Collective bargaining is a complex process. It requires assessments of relative power and strategic considerations that are usually only fully appreciated by the people directly involved. As such, we are reluctant to comment on the decision of the Canadian Autoworkers Union to agree to the Framework of Fairness Agreement (FAA) with Magna International Inc. The high public profile of the agreement, however, and the statements of CAW representatives that this agreement could be extended to other employers compel us to comment.
The agreement will enable CAW to obtain access to workers at five Magna plants each year to make the case for joining CAW and for coverage under a collective agreement that will be negotiated under the provisions of the FFA. There are currently 45 Magna plants in Canada. If all goes according to plan during the next nine years, over 18,000 workers would join the CAW and be entitled to participate in the union and its education programs. This would be an extremely positive development for the Magna workers, the CAW and the labour movement.
However, we believe that the problems associated with this agreement outweigh the benefits. In the Canadian labour movement it is recognized that in order to effectively represent workers the union must have the sole right to determine its own internal, democratic processes. This includes the method by which local union representatives are elected. The FFA places enormous restrictions on the rights of the Magna workers to participate in the union and to choose their own union representatives. It also limits union representation to one person per plant. This individual, called an Employee Advocate, will not be elected by the workers. Instead, he or she will be selected through a convoluted process, with the final decision being taken by the assistant to the CAW president.
The agreement also requires the union to establish only one amalgamated local union to represent workers in all of the plants. The executive and president of the local must be chosen by and from the Employee Advocates, who themselves have ultimately been appointed by a CAW staff person.
The CAW will not be able to change this restrictive system of representation without the permission of Magna.
The agreement also contains an open-ended no-strike, no-lockout clause. Any worker participating in a strike or in an activity that impedes the operation of the business shall be subject to immediate dismissal. If the parties cannot agree on the terms of a new, three-year agreement, the issues are referred to an arbitrator under a process of final-offer selection. Wage increases will be tied to a formula linked to average annual manufacturing-wage increases in Canada.
Such an open-ended commitment in private-sector manufacturing is exceptional and dangerous. Unions exist to challenge market forces, not to mirror them. Our gains have resulted from strikes and struggles, not decisions of third parties bound by a process of final-offer selection.
Ultimately, it will be up to the CAW to decide on if, and when, it will attempt to free itself from Magna’s influence over its internal union structures and to obtain the right to strike for the workers.
We hope that there will be an open and respectful discussion within the CAW concerning this agreement and the union’s future organizing strategies. We would strongly urge other unions to reject such compromises when they are proposed by employers facing organizing drives. The independence of democratic union structures and the right to strike are the very cornerstones upon which the Canadian trade-union movement is built.
This article appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Big Media).