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Two Cheers for Buzz

On February 20, the leaders of eight Ontario locals of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced a plan to ask their 30,000 members to vote on a merger with the 240,000-member Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). A bitter, expensive war has been raging between these two unions since.

The SEIU, a union with its head office in Washington, D.C., almost immediately placed the defecting unions under trusteeship and suspended many of the about 60 officials from the eight locals. Dozens of grassroots members then occupied the local offices, going so far as to sleep in the them to guard membership lists and files. After the termination of the sleep-in, the SEIU hired security guards and arranged for the video-taping of the premises as an additional security measure.

In the midst of acrimonious legal battles in the courts of Ontario, local leaders were able to have votes allowed in a few bargaining units. These votes were to test grassroots support for the transfer of affections from the SEIU to the CAW. Of the 6,000 members who were allowed to vote, more than 90 per cent enthusiastically endorsed joining the CAW.


CLC Dilemma

The entire debacle has been very upsetting for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the 2.3-million-member umbrella body for most of Canada's unions. (Another million Canadian workers belong to independent trade unions outside the CLC, many of them quite small).

The CAW is the largest private-sector union in the CLC. Ken Georgetti, president of the CLC, found himself in a genuine dilemma.

On the one hand, the CAW was violating the most important article in the CLC constitution, the one forbidding CLC unions from raiding each other. If the CAW were allowed to get away with raiding the SEIU, no CLC union would any longer be able to rest comfortably in its featherbed. The sacred principle, hallowed from the heyday of the class war—worker solidarity—would be profaned.

On the other hand, were Georgetti to censure the CAW, he would stand to lose the Congress $4-million a year in funding and many warm bodies useful in protests and days of action. Either way, the monolith of monopoly trade unionism would be fractured.

Georgetti decided that the principle of worker solidarity is worth considerably more than $4-million a year. Aggravate Buzz Hargrove, the feisty CAW president, and lose a few million dollars. Approve a fracture in the CLC monolith, and who knows what the consequences might be.

So Georgetti placed an ultimatum before Hargrove: say you're sorry, give the SEIU locals back, or you're out of the game. Deadline: July 1.

July 1 came and went. Hargrove called Georgetti's bluff. The CAW is effectively kicked out of the CLC. And I say, "Two cheers for Buzz!"


Out for choice

Georgetti wrote to Hargrove in June that Canadian unions should not be raiding each other because a breach in the CLC monolith would hinder the achievement of its objective "to defeat the agendas of the right-wing governments and corporations."

Hargrove responded that the CAW believes unionized workers should have the right to join any union they want, and that "if the price of remaining in the CLC is that we have to ignore the democratic wishes of organized working people in this country, then I believe we have to accept that we're going to be outside the CLC."

According to CLC rules, says Hargrove, "It doesn't matter how badly a union represents its members, or how much it loses the confidence of those who pay its bills. Its members can't switch affiliations without serious risk of losing their certification and their hard-fought bargaining gains altogether. And as long as dues money keeps flowing in from workers who are treated more like indentured servants than trade unionists, then the picture of happy solidarity is preserved—for the union leaders, anyway."

This is why Buzz deserves two cheers: finally the leadership of a large Canadian union is coming out in support of union choice. Smaller independent unions, like the 25,000-member Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), have been advocating for decades that Canadian workers should enjoy genuine freedom of association. With the CAW as a voice for union choice, the grassroots support for democratic trade unionism rather than monopoly trade unionism may receive a more careful hearing in the public square.


Closed shop dogma

But Buzz deserves only two cheers, not three. While the CAW is for the moment a voice for union choice, it is not yet a voice for thoroughgoing freedom of association, and it is far from a voice for labour peace.

Hargrove would like working people to be able to choose which union should represent them. But he does not want people to be able to choose whether they want to belong to a union in the first place.

Many people find that their dues are used for causes beyond that of justice in labour relations. Sometimes, dues go directly into the pockets of political parties that many union members would not support in an election.

Both the CAW and the CLC unions sponsor schemes for social reengineering that go beyond the interests and concerns of their grassroots members and that some of their members cannot in good conscience support. But the zealous dedication of both the CAW and the CLC unions to the closed shop dogma means that such members must choose between their job and their conscience.

"Closed shop" means that if you want to have access to work in a unionized place of employment, you have to be a member of the union representing workers in that workplace. Many unions feel strongly about the closed shop. In their opinion, it prevents the vice of freeloading. The freeloader would refuse to join the union or to pay dues but would by law enjoy the privileges of union representation and the benefits of collective bargaining.

There is a flexible way in which to allow freedom of association to people who cannot in good conscience belong to a union or support all of its causes, while at the same time preventing freeloading: require bona fide conscientious objectors to contribute an amount equal to what would have been their union dues to a charity mutually agreed upon by the objector and the union.


Still class warfare

For the CAW—even more than for most CLC unions—labour relations remains class warfare. While many trade unions in North America are beginning to see the value of win-win negotiations, also known as mutual gains bargaining (MGB), the CAW is "totally opposed" to this kind of innovation.

"I see it as in the interest of the employer only," says Hargrove. "The goals of the corporation are different than the goals of working people."

Were it indeed impossible to reconcile the interests of labour and management, or of labour and the other stakeholders in the economy, then there could be no hope for real labour peace. Every collective agreement would then be just a momentary truce in an ongoing war that no one could win.

An increase in union choice would be a boon for organized working people. But that choice would only make a significant difference if workers get to choose between significantly different trade unions. The choice between CLC unions and the CAW is a choice between Dumb and Dumber.

The CLC unions offer working people the closed shop within a union monopoly; the CAW offers them the closed shop within a union duopoly. The CLC unions offer working people class war lite; the CAW offers them class war turbo.

A real choice would include unions that offer workers real trade union democracy through genuine freedom of association and unions that realize the wisdom of labour peace through mutual gains bargaining. Labour leaders who offer such an option deserve the full three cheers that Buzz Hargrove does not.

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Gideon Strauss Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. ... read more »
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