Is This an Agreement or a Ploy?
The recently concluded agreement between the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and Suzuki Motor Company, covering a yet-to-be-built $500-million plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, raises a number of interesting if not disturbing questions.
On the surface, this agreement seems to indicate a change of heart on the part of the Canadian Auto Workers union, which has until now remained fiercely loyal to the adversarial approach to collective bargaining. The new CAW-Suzuki deal commits the two parties to a cooperative labour-management style. This style, common to Japanese companies, is marked by flexibility, a team concept under which employees are given responsibility for quality and efficiency, and the idea that workers and employers are engaged in a joint enterprise. Furthermore, in the Ingersoll plant the number of job classifications will be dropped from the usual 60 to 25.
According to CLV Reports (September 15, 1986), negotiations between CAW and Suzuki were "marked by uncharacteristic politeness seldom seen at the bargaining table." CAW president Bob White observed, "It was a lesson and experience in self-discipline." Most would agree that such a lesson is a valuable one for the partners in the automotive industry. However, it is well to note a few items which have been overlooked in this development.
In the first place, the CAW-Suzuki agreement concerns workers who have not been consulted in these matters for the simple reason that they have not yet been hired. Since there are no employees, the union is not legally entitled to represent them, and there is good reason to believe that, if challenged, the agreement would be invalid. This cozy deal between the company and the union seems to be in violation of the Ontario labour Code provision declaring a collective agreement null and void when the company has provided financial or other aid in the union's formation.
Secondly, this agreement is in one sense not an agreement at all. Although the two parties solemnly signed a 20-page document settling wages and conditions of work in the new plant (scheduled to begin operation in 1988), this agreement is subject to ratification by the workers to be hired by Suzuki Motor Company. Suppose the union wants to back out of this agreement because it really does not want to break with its adversarial approach to collective bargaining? Could and would it not use its influence to determine the outcome of this vote? Bob White may have provided a hint of the real reason for this arrangement. In an interview he conceded that the agreement with the company was a bit of a gamble but that without it the union "would have had trouble organizing it. With that kind of plant, we'd have difficulty in convincing the workers they need a union."
And another comment by Mr. White nay indicate less harmonious relations to come: "The more I see of it (the Japanese style), the more I think it's paternalistic. Most of the consensus they talk about is just a consensus of management on what's good for the workers. There's very little input by the workers on their daily lives." (Lorrie Slotnick, "Will Canadian Workers Accept Japanese Ways?," Globe and Mail September 6, 1986)
Clearly, incorporating the best features of Japanese labour relations into Canada would be a good thing. But to simply add Japanese paternalism to North American monopoly trade unionism, without an outright repudiation of the traditional destructive approach to collective bargaining, makes for a messy brew. After all, it's still true that good old-fashioned integrity and the workers' freedom of association are indispensable building blocks for just relations in the workplace.