only have we criticized GM for closing its best plant but we were successful in convincing a lot of reporters on the issue, many of whom wrote articles very critical of GM's decision.

So, in spite of the enormous pressure on our union during last fall's bargaining — i.e. high dollar impact on labour costs, imports and transplants taking about 50 per cent of the market in Canada and the U.S., major losses at both Ford and GM to be followed by major job cuts, and UAW concessions, our union rejected the corporate agenda at every level in our bargaining.

In spite of major demands to outsource work and other takeaways, we rejected concessions and in spite of tough times, made progress in every area of our contracts including wage improvements and Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) that exceeded what both private and public sector unions are achieving.

Yes, we took a proactive stand in support of government financial support for Canada's most important industry. GM benefitted from our support as well as Ford, DaimlerChrysler and even Toyota received financial support for a new plant.

Had we not lobbied for government support, the Big 3 new investments may well have gone to one of the many U.S. plants that are closed or scheduled to close.

We continue to work hard to try and force GM to put a new product in Plant 2 after the 2008 model and as you suggested, we have been pushing hard for both levels of government to use the financial support they gave GM to help leverage a new commitment.

Our campaign to open Asian markets to vehicles built in Canada and the U.S. is designed to highlight to CAW members and the public, the unfairness of the increasing share of North America's market going to Asian companies, while Asian governments protect their market at home. We are building support on this issue among our members, the public and political leadership. In the best case scenario, this support would lead to government restrictions on imports as well as content requirements for all companies who sell in our market — in other words, an Auto Pact type arrangement with Asian and possibly European countries.

Not perfect but a policy that has been debated and endorsed by the CAW Big 3 Auto Council and the CAW Auto Parts leadership as well.

There is nothing uncomfortable or confusing about our opposition to free trade agreements with South Korea and Japan. CAW is the only union in Canada that has consistently and publicly called for the abrogation of the NAFTA and an end to efforts by our government to negotiate further free trade agreements.

At the CLC Industrial Conference in Ottawa a few months ago, the lone voice calling for an end to NAFTA and an end to discussion on all other free trade agreements was CAW. Top labour leaders, as well as left activists and left academics present at the conference were all strangely silent on free trade agreements.

On the question of concessions, you were part of the leadership team of Bob White, Bob Nickerson and myself when the Canadian UAW Council adopted a strong position of no concessions in 1981. In our 1982 bargaining, we lost our Paid Personal Holidays (PPH days) and a bonus day's pay and not one leadership person, staff member, or member that I recall referred to these losses as concessions.

Yes, we have suffered some setbacks at places like Navistar, Air Canada, Budd Automotive, Lear and a few others. These setbacks came after a fight in every instance and like 1982 auto bargaining, the major setback was in paid time off the job.

There is no union anywhere in the world which challenges the corporations to defend our members, their families, and their communities' interest like CAW. This has included over a dozen workplace occupations and even more strikes over the last several months alone.

There is no union that challenges politicians of all stripes to support policies that help working people and the underprivileged in our society like CAW.

There is no union where the top national and local leadership constantly challenge themselves to do more for people and do it better in all our many endeavours.

Are we perfect? No. We are working people working collectively fighting against the most powerful rightwing movement that the world has experienced in my lifetime and we are winning some very key battles.

You raised the political scene. Yes, Paul Martin was invited to speak to the CAW Council meeting in December 2004, as we struggled to get governments' support for the auto industry, aerospace, shipbuilding, fishing and others. We also wanted to raise our social agenda — i.e. national child care, UI improvements, workplace training and immigration issues to highlight just a few. The PM could not speak to our December Council because of scheduling problems but did spend an hour and 15 minutes over breakfast, prior to the start of Council, with the CAW NEB where we raised these issues and others.

We especially highlighted our fierce opposition to Canada entering in any fashion into an agreement with the U.S. on missile defence.

Paul Martin did commit to speak at our December 2005 Council if schedule permitted. His office notified us a few days before the Council meeting that he would speak. Because the election was on at this time, we did invite Jack Layton to speak as well. His schedule apparently did not allow him to speak but we did have Joe Comartin and Brian Masse bring the NDP message to Council delegates.

My recommendation was debated by the CAW staff on the Wednesday prior to Council and presented to Council on the Friday morning and we purposely held off debate until later Saturday morning to give delegates and staff time to think about and discuss it. The debate lasted for over three hours with delegates who spoke against the recommendation numbering at least two to one, compared to those who favoured the recommendation. The recommendation passed by at least 85 per cent of the delegates.

You asked why the recommendation was not debated at an earlier Council meeting, but as you are aware, this is the same procedure that we have always followed on key decisions for the union over my many years at Council, including our union's decision to leave the UAW and set up a Canadian union.

No, this is not about a new relationship with the Liberals. It is about a new political reality facing Canadians including CAW members and the many others in society that depend on our union's support.

In my humble opinion, with the emergence of the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois, federal politics have changed forever in Canada.

No longer can we hope that a split vote between Tories and Liberals will allow the NDP with 18 to 25 per cent support have a chance to hold the balance of power in Ottawa. Over the years, when we had just three major parties this was a possibility but even then only a couple of times, over the many years, were the NDP able to actually gain the balance of power.

Minority governments in today's environment will require, for the most part, three political parties' support and cooperation. This can offer and has offered opportunity to get some progressive legislation and progressive budgets that address some of the concerns of working people and the underprivileged. Perfect? No. But we can affect change as we build for the future.

With the focus of the hierarchy of the NDP on electoral success, as opposed to offering real change, socialist ideas for the most part are left with a few of us who are accused of living in the past.

As for the McGuinty government, we will decide at the Council meeting prior to the provincial election what our union's position will be. I will say it is very difficult to get excited about the potential for the Ontario NDP at this point.

I take objection to your saying we haven't criticized McGuinty. We were front and centre leading the opposition to the McGuinty labour law reform and their lifting of the age 65 retirement requirements. We have worked closely with poverty groups criticizing McGuinty for not raising the minimum wage and welfare rates far enough.

We continue to be prominent in the fight for the one per cent solution to deal with Ontario's housing crisis for poor people including the homeless.

The only issue we supported McGuinty on in over two years was the health care tax. We were the only union in the province who supported higher taxes to support our health care system. Why no criticism of the OFL and the other health care unions for not supporting the strengthening of funding for health care and health care workers? We have opposed P3s along with other health care unions and will continue to do so. We have not been invited to join the coalition against P3s, I believe, because of our history of defending Canadian workers in their struggle with SEIU.

Where are we headed as a union? We will continue the struggle against the corporate agenda at the collective bargaining table and in the political arena. We will continue to build the confidence of and support of our members, their families and communities. That alone allows us to carry on the activities of a social union and be part of a broader social movement.

We will be part of a broader social movement and continue to challenge all who say they represent the aspirations of working people and the underprivileged in our society to show, by their actions and deeds that they truly do. While we must deal with the day to day realities facing our union, we will continue to work for a real political alternative.

Our union is fortunate in having some of the most committed and most progressive local union leadership, activists and staff across Canada. As we prepare for a major change in the top leadership of our union over the next few years, I am confident that the structure of the CAW will ensure the continuation of progressive, challenging leadership (including challenging themselves), leading a militant union that not only has the slogan “fighting back makes a difference” but we will continue the practice.

I appreciate your concerns but I do not believe they are supported by the facts.

Best personal regards.

In solidarity,

Buzz Hargrove, President
CAW — Canada

Sam Gindin

Dear Buzz,

Appreciate you taking the time to respond. We agree that these are uniquely difficult times for labour and the left, but our differences go beyond the facts themselves. Let me start, however, by responding to a few of the specific points in your letter.

I did not in fact criticize the wages and benefits that were recently negotiated at the Big Three, nor suggest that that the union made concessions at this level. (In fact, a number of people from other unions have criticized me for how soft I was on the CAW re this point). My concerns were of an entirely different nature. I thought that certain previously critical areas such as organizing and work time did not get the attention they deserved. And I questioned how the larger issue of jobs and trade was being ideologically framed with the union's own members and the general public.

When our union brought auto parts workers together recently to respond to the threat of a new concessionary wave, I wrote to congratulate you on that important initiative. The questions I had, and still have, were: a) How concessions will be defined (the resolution, for example, spoke to wages and benefits but noticeably left working conditions and work time aside); and b) Whether workplace education and mobilization against concessions were in fact underway or planned.

You raise the question of the loss of PPH days in the early 1980s to show that the loss of time off should not necessarily be seen as being “concessionary.” The issue, however, is not the use of a particular word but the meaning of particular historical events. In the case of the very difficult bargaining at Air Canada, I don't know why you insist on denying that the six year agreement (which we had attacked when others did it) was not a concession, and that the losses in working time and workplace rights were non-concessionary — especially when not only the rest of the labour movement but also Air Canada workers commonly saw it as such.

In refusing to admit this and move on, it appears to open the door to other such “non-concessionary” agreements. On the other hand, though losing the PPH days in the early 1980s was a specific “concession,” it was also part of a larger and historic victory for us. At the time, we were also differentiating ourselves from the UAW by hanging on to the principle of an annual improvement factor. Most important, within months we were involved in the strike at Chrysler which, along with the later strike at GM in 1984, led to the dramatic break with the UAW. The PPH issue, in other words, was part of breaking with the concessionary direction of the UAW.

You assert that “at no time did we state that we had, in our 2005 bargaining, limited job losses at GM to 1700.” That is rather startling since the media quite generally reported this to be precisely how you described the main achievement in bargaining. In your National Post column (September 28, 2005) you argued that “our primary goal this year was to secure the future prospects of Canada's auto industryâe¦not to extract the biggest wage gain possible” and after reaching each agreement the announcement of the limited number of jobs lost seemed to confirm, for CAW members as well as the general public, the union's success in respect to limiting job losses.

In any case, what I was raising wasn't the union's inability to keep GM to particular commitments, but the lack of criticism when GM announced further cuts so soon after the ratification of the agreement. After all, nothing new had happened in the intervening period. Moreover, the union had been instrumental in getting the $450 subsidy for GM in order to protect and expand jobs. And the jobs that were being lost were inexplicably from GM's best plants, by any measure, in North America. In these circumstances what message did the union's lack of an angry response send?

As for NAFTA, others unions have in fact taken comparable positions to the CAW and this was reflected in the CLC's resolution on free trade at the last convention: “The congress, its affiliated unions and federations of labour willâe¦work for the ultimate abolition of the neo-liberal free trade agreements (including NAFTA and the WTO).” But all this is secondary; passing resolutions and leading the fight are two different things. To date, people just don't see your commitment to the fight against NAFTA as being much of a priority.

Besides, a serious campaign against NAFTA could not be done alone. It would require rebuilding ties with the rest of the labour movement and contributing to the revival of the social movements. So, especially when this comes up in the context of you seeming to ally yourself, even temporarily, with those who implemented NAFTA, the CAW's stand against NAFTA doesn't look very credible.

But let me get to the main point. The NDP has, as you say, distanced itself from left values and politics. In this election, for example, they rushed to identify themselves with the “law and order” side without introducing the actual facts and larger context. They argued for a pharmacare program without acknowledging that unless we also nationalized the pharmacare companies (or at least moved to control their prices) this would just mean a larger subsidy to the companies and soon increased talk of a financial crisis in health care.

There was no mention of oil profits and public control over energy, no challenge to free trade, no discussion of international issues like Canada's role in Haiti (though there was a brief mention of Afghanistan), no pressure for tax increases on the rich, etc. Raising the question of building something to the left of the NDP therefore resonates. Yet can we credibly really proclaim that the CAW has picked up the left banner? In fact, if we do claim this, it may even get in the way of an honest assessment of where the union is now and what it needs to do.

Let me elaborate. The claim that the CAW carries the left banner is sometimes hard for the left to see when it observes the choices you've made between candidates outside national politics. Whatever the reasons for your preferences, you were clearly not on the left in endorsing Barbara Hall for Toronto Mayor, refusing to support John Cartwright for head of the Metro Toronto Labour Council, and campaigning for Ken Georgetti as CLC President. In your response to 9/11, the CAW's left credentials were actually damaged: What else could have been the result of unilaterally declaring the cancellation of a major international protest involving hundreds of progressive organizations including labour, and appearing to cast the social movements in a negative light?

But all this might have been seen as ad hoc and transitory. More fundamental has been the strategy of lobbying for subsidies, which damages the union's left credentials because there is no way of getting around the fact that it does mean giving millions in public funds to the corporations.

  • It runs the danger of undermining confidence amongst auto workers in their ability to fight back (if we need to “buy” our jobs, can we really fight on the shop floor?);
  • it can confuse our movement allies (why is the CAW fronting for these multinationals?);
  • it encourages auto corporations to make subsidies a condition of investment even if they had previously planned to invest anyway (so it does not in fact generate new jobs and, as we've seen, very often does not even protect existing jobs);
  • and it encourages added capacity which may only mean job losses elsewhere (as the union-supported subsidies to Toyota may do). On top of all this, the strategy of subsidies has to be seen, in any case, as inherently limited, since it can't be extended indefinitely.

Furthermore, the focus on exporting vehicles to Japan and South Korea risks being viewed as legitimating free trade — if they only open up their markets everything will be fine. This was dangerous not only because of the mixed political signals it gave, but also because it was analytically confusing. The more open Japan and Korea are, the more their markets will be served by direct investment or shipments from the rest of Asia, not from North America. The issue is how we deal with them here as both imported vehicles and — increasingly — as direct producers since two thirds of Honda and Toyota sales come from North American plants (an issue of both jobs and unionization).

When you declared after Ford bargaining that the Ford-CAW relationship was “a model of how a union and a company can work together: not to resist change, but to manage it,” this too put the union in an awkward position. This kind of language can sound awfully close to the labour-management partnerships the union has always been suspicious of — and for good reason as we saw when, soon after, St. Thomas lost a shift.

Finally, the embrace of Martin during the campaign (and not just at “Jacket-gate”) also undermined the argument that the CAW is taking a step leftwards. (When, later, you talked about hugging Harper if he came through with auto subsidies it reinforced the view, even though you may have been half-joking, that the issue was not Harper's overall orientation to where the country is going but the narrower issue of what he was doing for a subset of CAW members.) Nor did campaigning with executives from Toyota and Magna add credibility to the CAW's potential role in leading a new left. On the contrary, it reinforced the view that rather than building the base to challenge and negotiate with power, the CAW seemed to be embracing the élite and accommodating to it.

The formation of Union in Politics (UPC) committees a year or so ago and the positive step to establishing a new campaigns department seemed very positive, but the committees now seem in limbo and the new department seems to have been relegated to a lobbying function in Ottawa. The union's educational programs are indeed remarkable, but the danger is that the practice of the union may be seen as tending to reinforce rather than challenge the logic of competitiveness, and that the union's efforts may be seen as concerned with lowering expectations rather than with inspiring militancy and hope.

The labour movement and the left are, as we discussed at the staff meeting, in trouble everywhere and this raises many difficult questions. The Canadian working class and the Canadian left desperately need a renewed CAW that does, in fact, grasp that the only way forward is to build the kind of understanding, broad solidarity, and organizational structures that can truly challenge corporate power.

But that also means fundamentally rethinking unions and that includes challenging the direction the CAW has been pursuing. Absent such an internal renewal and the rediscovery of an independent working class vision, unions will sink further into the swamp of cynicism, demoralization and grasping at any straws that seem “practical.”

In solidarity,

Sam Gindin
CAW Retiree

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