Two of Canada’s powerhouse unions are considering opening membership to workers without bargaining rights in their proposed merger.
ST. CATHARINES – The Canadian Auto Workers and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada — who have strong Niagara representation — are discussing the landmark move as one-union talks continue.
If approved, casual workers, hard-to-organize groups like small offices and even the unemployed could be allowed into the organization.
The concept’s success “is probably better now than it ever has been before,” said CEP president Dave Coles. “Our union has flirted with it in the past, and so have others.
“It’s a thought we have worked on for many years, but we have not been able to get our head around how to do it.”
Coles said the new union project gives the two organizations “a vehicle” to make the expanded membership happen and include those traditionally disenfranchised from organized labour.
He used an example of city towers filled with offices of many small-scale employers with several employees— quite often women.
“The law says you can organize them, but in a practical sense how do you get a collective agreement and represent them?”
Coles said this would help them access new kinds of workers, and offer the workers a chance to participate in the labour movement.
In addition to making a single union bigger, it will also give it “more reach, and quite frankly become more relevant in a sector of workers in the new economy left out of the movement and any democratic voice,” Coles said.
In Canada, the CAW has organized about 200,000 workers and the CEP roughly 120,000, with thousands represented in Niagara.
“It’s a great idea and worth debating,” said Wayne Gates, president of CAW Local 199. “It’s worth pursuing and talking about at the leadership level of both unions.”
Gates’ local represents General Motors’ hourly workers in St. Catharines and other area employees, and it has more than 3,000 active members in its various units.
He said it’s unions like his who’ve spoken for those outside the mainstream of unionized workers, in areas like minimum wage levels, public education and social housing.
“Now this is an opportunity to engage particularly young people … and people in precarious work, temporary workers,” Gates said. “This gives them all an opportunity to have a voice.”
While some may criticize the representation effort as union empire building, Brock University labour professor Larry Savage disagrees.
“If it was about empire building, there are easier strategies to use,” Savage said.
“I think organizing the unemployed, or casual and precarious part-time workers who don’t have access to unionization through the traditional statutory avenues is not an easy task at all.
“For any union to want to take that on as a project is very interesting.”
Savage said the two unions have traditionally represented workers in the manufacturing sector. Decades of de-industrialization have seriously eroded that base.
One strategy has been to organize other sectors, “but another part of this … is that more and more jobs are falling into these categories of non-traditional contract-based jobs, people who don’t have unionization within their reach.”
Merger talks between the CEP and CAW began last year.
Coles said things have advanced to where a final proposal is being prepared about the basic structure of a new union.
Meetings and consultations continue until July.
A final proposal will be taken to the CAW convention in August, then the CEP convention in October.
“If we get through that, and I’m very hopeful, we’ll have a founding convention sometime next spring,” he said.
A name for the union hasn’t be decided, but Coles said it won’t be the “CEP” or “CAW”.