Big Labor’s weakening grip

Robert Miller March 4 1985

Big Labor’s weakening grip

Robert Miller March 4 1985

Big Labor’s weakening grip


Robert Miller

The setting was more suitable to black tie than blue collar, and the hotel menus tended toward haute cuisine rather than the meat and potatoes supposedly preferred by organized labor. But the luxurious Sheraton Bal Harbour resort near North Miami, Fla., where a two-room suite costs as much as $410 (U.S.) a night, played host last week to the high priests of North America’s troubled trade unions. The executive council of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (afl-CIO)—each of the council’s 35 members is a powerful union boss in his own right—gathered in an opulent conclave to ponder labor’s uncertain future in a job-short, high-technology world. Among the painful subjects on the AFL-CIO agenda were problems increasingly familiar to Canadian union leaders: organized labor’s declining political influence and its failure to make a major breakthrough in recruiting white-collar workers outside the public sector.

Divorce: For AFL-CIO council member Owen Bieber, president of the 1.3-million-member United Auto Workers union, the Florida meetings were doubly difficult. No easy solutions emerged during the private sessions. And Canadian UAW director Robert White, 49, was in Bal Harbour to begin the delicate negotiations expected to lead to an autonomous union for Canadian UAW workers by next fall. White, Bieber and two other American UAW executives —secretary-treasurer Raymond Majerus and board member Joseph Tomasi—spent five hours Wednesday discussing a property settlement in the impending White-inspired divorce of roughly 120,000 Canadian UAW members from their American colleagues. Among assets to be divided: the UAW strike fund, which totals almost $800 million (Cdn.), and such union-owned real estate as its modern two-storey national headquarters building in suburban Toronto.

White proposed the controversial divorce, after nearly 50 years of marriage, on Dec. 10,1984, and the union’s international leadership accepted it in principle on the very same day. Last week’s preliminary negotiations were officially described as amicable and a further meeting of the four-man committee was scheduled for March 11 in Detroit. Said White: “There wasn’t a lot of animosity but we didn’t accomplish anything. It

really was an exploratory first meeting.”

Leaders of other unions on both sides of the border were keeping a close watch on the UAW developments. Of the 2.6 million Canadians who belong to private sector unions, no fewer than 1.5 million are in so-called international organizations, most of which are dominated by their American members. At least some Canadian labor executives expressed support for the concept of all-Canadian unions. Said Vancouver’s Cathy Walker, staff representative of the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers: “True international solidarity is built between strong national independent unions. Canada is the only country in the world whose unions have been controlled from anoth-

er country.” But Charles Clark, co-director of the Toronto-based Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, disagreed. Clark said that he believed the UAW “will be all right.” But he added: “It is not the path for all international unions. We have autonomy, yet it is the strength of the Americans and the number of American-owned companies in this country that make our union as effective as it is.”

Dramatic: White’s plan has already been endorsed by most UAW locals, including the crucial 17,000-member Local 222, which represents workers at the General Motors of Canada Ltd. plant in Oshawa, Ont. Still, many UAW members at the Oshawa operation had mixed feelings about the pending split. Vivian Williams, a 39-year-old GM production-line

worker, was concerned that an all-Canadian union would have reduced bargaining strength against the multinational automakers. Said Williams: “I hope they are doing the right thing, but I don’t think they are.”

By any measure the UAW separation was a dramatic development during a time of turmoil for unions in Canada. Organized labor, traditionally a full partner with government and industry in the management of the Canadian economy, is struggling with concurrent crises. Among them: a deteriorating

public image, an inability to attract workers in the thriving service sector, the trend toward conservatism in government and pugnaciousness in management. Labor also acknowledges its own impotence in the face of the predominant social issue of the daychronic unemployment (page41). Said John Crispo, a professor of management studies at the University of Toronto: “The traditional union base is declining, just as the old-line industries are declining in employment because of technological change. The unions are now hard pressed to find new members.”

Nuclear: White, a native of Northern Ireland who came to Canada at the age of 14 and who has risen to become one of the country’s best-known union leaders, told Maclean ’s he was aware of but remained philosophically optimistic about labor’s problems. Said White: “I never remember labor riding a crest of popularity. Labor tends to go front and centre on the difficult issues. Certainly, I

believe we remain an important part of society.” He cited social concerns—including medicare, pension reform and nuclear disarmament—on which organized labor has been active. Added White, who is sometimes criticized because of his prominence in the media: “I will do whatever I can to improve the public acceptability of unions. If we are dealing with broad public issues, I think people will understand that we are not a narrow self-interested group.” But other union leaders, as well as academic observers and business spokesmen, were

less sanguine, agreeing that organized labor was in trouble at least in part because of its previous successes. Said Clark, of the textile workers: “To do its job for its members, a union has to take stands that are not necessarily popular with the public. But everything the la-

bor movement has _

fought for has been passed on in general legislation-statutory holidays with pay, the 40-hour week. You name it and we were involved in the struggle for it. But when the struggle is won, nobody says, ‘Thank God for the labor movement.’ ”

Added Peter Riggin, mining giant Noranda Inc.’s senior vice-president for corporate relations: “The trade union movement is faced with what you could call the

new worker—who has higher education levels, higher expectation of job satisfaction, a questioning attitude and the security of the welfare state.”

Indeed, public opinion polls in Canada show declining support for organized labor, despite the fact that almost 40 per cent of Canadian workers belong to a union. The most recent Gallup poll, published in December, found that 35 per cent of Canadians were hostile to the union movement. And The Maclean’s/ Decima Poll, published in January, showed that only 10 per cent of those surveyed thought that unions safeguarded their economic interests. Said Harvard University labor law specialist Paul Weiler, a former professor at Toronto’s York University: “The unions have fallen into disfavor because of strikes in the public sector and because some people believe they have too much influence on public policy during elections.”

Dispute: Increasingly, the public has made its dislike of strikes evident— especially when they cause inconvenience. Contract talks have broken down between the 23,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers and Canada Post Corp. after eight months of negotiations, much of which involved job-security demands. CUPW’s 1981 strike interrupted Canadian mail service for six weeks. Roughly 3,500 Ontario brewery workers were threatening to strike Molson Ontario Breweries Ltd., Labatt’s Ontario Breweries Ltd., and Carling O’Keefe Breweries Canada Ltd. in a dispute over the companies’ introduction of aluminum cans. The Brewery, Malt and Soft Drink Workers union contends that the cans will ultimately lead to fewer jobs.

At least one strike in progress had profound significance for the Canadian labor movement’s future. National attention has focused on a three-monthold strike by 1,500 recently organized members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), employed by six southern Ontario outlets of the privately owned T. Eaton Co. The

_ strikers are demanding a

first contract from the huge retailer, which has 35,000 employees across the country. According to some labor specialists, the Eaton’s strike is a litmus test of organized labor’s prospects for signing up white-collar workers in Canada’s service sector, including banks, the booming com, puter industry and even ! fast-food operations. In: deed, the service indus’ tries in the private sector, where most new jobs

are expected to emerge, are labor’s last frontier in the march to expand union membership. Said textile union director Clark: “If this Eaton’s strike is ever busted, it will be a long and frosty year before another group of retail people will ever sign a union contract.”

Aware of the implications, the labor movement has rallied to support the strikers. The 800,000-member Ontario Federation of Labour has begun an advertising campaign directed at the general public urging a shoppers’ boycott and setting out labor’s side of the dispute. The stores have continued to do business as usual and show no sign of giving in to the unionized worker’s demands. But Robert McKay, the union’s chief negotiator, said the public is sympathetic to the strikers, and added, “We have letters by the thousand from consumers.” According to Charles Ireton, business agent for Local 204 of 65,000-strong Service Employees International Union, which represents hospital, nursing home and cemetery workers,

“The Eaton strike is a fight we fought in the 1930s and 1940s—a fight for basic rights.”

Power: At least some analysts said that business has become increasingly intransigent toward organized labor, partly because of leaner operations arising from the 1981-82 recession and partly because the seemingly intractable unemployment crisis has made individuals more concerned with personal job security than with collective rights. According to Harry Glasbeek, a labor law professor at York University, unions are losing their struggle with business for economic power. Said Glasbeek: “Business is telling labor, ‘Unless you give us the conditions we want, we will invest our money in Taiwan.’ Business is using its economic power for political ends in a way that labor cannot do.”

In the United States union membership has declined steadily as a percentage of the work force and now stands at roughly 19 per cent, down from a high of 23 per cent in 1980. The November reelection of President Ronald Reagan emboldened employers and dismayed labor leaders. Indeed, one of the chief

topics at the AFL-CIO’S Bal Harbor conclave was a review of the 1984 presidential election. Perceiving Reagan to be irretrievably antilabor, the AFL-CIO made an unprecedented effort in support of Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan routed Móndale and carried roughly 45 per cent of the vote in AFL-CIO households, a stunning setback for Big Labor.

In Canada the 1984 election of a Conservative government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney triggered mild alarm in labor circles. Mulroney promised a new era of economic consultation with both business and labor and de-

clared his priority to be “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Still, Canadian labor leaders doubted their influence would be great in the corridors of government. Shirley Carr, secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, said labor did not stand “the chance of a snowball in hell” of affecting government policy. And even James McCambly, president of the Canadian Federation of Labour—a union group more dedicated than most to trying to work with government-admitted, “We did not get involved thinking we could change the

world.” Most Canadian labor leaders, including White, were waiting for Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s budget, expected this spring, before deciding whether Mulroney would prove to be a friend or a foe.

Oppose: White cited the differences “in political climate” between the United States and Canada as one reason for his willingness to lead his UAW followers out of the American-dominated fold. But, more important, his decision stemmed from a fundamental disagreement between the U.S. and Canadian UAW leadership on bargaining tactics. Canadian UAW executives, including White, emphatically oppose an increasing willingness by the U.S. union to forgo annual wage increases and accept lumpsum increases, a share of future profits and job security guarantees from the automakers instead. White, who left school at the age of 15 and later became a UAW member when he found employment at a Woodstock, Ont., woodworking plant, was unwilling to accept the car makers’ argument that they needed wage concessions in order to survive.

Gambled: Indeed, in last October’s 13-day strike against General Motors of Canada Ltd., White and 36,000 GM workers successfully held out for a $2.52-anhour wage increase over three years, eventually signing a contract that differed radically from one negotiated earlier that year by Bieber and Detroit-based General Motors Corp.

I In the case of the 1984 strike against GM, White gambled—and won. Most observers say he will now win his gamble that an all-Canadian UAW can succeed. The question increasingly asked in labor and industry circles is what White will gamble on next. His high profile and his almost matchless willingness to co-operate with the news media have triggered speculation that he might seek a political career. White discourages such speculation, saying: “I am not one of those who looks ahead.” Still, he admitted, “Occasionally I daydream about what it would be like to be Prime Minister—doesn’t everybody?”

With Robert Block in Oshawa.

Robert Block