Interview

With Dennis McDermott of the United Auto Workers

March 21 1977

Interview

With Dennis McDermott of the United Auto Workers

March 21 1977

Interview

With Dennis McDermott of the United Auto Workers

Dennis McDermott, Canadian director of the powerful United Auto Workers of America, wades through controversy in a bulldog fashion. Compact and pugnacious, fond of flowered shirts and medallions,he has spent most of his life fighting for the blue-collar worker, the ordinary guy on the assembly line. A native of Portsmouth, England, McDermott at 17 joined the British Navy and served from 1939-47 before moving to Canada where he went to work for Massey-Harris in Toronto. A member of the UAW since he was 26, McDermott, now 54, blasts away continually at by now familiar targets—big business and big government. In January, however, he caused a larger-than-usual stir by launching an attack on organized labor’s political arm, the New Democratic Party. Angry that three provincial Nongovernments—in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—had implemented Ottawa’s wage and price control program while labor was mustering a major attack against it, McDermott warned that labor was tired of paying the NDP’S bills, only to be abandoned in the crunch. One of the most articulate of Canadian labor spokesmen, McDermott has been tipped as a likely successor to Joe Morris as president of the Canadian Labor Congress when Morris steps down next year. Maclean’s Toronto bureau chief Angela Ferrante talked to McDermott in his spacious office in the new one-milliondollar, glass and steel UAW headquarters in Toronto.

Maclean’s: What do you think the Canadian labor movement should aim to accomplish this year?

McDermott: Well, of course the first thing I want is to get rid of the abortion known as wage and price controls. That’s the number one priority item. The federal [government’s] popularity has, as you know, declined quite a bit and they’ve latched onto Mr. [Quebec premier René] Lévesque and the Parti Québécois as one convenient scapegoat. They [the Trudeau government] can make that a good campaign issue, but they obviously see the need to get rid of wage and price controls because of the reaction of both business and labor. Maclean’s: Do you think labor’s October 14 day of protest had any impact? McDermott: Yes, I’m sure that what we’ve done really is change a lot of minds in the past 18 months. Even though our communications are somewhat limited, we have nevertheless been able to explain to large numbers of people the iniquities and absurdities of this [controls] program. But I think that what is more important is that people have discovered this for themselves. You know, the housewife said: “Oh yes, somebody had to do something and this is great,” but her husband’s pay cheque is curtailed very severely. She goes to the supermarket every Friday night and she knows damn well that prices are not acting accordingly. So she sees a sharp decline in her purchasing power.

One thing we learned is that we can’t always depend on the NDP to fight for us

Maclean’s: Do you think that’s becoming clear to the politicians?

McDermott: Yes. But of course, they are visibly disturbed too by the business community when they pull a strike. We just pulled one simple little walkout on October 14. They [business and industry] have really been putting on the pressure. They're withholding investments, they’re threatening to move, in some cases they’re reinvesting in the United States and so on. And that really has clout.

Maclean’s: You aren’t particularly happy these days with the role that the New Democratic Party has been playing as far as labor is concerned. Why?

McDermott: Well, you know we’re disenchanted with the role of the [former NDP] British Columbia government and the Saskatchewan and Manitoba [NDP] governments in what I consider the indecent haste with which they jumped on the Trudeau bandwagon on controls. And I’ve tried to explain very carefully that I don’t want them to be handmaidens to us or us handmaidens to them, and I certainly don’t expect them to commit political suicide by supporting some venture that we’re on that doesn’t look foursquare to them. But on basic issues, I think that we ought to talk it out before we make a move that affects workers nationally. And I think in any event, a relationship such as we have with the NDP needs réévaluation periodically anyway.

Maclean’s: Should the NDP and the labor movement go their separate ways? McDermott: Not necessarily, but I think the one thing we did learn as a result of this whole wage control exercise is that we can’t depend entirely on our political arm to fight for us. The fight against wage controls was carried on as the single responsibility of the labor movement.

Maclean’s: What you’re actually talking about then is creating more distance between the two of you now.

McDermott: No, I’m hoping to close the gaP-

Maclean’s: How?

McDermott: By doing what we’re doing now. By forcing some people out into the open and having them discuss intelligently labor’s role in the party that has been a back seat role up until now. let’s face it. Maclean’s: You supported federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent when he was running for the party leadership and I gather that you ’re fairly close to him. Do you think that he has turned his back on you? McDermott: No, not at all. But on the other hand the federal NDP played its role, great. But where we’re in power, where it counts more, in the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it didn’t. If we want to be a strongly centralized labor movement with a voice at the national level, we can’t have this luxury of having the NDP fragmented into 10 different positions in 10 different provinces or being at odds with the role of the federal party. Maclean’s: Do you think that the NDP might want to separate itself a bit from labor so as not to be seen as a party of particular interests, so that it can secure a broader political base?

McDermott: Yes, that’s the very reason why we took the back seat role consciously and deliberately, because we recognize that we love ourselves but that a lot of people outside don’t. So, we’ve played that

role and we don’t want to leave the impression that we’re a dominant force [in the NDP] or anything like that.

Maclean’s: Last January you threatened that labor might withdraw financial support from the NDP if the party does not shape up. A re there people in the NDP who would also like to sever the connection with labor? McDermott: Yes, but I don’t believe that a social democratic party can operate in a country without some kind of dialogue, without some support from the trade unions. It just doesn’t make sense. Maclean’s: Has there not been enough contact between labor and the NDP? McDermott: There certainly hasn’t been enough dialogue. Even at the Ottawa level, between the Canadian Labor Congress and the NDP federally, even though they live in the same small town and presumably must stumble into each other about three times a week at lunchtime, there still hasn’t been the kind of intelligent, periodic, day-to-day dialogue that there should be. And as a result of my raising a bit of a fuss about it, a lot of people are reacting negatively. But most of them are reacting positively and saying “maybe we should sit down, maybe we should have some meetings.” And there have been meetings, of course, as a result of this. Maclean’s: Have controls helped to unify labor?

McDermott: I think controls did bring us together. They did forge a more viable, effective national entity in the form of the CLC. There is still much to be done. Even October 14 wasn’t the classic success internally that it should have been. Outwardly, we got a million-plus people out and that can only be judged a success by any standards. But we know among ourselves that there are large numbers of affiliated organizations that did nothing and said nothing. And we can’t afford to operate in that kind of a fashion.

Maclean’s: There's been a great deal said about the possibility of bringing industrial democracy to Canada along the lines of the German and other European examples. What do you think of that?

McDermott: Well, I think there has to be a wholesale reorientation of attitudes and, I say this without bias, primarily of management attitudes. It’s fine to take the experience in Germany. The degree of organization of labor in Germany is no greater than ours, about a third of the work force. But Germany is a reconstructed country. It started out fresh in 1945. Their trade union people were preselected by the Allied military governments. It’s ideal if you can plan it that way. So, it’s fine to talk about Germany, but to try to transpose that onto Canada is an entirely different question. It’s fine to talk about it in Scandinavian countries like Sweden, which [until recently] had 45 years of uninterrupted Social Democrat rule. So when I go to Sweden and say that I’m a trade unionist, they say, “Well, what trade union do you represent and what’s your position?” I don’t have to spend two hours defending myself and explaining that I’m not a gangster and I’m not Jimmy Hoffa and I don’t have to defend my very right to exist. You talk about getting into a [European-style laborbusiness] advisory system. Well, in Canada, when a group of workers proclaim that they want to be represented by a union, their first step is to go to the Labor Relations Board. All hell breaks loose. Some 50 to 60 lawyers descend on them and the arguments go on—all of the legalistic nonsense—and three months later

The assumption seems to be that workers are dishonest, lazy s.o.bs who can’t be trusted

they still don’t have [union] certification. That doesn’t happen in Sweden. That doesn’t happen in Germany. So until such time as there is wholesale reorientation on attitudes and this sort of thing . .. Maclean’s: Do Canadians tend to be skeptical of unions, to mistrust them? McDermott: Yes, I suppose they do if they’re not associated with them. It’s because the unions that count are the ones that run up against the biggest problems. If you have a nice, comfortable little breadand-butter union that’s run on business lines where the business agent is overpaid and goes out to lunch with the employer... there’s no threat to the status quo at all. But then you also have unions that have a social conscience, that want to get at the root of things, that recognize that you can’t bargain a decent education for your kids or good housing from General Motors, no matter how much collective bargaining power you have. That’s the kind of union that gets people uptight. Like René Lévesque is getting them uptight, a challenge to the status quo. Maclean’s: You say industrial democracy models really can't be transported from a country like Germany and brought to Canada, but could we move in that direction in some other way?

McDermott: Of course we could, and the last people who would object to that would be us. You know, people seem to think that we get our jollies from strikes. And for anyone who has ever been in one, it’s a bonecracking experience. We’re the last people who want it, but we have nothing else. Y ou know, we can be as articulate and persuasive as we want. We can have everybody on our side, including God, and the employer says, “No.” What’s the alternative? We strike. We strike, I think, something less than about 10% of the time. I think over 90% of collective agreements are reached through amicable negotiations. Maclean’s: What do you think would be the first step toward creating some form of industrial democracy in Canada? McDermott: First, we have to get rid of some of the old anachronisms. All these rules and regulations that are based on the assumption that the worker is a lazy, dishonest s.o.b. who won’t work unless he’s closely supervised. That’s nonsense. You know—the guards on the gate and the time clocks. We must start to create an industrial society, a relatively free and open society so that the workers can be treated with dignity and given responsibility and understand that they’re trusted. These people are not criminals. They conduct themselves the other 16 hours of each day in normal society as good, responsible citizens. (But) they have to be penned in and supervised and hassled all the time when they go into the plant. If every foreman was a damn good sociologist, instead of having a hard hat and a loud voice—that’s the kind of industrial democracy that I would like to see as a start.

Maclean’s: How could we bring that about? Can you bring about those changes through bargaining?

McDermott: Well, I think we can do it through collective bargaining to some degree. The Scandinavian system came about because of the environment created by the Social Democrat government, which at one point, after a very bad general strike, simply said to the two sides: “If you don’t do it [settle this] yourselves, then we’re going to do it for you.” And with that kind of governmental Big Brother persuasion, they gradually got together. Maclean’s: Where strikes do occur, how can we avoid having an adversary situation? Can that be changed?

McDermott: Well, I think you’re always going to have an adversary situation to a degree. Everything is not going to be sweetness and light. And the root of the problem here, of the adversary system, is that it’s always assumed that the adversary system is on the union’s side. And you should see some of these gorillas in grey flannel suits that are turned out by the schools of business administration in this

country, the bounty hunters who smack their lips every time they succeed in firing someone.

Maclean’s: The CLC has propose da tripartite advisory body made up of government, business and labor so that there could be an ongoing discussion among these parties. What would you like to see?

McDermott: Well I would like to see something fairly close—not necessarily a tripartite body. A lot of people are agonizing over the mechanics of the tripartite system, but what they don’t understand is that the trade union mentality is to bargain. But if we can get the concept of serious, legitimate input into the decision-making process, not as an alternative to the parliamentary system but as an addition to it— now that’s what we seek. Not some backof-the-bus Uncle Tom position where you get a pat on the head and an invitation to a conference once in a while, but a really serious, day-to-day legitimate input into the decision-making process.

Maclean’s: Ed Broadbent has, in fact, opposed the tripartite idea.

McDermott: Well, because he was arguing about the mechanics and not the overall objective. It looked to him, as it did to a number of other people, that we were setting aside the parliamentary system. We would be the last people to do that, because whenever the parliamentary system is substituted by something else we [organized labor] are the first ones to go. We found that out in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s days.

Maclean’s: You’ve given your approval, to a degree, to [Quebec’s] René Lévesque, isn’t that right?

McDermott: Well, what I’ve done is, I’ve reacted because I’m so sick and tired of these hypocrites jumping on the bandwagon and castigating the people of Quebec because they dared to elect the party of their choice, who treat René Lévesque as a four-headed monster and who are now agonizing all over the place about the future of Canada. And they couldn’t care less. If they had done some of that agonizing in the past 100 years, the word separatist wouldn’t appear in our vocabulary— and that’s all I’m saying.

Maclean’s: Is Lévesque much more likely to listen to the unions?

McDermott: Yes, when you set aside the separatist ogre and look at the Parti Québécois and what its social and other policies are. If I had lived there [in Quebec], I would have voted for the PQ.

Maclean’s: Prime Minister Trudeau keeps talking about rising expectations and the need to control these expectations, and no doubt he’s talking partly about the unions. McDermott: Is he going to plant a garden in his swimming pool and grow tomatoes? Maclean’s: What do you think about the question of expectations. Is it part of the problem?

McDermott: It’s a lot of hogwash. The people who are preaching all this guff about expectations are the people who don’t need any more. The people who at the first snowfall take off to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean and places like that. What’s the sense of talking to a person who’s unemployed about rising expectations? They haven’t even gotten their piece of the action yet. And why should workers take a back seat to their opposite numbers in the corporate structure, who benefit from the productivity that they help to produce?

Maclean’s: But at some point, does there not have to be some belt tightening?

The people who preach about ‘rising expectations’ are those who don’t need any more

McDermott: Well, the people we represent have got their belts tightened back to their backbone. I don’t know who else we’re talking about. It might be a good idea if we talked to doctors about that. It might be a good idea if we talked to real estate entrepreneurs. The first people who tighten their belts are the first people who have already got it in four notches. Nobody talks about cutting back on the minimum wage of the lawyer or the professional or all of the other people who are getting a good, fat living out of our system. Maclean’s: In society, though, don’t you think there has to be some form of incentive, according to education or whatever, to encourage the development of superior skills? McDermott: No, I don’t believe in that at all. I’ve visited the state of Israel and the doctors over there are working stiffs just like anyone else. They don’t think they have some special status in society. (But in Canada) the doctors, and the lawyers in particular, have always set themselves above everyone else. They even have selfgoverning agencies that put them above the law; they violate the law and they’re tried by their own tribunal. No one else has that privilege. And I don’t believe necessarily that the acquisition of an academic degree should produce that vast differential between that kind of person and a person who slaves his guts out on an assembly line.

Maclean’s: But don’t you think that if you took away monetary incentives for professional people, they would stop going to university. I mean, why would you bother to study to become a doctor if you ’re going to be paid exactly the same as someone who isn’t? McDermott: Okay, I’ll tell you this much: if the people on the assembly line take the attitude that they just don’t want to bother because they’re not getting enough money, there won’t be any universities. There won’t be any comfortable academic spots to sit in as an alternative to work because they [the workers] are the people who produce the wealth of this country. And I don’t know why they’re begrudged a piece of the action. A guy who sits in the boardroom as a corporate head, knocks off $200,000 a year plus his stock options, plus this and that. But the person who really produces the wealth, the person that has the heart attacks and gets the silicosis and all the rest of it, somehow is condemned to the bottom of the economic rung. I just don’t buy that. Maclean’s: One of the main fears right now is that once controls are removed, wage demands will jump immediately. Do you expect this to happen?

McDermott: No, my big fear is that if, indeed, they have been held back at all in the business community (by controls) they will have much more of a license to plunder than we do. You can’t get a wage increase by unilaterally announcing it tomorrow morning, but you can get a price increase that way. A wage has to be bargained from a hard-nosed employer. So there is a natural restraint on wages at all times. My fear is that the business community will not respond in a collective, responsible way and that it will trigger the whole (new pricewage spiral). I think that as far as we’re concerned we [labor] have been sobered up in the past 18 months, and you’ve got to consider that there were only remote sections of labor that were getting what we consider above average or unsubstantiated increases anyway. The rest of us weren’t. And even in some of those areas you have to look at where they were starting from. If the nurses and the people that clean up the dishpans in the hospitals got 30% increases, it looks bad on the statistical sheet, but when you consider they were coming from the minimum wage plus 30%, it doesn’t look so bad. I think that labor has been sobered up quite a bit and a sort of psychology of restraint is there. We’ll probably be the scapegoat anyway. That’s the way it has been in the past. But I’m inclined to the view that we won’t want to trigger (a new inflationary spiral) because ultimately we are the losers as a result of it.