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(en) Canada, Anarchist Journal, Linchpin #1 - Interview: Sweetheart Deals & Solidarity Unionism - BRUCE ALLEN on CAW&MAGNA, UAW SPLIT, UNION DECLINE, THE FUTURE

Date Sat, 01 Dec 2007 12:14:52 +0200

Following the announcement of a no-strike contract between the Canadian Auto Workers and Magna International a number of CAW local leaders criticized Buzz Hargrove for pushing the deal. Bruce Allen, vice-president of Local 199 at GM in St. Catharines described the deal as a "betrayal of the reason why we established ourselves as an independent union". Bruce founded the CAW Left Caucus and was involved in publishing the anarchist paper Strike in the 1980's. Linchpin contacted Bruce and in the following interview he outlines in detail the problems with the deal and the direction of the CAW and the Labour movement in general. --- LINCHPIN>> I guess the first question is how you view the recent sweet heart deal between Magna and the CAW?

BRUCE ALLEN>> I view it as the
culmination of trends that have been developing in
the CAW over the past ten years. I outlined those
trends in some detail in an article that was published
last year called "Inside the CAW Jacket". That article
was prompted by the spectacle, a year or so ago, of
Buzz Hargrove giving a CAW jacket to Paul Martin
at the CAW council. This was at a time when Buzz
Hargrove was embracing the Liberals and making
an absolute rupture with the traditional alliance
between the CAW, organized labour and the New
Democratic Party.
Really the point simply put is that this is
just taking a trend that was already there to another
level, consolidating it in the form of an agreement
with a traditionally very anti-union transnational
corporation, MAGNA, and completely embracing the
very things that the CAW was founded to oppose
back in the mid-1980's.
You may recall the premise and essential
reason for the CAW breaking from the United Auto
Workers in the mid 1980's was a rejection of the
UAW's pro-corporation orientation. In so far as they
accepted team concepts, embraced profit sharing as
opposed to wage increases, and all forms of
management labour co-operation, basically they
embraced an agenda of making the corporation
more competitive and successful regardless of
whether that was in the interests of their members.
The CAW broke from that, it was the right
thing to do at the time ­ it was a break to the left of
the UAW. What this agreement with MAGNA does is
it takes things full circle and it casts us in a role
where essentially there is no difference between
what we stand for and what the UAW stands for.
Arguably this deal is even worse than what the UAW
contracts typically involve right now.
So in more ideological terms its a complete
subordination to the agenda of capital, it's a
complete acceptance of capitalism. There isn't the
slightest hint of anti-capitalist politics in the CAW
anymore, where ten to fifteen years ago the CAW
was decisively to the left of the NDP and was willing
to engage in far more extra-parliamentary political
action. It was essentially socialist in its political
orientation ­ there is absolutely nothing socialist in
its politics now. This deal is the culmination of all
that and taking it to another level.
What's really significant about this deal and
important in terms of understanding where we were
and where we are now, is that really this is the
product of an organization which at the
national level is completely un-democratic,
completely top down in its orientation.
Hargove does what he wants and expects
everyone to fall in line after the fact. He is
completely un-accountable for what he does
and he uses a combination of coercion
through the bureaucratic apparatus and co
option to maintain order to preserve the
control of the existing hierarchy of the CAW.
Consequently as he moves more
and more to the right and becomes more
accommodating to the corporations he brings
the organization with him in its orientation.
The lack of democracy obstructs any attempt
to put a break on that.
LINCHPIN>> Can you envision any
knock on effects for the general labour
movement as a result of this deal?
BRUCE ALLEN>> This deal has far
reaching effects for all other unions because
it will have an impact on collective bargaining
throughout the entire manufacturing sector in
this country. It will encourage employers in all
industries, particularly in the private sector
and manufacturing, to put pressure on all
unions, not just the CAW, to negotiate similar
agreements and be conducive to ending up in
a situation where this becomes the norm
between capital and organised labour in this
LINCHPIN>> What sort of forces if any
are there as a left opposition in the
CAW? Where's that at? Do you see
possibility for worker's action on the shop
floor in resistance to this trend in the
BRUCE ALLEN>> There is no organised
left opposition. Several years ago there was a
small CAW left caucus which I was the drivin
force behind, basically it would never have
formed if it hadn't have been for me. It took
some good positions, did some good work bu
it never managed to grow to the point where i
became a formidable force. You had a lot of
fear, a lot of people within it were not willing t
seriously take on the leadership and
consequently that had a corrosive effect and
ultimately it shriveled and died.
Today there is no organized left
opposition. But there is a growing number of
people who are expressing dissatisfaction
given the concessions that have been made
in places like Oshawa with the Shelf
Agreement and more so now with this
MAGNA agreement. But they are not
organised into a force. There are diverse,
basically informal networks around certain
individuals. The most notable being Sam
Gindin, who used to be the research director
in the union and the best known critic of
Hargrove's politics, or at least the most high
profile critic.
Another problem is that of the most
notable in opposition a lot of them are retired
members, there is very little at least in terms
of opposition involving the secondary
leadership, at the level of the local union.
They are generally biting their tongues, they
are reluctant to defy the national union.
The national union in the way it
operates is openly hostile to any local union
leadership that goes against the direction set
by the national union. There are pressures
that are applied and there is also a
relationship of dependencies. In all level of
negotiations there are national reps involved
and they play a pivotal role. There is always
the risk that it will be disadvantageous if you
alienate yourself from the national rep who
take orders from the top leadership.
They can put the gears to you and
really hurt you at a local level. Again its a
matter of a lack of democracy within the
organization, the real concentration of power
is at the top and it emanates from the top
down. That's very obstructive and very
conducive to suppressing the emergence of
any local opposition.
LINCHPIN>> I am often under the
impression that these sort of deals are
struck in the union movement as a result
of a general weakness, that they are
attempts to stabilise declining
memberships. Are there any other
strategies that can be used to reverse
that trend?
BRUCE ALLEN>> A deal like this is
certainly a product of weakness, and a
product of a declining membership base in
manufacturing and especially auto and auto
parts sector. There the CAW has experienced
massive membership losses due to corporate
down-sizing and plant closures and that has
definitely created some sense of desperation.
Desperation is conducive to obviously making
an accommodation with employers in any way
they can in order to maintain the dues base
and you can see this agreement in this
context. It definitely plays in to it and a major
driving force is the CAW's national office
desire to maintain the dues base in order to
"Start the process of networking
and building that is conducive to
fostering solidarity unionism, its
the base of the movement, the
labour movement grows and
survives at the base."
sustain the organization.
You only need to look to the United
States in that respect, the UAW at the end of
the 1970's had 1.5 million members, today its
about a third of that. You can't maintain the
organisation, the bureaucratic structure and
all the rest if you have a shriveling dues base.
Speaking from a local level, I'm in a
local union that has as its biggest unit
General Motors. At the beginning of the
1980's we had nearly 10,000 General Motors
workers in St Catherines, that number today
is 2,500 and by the end of next year probably
down to 2,000. We have a union hall, long
term I don't know how we are going to
maintain it, the income from union dues is not
there to sustain it. There is another union
local in St Catherines that organised the
Dana plant, their union hall was sold off and
pretty much the only Dana workers that will
be left will be retirees.
The same dynamic is evident where
I am. There are far more retired members of
our local union now than active members
because the corporation is encouraging
people to take buy outs, like retirement
packages, and people are running for the
door. They have a take the money and run
attitude, without any consideration for what
the future holds. What they don't understand
and what I tell people all the time, is that you
can grab the money and run and retire ­ but if
the union keeps getting weaker and weaker,
who is going to protect your pensions and
benefits after you retire? I tell them that and
the look on their faces is as if I told them their
mother has died. But it is brutally true.
These dynamics and trends are a
major reason why a deal like this is struck.
There is a quiet desperation about it. But
touching on your other question ­ is this the
way to build the union? In the short term, sure
it could get you additional members. But the
other way to look at it, from more a class
perspective, is if the union is going to be
weak and defective, unable to win things for
you, make substantial gains for you and
improve the quality of life; your standard of
living; day to day reality on the shop floor,
people are not going to want to join a union. What's the
point of joining a union if it doesn't do anything for you? If
all a union is, is something that takes money off your
pay check?
LINCHPIN>> Following up and this is the
question, what actions can we take as a class to
reverse that?
BRUCE ALLEN>> Frankly my opinion is this, the
existing union structures have reached a point of no
return. I've long believed that the existing union
structures like the Canadian Labour Congress and the
CAW have passed the point of no return. The labour
movement is going to have to be built from the ground
I'm not advocating building outside of the
existing structures yet as you have to be inside them to
be relevant, to interact with workers. But we have to build
on the things that made the union strong in the first
place. Stand by the principles that got us what we got.
You do not join a union to go backwards, you join a
union to make gains and improve your life and be
prepared to do whatever is necessary to realise those
From my vantage point that means do what
ever you can to build strong local unions and labour
councils. I really believe in the concept and always have
that Lynd outline of solidarity unionism. He wrote a book
about it, about networking and building in the existing
unions, at a local level and at local labour councils. In a
horizontal rather than a vertical way, networking.
LINCHPIN>> For people that may want to touch
base on that form of solidarity unionism, is there
any examples in Ontario to suggest that form
BRUCE ALLEN>> There are no real examples I can
think of. The challenge before us is to build them, to get
involved in our local unions and labour councils. To start
the process of networking and building that is conducive
to fostering solidarity unionism, its the base of the
movement and the labour movement grows and survives
at the base. Don't waste your time trying to change the
CLC, the Ontario Federation of Labour or the CAW from
the top because for the same reason they are so top
down and controlled from above ­ you can't break that.
You've got to build around it, it's like going down
a road and encountering an obstacle ­ you don't run
head first into it, you go around it. You build local
networks around strikes and issues. I'm heavily involved
in activities around injured workers, my specialty in terms
of the union is fighting worker compensations and there
are all kinds of possibilities to realise through that work.
I take a class struggle approach to workers'
compensation. You can maintain and continue a really
adversarial orientation to employers. I maintain a totally
adversarial orientation with GM through fighting for
injured workers. You have to find niches and possibilities
where ever you are in order to move in that direction.
That is what I am doing to the extent that I can do it.

Words Mick Sweetman, Andrew Fleming and James Redmond
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