For many years the Left in the labour movement fought to get the Canadian Labour Congress to play a role in establishing collective agreement priorities. In the 1980s the CLC held conferences and produced educational materials on issues like reduced working time and bargaining technological change. But affiliate unions showed little interest in developing common priorities or coordinating their efforts concerning bargaining.
In recent years it was left to large, centralized unions like the Canadian Auto Workers to set the standards at the bargaining table. When times were good in the auto sector the CAW led the way, signing agreements that provided for new investments by compan-ies and other job-creating measures, like additional paid holi-days, as well as innovative benefits like legal aid. The latest agreements may be good for autoworkers. Certainly many members seem to think so. But with low up-front wage increases and recognition of future job losses in the industry, the CAW settlements have little to offer other unions. Perhaps it is too much to ask for any union to consistently provide leadership for the entire trade-union movement.
CUPE Convention Debates Policies, Not Constitution
Canada’s largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, held its biennial convention in Winnipeg in October. Anyone interested in public services should go to a CUPE convention. The level of debate and discussion concerning public services is truly impressive. Whether it is water privatization, municipal services, childcare, health care, infrastructure, hydro, or any other public-sector issue, CUPE activists have a remarkable analysis. Despite the high level of debate on policy issues, however, the convention was a disappointment to delegates who hoped to address some of the institutional problems that continue to plague the union. Of the five-day convention, less than two hours were devoted to constitutional resolutions. Only constitutional resolutions, which had been adopted by the National Executive Board, were introduced for debate. More than half the time devoted to constitutional issues was taken up by a debate on a resolution submitted by the National Executive Board to create five additional seats on the executive to be reserved exclusively for women. This resolution received majority support, but not the two-thirds required for constitutional changes.
Resolutions calling for more elected full-time officers were not debated, even though two of CUPE’s provincial divisions and several locals had submitted them. (CUPE currently only has two full-time elected officers). A resolution calling for youth representation on the union’s executive was not debated. Resolutions concerning the participation and support for district councils were not debated. Likewise, delegates never got to discuss a resolution calling for CUPE to comply with the CLC constitution and require its locals to affiliate to labour councils.
Conventions are about more than policies. In 2005 CUPE activists missed an important opportunity to debate changes necessary to make the union more effective and more democratic.
The Struggles for Full-Time Jobs Continue
Hats off to the membership and leaders of the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) and the Canadian Media Guild. Both faced very determined employers prepared to lock out their workers in order to impose major contract rollbacks. In both instances the unions were forced to fight for the preservation of secure, decent paying jobs.
In many ways the struggles of TWU and the Guild represent the next wave of union struggles. Both of these lockouts demonstrate that picket-line solidarity is essential, but it is not sufficient in itself to bring victory to the union. Support from the labour movement and allies in the community will increasingly prove to be decisive in determining the outcomes of labour struggles.
This article appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension (Will the WTO Survive Hong Kong?).