Saturday, April 18, 2009

A different take on Canadian Auto Workers Union

Wideye, you make me sound like I am pro-union and I am not. Just as there is good and bad leadership in Indian country, there are good and bad unions. I reserve the right to bitch about unions who behave stupidly. And with that disclaimer, I will now defend the CAW.

I disagree that the CAW has “lost their purpose and focus…their reason for being.” The Chief you spoke of (Was it Tom? It sounds like Tom) said “it takes a true leader to take that same group of people and rile them to change their own situation for the better.” I’ll talk about their own situation in a minute. First I want to talk about what the CAW have done to improve the lot of others.

The CAW has:
Donated materials and labour to refurbish Toronto’s Native Canadian Centre and make it wheelchair accessible
Donated labour to repair wells contaminated with E. Coli on the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation when federal and territorial governments refused to act.
Held campaigns lobbying for the Kelowna Accord
Sponsored 2 National Days of Action

But enough about how the CAW leadership has rallied support for First Nations issues. CAW members donate 3 cents per week for charitable work, which enabled them to donate $2.1 million for tsunami relief in 2005 and to rebuild communities in New Orleans post-Katrina. (The CAW also negotiated a leave of absence for any skilled trade worker willing to take time off to do relief work in New Orleans.) Locals regularly raise money for women’s shelters and the Salvation Army. The CAW has lobbied governments for universal pensions, better care for seniors and improved Employment Insurance.

But what have they done to rile their people "to change their own situation for the better?" Over the years: medical and dental benefits, improved health and safety conditions, childcare, legal services, a social justice fund, same sex benefits, phased retirement, equity representatives….

Turning to the current economic crisis the CAW has already made concessions. In May 2008 they negotiated a contract sensitive to the faltering auto-industry that saved companies $300-million per year. In March 2009, following government instructions that workers had to be “part of the solution,” they renegotiated (for the second time in 10 months) the contract all over again, reducing active labour costs by several dollars per hour. The CAW sees the industry's salvation in better management and long-term strategies that invest in skills, support new capital and protect the environment, all of which should improve their competitiveness in the global trade market. Makes sense to me.

So if the CAW aren’t the bad guys, who or what is riling workers to protest and anger? Hmmm… Could it be the CEOs of GM Chrysler and Ford - the ones who flew to Washington in luxury jets last January to demand a $25 billion tax-payer funded bail-out?

If that wasn’t crass enough GM CEO Rick Wagoner saw a salary increase late last year $2.2 million, compared with $1.65 million in 2007. In addition to his base pay, Wagoner was awarded 75,000 restricted stock units valued at $1.68 million. In April, Ford CEO Alan Mulally received $2 million in base salary, a $4 million bonus and more than $11 million of stock and options in 2007. Mr. Mulally has earned nearly $50 million in compensation since taking the helm of the auto maker.Less is known about Robert Nardelli's CEO package at Chrysler LLC because the auto maker is privately held. When, I wonder, will we hear what management is giving up as their "part of the solution?"

If the CEOs are riling auto-workers, politicians aren’t helping. When the economic crisis hit, US GOP senators gleefully passed notes speculating that this was a new opportunity to crush the union movement. While some countries proposed serious economic plans, Canadian PM Stephen Harper issued a so-called economic statement that sounded more like a neo-conservative wet dream - suspending the right of civil servants to strike (something which has not been an issue after several years of labour peace) and doing away with employment equity.

If the auto-workers are cynical about these same politicians telling them to roll back workers salaries by $17 an hour while CEOs get to keep their $36 million luxury company jets – well, I can’t blame them.

It’s my opinion that unions are most successful when there is a lack of responsible leadership in companies and politics. I can’t speak for all unions, but it seems to me the CAW is more relevant than ever. To its workers, who for the most part support it, and folks who have benefited from their social activism.

I agree with the teaching, but from my perspective would apply to company management, not the CAW. Of course you knew I was going to say that - didn't you?


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