New CAW-CEP union would spend more than $50 million to boost membership
Labour leaders have unwrapped the framework of a new super union that would double organizing muscle and extend its reach into communities across the country to counter a “bare-knuckled assault” by governments and corporations.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) revealed Wednesday that their boards have approved proposals that would jack up spending to about $10 million annually or $50 million over five years to organize new members and attract other citizens to social causes.
The CAW and CEP are trying to create the biggest private-sector union in the country’s history and spark a rejuvenation in the labour movement to reverse a decline in membership, bargaining power and political clout during the last 30 years.
“Get ready because in a very short period, we will have the largest organization to kick your butt,” CEP secretary-treasurer Gaétan Ménard warned Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several right-wing premiers.
Ménard joined more than 100 beaming CAW and CEP activists in a crowded Ryerson University building to release details of the proposed national union, including structure, principles and financing. Delegates at separate union conventions will vote on them this month and in October.
The labour movement says it is under siege and the two unions want to become far more relevant to a new generation of workers in bargaining and social change. That means they will need to organize many more workers to increase “density” in major sectors to make contract gains.
Statistics show union representation in Canada has plunged to 17 per cent of the private sector workforce, or about half of its peak during the 1970s. Furthermore, annual strike frequency, a significant indicator of union power, has slid by more than 90 per cent in the same period.
As well, a 45-page report outlining the final proposals for the new organization also pointed out that the federal Conservative government has “unleashed an all-out bare-knuckled assault on unions and all we stand for.”
When the CAW and CEP started talking about a new union earlier this year, they released a blunt assessment that underlined the need for major change and the obstacles ahead.
The report stressed how many of today’s unorganized workers view unionized employees as part of special interest groups rather than a tool to improve their own lives.
“The last factor – the more negative attitude of non-union workers towards unions and collective bargaining – may be the most dangerous for unions in the long term,” the report said.
“Young people are especially disconnected from unions. Most have never had a union job, and many have no understanding of the history and goals of unions, nor how a union could help to improve the lousy and exploitive working conditions they typically face.”
A world financial crisis and government moves to weaken workers’ rights have exacerbated the view that unions can’t make a difference, according to the report
The CAW and CEP proposals, which still need convention approvals, also call for some organizing funds to be used to persuade workers in non-union shops, retirees, students, unemployed people and other citizens to protect and enhance labour rights and social causes.
One insider described the idea as the creation of “storefront locals that are there for people on Main Street.”
“The new union will be very visible and active,” added CEP president Dave Coles “We are going to step out of the box.”
Coles said political and corporate elites around Canada and the world are paying attention to the creation of a new union which would represent about 320,000 workers.
Regarding the priority on organizing, CAW secretary-treasurer Peter Kennedy said it is important that a new union takes advantage of a “bounce” if it forms next year.
“Coming out of the chute, there will be a lot of interest,” said Kennedy. “We want to have an organizing group ready to catch that wave.”
In underlining labour’s new resolve, Kennedy noted the new union will create a strike fund of $135 million that includes more pay and benefits for workers in walkouts and lockouts.
If delegates at the two union conventions support the proposals, work will start on a constitution and a name to help build a brand. The two unions would then hold a founding convention next year to approve the constitution and name, and select leaders.