Canada's dented auto union seeks new road map

Mon Apr 9, 2012 4:08pm EDT
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By Allison Martell

OSHAWA, Ontario (Reuters) - Bev McCloskey had only been working at General Motors for a couple of weeks in 1949 when word went out that there was trouble on the line.

It was her first strike, but not her last. In those years, McCloskey and the other workers at GM's Oshawa, Ontario, plants walked out over almost every contract, winning a string of concessions and forging Canada's most powerful union.

"In every strike we've ever had, we've made gains...until we had a good standard of living," says McCloskey, whose mother cleaned houses to support her five children in the years before GM turned Oshawa into a mini-Detroit. "We were middle class, you know. You could go travel."

Twenty-seven years after breaking away from the United Auto Workers, the once-mighty Canadian Auto Workers may disappear, subsumed into a new mega union as jobs vanish in Central Canada's manufacturing sector.

The CAW's membership has fallen almost 30 percent in the past six years, and its leaders see a merger with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), another major private-sector union, as the best way to stay relevant.

"If unions do not change, and quickly, we will steadily follow U.S. unions into continuing decline," the two unions said in a joint discussion paper released last month. "We must reverse the erosion of our membership, our power, and our prestige."

In a move that underlines the seriousness of the threat, CAW and CEP leaders want to build a new 300,000-strong union, the private sector's largest by far, with a new name that has yet to be decided.

It would span more sectors, tap into sentiment that has driven the Occupy movement, and do more to appeal to non-unionized workers. The new union would also inherit CEP's strength in Alberta's oil industry, the strongest sector in the Canadian economy.   Continued...

Workers walk the picket line at locomotive manufacturer Electro-Motive in London, Ontario January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Geoff Robins