Thoughts and Opinions On Today's Important Issues

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is The CAW Still Of Value To Windsor

I have a very simple question to ask: is the CAW helping or hurting the City of Windsor.

Are the Union and its members that bad? Or, is all that is required is for the CAW merely to hire a good PR firm to help it with its image--rebranding in City Hall terms-- so they will stop scaring people so much. Why can't CAW be viewed as an organization that will fight for its members but will take a practical perspective as well in dealing with the employer?

You know our City's image as well as I do. Windsor is supposedly a hotbed of union militantism that scares away any new investment. Is the image true or is it one that Economic Development Commissions in other cities dredge up in order to scare away investment from here to make it go into their neighbourhood instead? Why can't we have an image of a City that has labour and companies working together for the advantage of all?

If it is a false image, what can be done to change it and who has to take on the responsibility to do so it?

Here is a note sent to me by one of my readers that has prompted this BLOG:
  • "You don't often make reference to the role that the CAW plays in our area, so I found it interesting to read your comments in No.10 of your Fast Breaking News piece that you posted this morning.

    Many people, particularly those in the business community, believe that unions in general and the CAW in particular, are, at best, a serious drag on our region's efforts to attract new investment and jobs and, at worst, a barrier to those efforts.

    As most well know, Windsor and area has a well-deserved reputation for militant and intransigent unions that will take a very long time to disipate even if we were somehow able to begin today and, given recent events (TRW), and those likely to occur in the near future (Casino), that is not at all likely. Windsor will, therefor, continue to be unable to compete for the investment enjoyed by communities elsewhere in Southwestern Ontario.

    It seems to me, that we as a community need to address this issue head-on and have an honest debate or public discussion about the role played by the strident and out of touch leadership of the CAW. Our Mayor deserves credit for trying to raise the issue in last year's State of the City address but had his head handed to him for his pains so I am not sure who has the stature or credibility to lead the charge.

    May I respectfully suggest that you could contribute to change by regularly raising the issue? I suspect that much of your readership would agree with and support the proposition that unless and until the CAW changes its modus operendi, our area's potential for progress and development will not soon be realized. The CAW just does'nt get it but needs to."

Is my reader correct or not about the union? Is he correct that the Union needs to change the way they do things?

The CAW is obviously a very sophisticated operation. It would have to be considering the number of employees that it represents and in the industries in which it is involved. I saw in an article that at one time, it represented workers in "14 different economic sectors."

It is a union that has to face the reality of a declining market share of the Big Three in the face of the competition from the nonunionized imports. Its workers are much older than those of its competition so that even within its own ranks there may well be a dispute as to what the union negotiations should be concerned about: improvements to wages or improvement of pensions and maintenance of post-retirement benefits.

For Windsor, it is obvious that the CAW was in the past a blessing. It was not all that many years ago when the average income of a person in Windsor was about the second or third highest per capita in Canada. We seemed to have lots of money to spend. When CAW wages went up, the wages of employees in other companies went up as well, unionized or nonunionized, following the pattern set. "For every job, every high-paying job in the city of Windsor in the auto industry, 12 other people are working in the city of Windsor because of that. That's worth fighting for and defending." One could ask legitimately whether the Casino workers would have as high wages but for the fact that the CAW was representing them.

Even now, one could make the argument that Windsor's economy is not as bad as it should be since the retirees from the various auto plants have received big buyouts and have comfortable pensions that allow them to continue spending thanks to the CAW.

On the other hand, is the CAW the reason why we have the highest unemployment rate in Canada? Are new businesses afraid to come into Windsor for fear of being unionized? Is CAW being unreasonable in what it demands, forcing companies into financial difficulties? Does CAW pick fights with small companies to try to teach the major employers a lesson? Even low-paying jobs such as the Call Centre ones had gained the attention of the CAW who may be interested in adding to its membership to replace the numbers of auto workers who have been laid off. After all, the union functions because it receives union dues. But would that mean the end of such jobs in Windsor as was suggested?

Is the CAW merely a bunch of hotheads? I hardly think so. After all in 2005, the CAW recognized the precarious position of the Canadian Automobile Industry:

  • "CAW reaches a "tough times" agreement with Ford Canada
    September 12, 2005, CBC News

    The Canadian Auto Workers and Ford Motor Co. of Canada reached a tentative three-year contract deal on Monday. CAW President Buzz Hargrove described it as a "modest agreement, but a good agreement for tough times."

    The agreement includes a plant closing, layoffs and small wage increases.

    Hargrove acknowledged the agreement did not score huge gains for the 12,000 workers at Ford Canada. It contained the smallest wage increases since 1985 and only "modest" improvements for retirees. The agreement calls for a forty-five cent an hour increase in the first year, a thirty-cent an hour increase in the second year and another thirty-cent an hour increase in the third year.

    As well the deal will see Ford close its casting plant in Windsor, Ont., and phase out production of the V-6 engine at its Essex engine plant, also in Windsor, which will result in about 1,100 jobs lost in total by 2008.

    The union said the shutdown was forced by falling market share but it expects most of the job cuts to come from normal attrition and early retirement plans."

Compare this with what Buzz wrote only a few years before in a book, Labour of Love. Did Buzz change his point of view after he wrote:

  • "In the neoconservative Canada of the late 1990s, the labour movement needs to become more militant, less accommodating to the demands of corporations and governments. If this sounds like a return to the days of the 1930s or 1950s, so be it. It's either that or watch decades of hard-won gains disappear. This resistance will mean arrests, charges, maybe even jail terms for some of our leaders and members. But if we are to check this massive wave of unfairness, we simply have no alternative.

The union was very practical at the Chrysler Bramption plant when workers first turned down a company offer:

  • "Union accepts cuts in pay, jobs: Chrysler Group, CAW compromise; Tim Higgins Detroit Free Press 03-12-2007

    Canadian Auto Workers members at Chrysler Group's Brampton plant near Toronto changed course Sunday, overwhelmingly voting to accept a pay cut and the outsourcing of jobs in hopes of ensuring that the facility not only remains open but also is expanded.

    The approval by CAW Local 1285 comes after a vote last month by members to reject the demands by the company that included the elimination of so-called premium pay -- money for about 40 minutes each day for time not spent working -- and allowing about 40 janitorial jobs to be outsourced...

    In exchange, Chrysler planned to make an investment at the facility worth $700 million Canadian that would allow five types of vehicles to be produced there -- up from three today -- including a new one in 2010...

    Bob Chernecki, assistant to the CAW president, said "Times have changed. ... We are in a hell of a mess in the auto industry. There are lots of options for Chrysler. We should not turn down a $700- million investment into a facility that's going to give us another product."

This same union can sign a "Framework of Fairness" agreement with Magna "that may usher in wide-scale unionization of the auto parts manufacturer’s historically non-union operations." And by the way, it increases the number of members of the union while at the same time giving Magna a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Seriously, what can be wrong with such an agreement:

  • "CAW will give up the right to strike in exchange for a final-offer arbitration to settle contract disputes, and attempt to help Magna boost productivity.

    Magna founder Frank Stronach announced the new deal with the CAW last month,
    calling it the template for "a new, innovative, flexible and efficient model of labour relations."

The same leader can take a very practical, although also a very unpopular position with some of his numbers politically, by casting aside the historical relationship with the New Democratic Party and suggesting that in the appropriate circumstance a voter should vote for the Liberals, both provincially in Ontario and federally. As was stated federally:

  • "Thus, union members might need to "vote strategically" in ridings where the NDP candidate is a distant third but the Liberals could win with union support, Mr. Hargrove said.

    "We want a clear minority government, led by Paul Martin, with as many New Democrats holding the balance of power as possible."

In fact, was Hargrove really trying to take over the Liberal Party so that Labour would have a stronger voice in Canadian politics!

Please explain to me therefore why the CAW should be attacked and condemned and be made to appear as the destroyer of this community. Just read the Windsor Star Forums over the past few days and see what I mean.

Perhaps the Union is the author of its own misfortune and that is where it needs help in good public relations:

  • "CAW issues ultimatum
    'The TRW strike strengthens our resolve'
    Craig Pearson, The Windsor Star,March 05, 2008 [I'd publish the Lewenza photo the Star published from its files but it might scare you]

    The CAW will shut down any of Windsor’s three remaining new Chrysler supplier plants if they don’t agree to the same wages TRW Automotive just negotiated after a six-day strike, union leader Ken Lewenza said Wednesday...

    “The TRW strike strengthens our resolve for the framework for agreements with (supplier plants) Oakley, Dakkota and HBPO,” said Lewenza, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 444, after meetings with union officials to decide which company to negotiate with next. “And it should send a message to those companies that anything less than the TRW economic package will force a strike.”

What about at the Casino:

  • "Workers are prepared to defend their wages and their benefits and prepared to bargain a fair and reasonable collective agreement,” said Lewenza.

    Although the two sides have yet to discuss monetary issues, Lewenza stressed that the union would not accept cuts in wages and benefits. “There’s a tremendous amount of issues,” he said. “Our members understand more than ever that the economic challenges we faced in the last four years have been a roller-coaster in the least...

    Casino Windsor, however, has informed the union not to expect “a good economic agreement,” said Lewenza. “They’ve suggested we have to be cognizant of the decline in business, the decline in revenue and they don’t come right out and say ‘we want wage cuts, we want benefit cuts.’ But, they say ‘these are our fixed costs, our operating costs, how are we going to get this place back in business?’”

At the "Our Jobs, Our Community, Our Future rally" in May 2007, on the one hand we had Senior saying:

  • "To the business community, don't be scared of us."

    He predicted the community will continue to demand government action to protect good-paying manufacturing jobs -- which he said have a spinoff benefit for the entire community -- and delivered a pitch to potential investors.

    "We're open for business," Lewenza said. "There's not a more generous, hard-working community than the community of Windsor- Essex County."

Yet at the same time, Buzz was saying in a manner that conflicted:

  • "I want to send a message on behalf of the General Motors workers at the transmission plant to Mr. Harper but especially to General Motors that, by God, we've started the fight to save our jobs, to get a new product in Windsor, and we'll carry it through to the bargaining table and a strike if necessary in 2008," he said."

Is this company-bashing needed? Why is the rhetoric of the past still used? Do union leaders think that their members are that dumb that they do not understand what is going on and what is needed? Are they afraid that if they offer to workers in a plant reduced wages to save their jobs, they will be thrown out of their nice leadership jobs? Is it all negotiating gamesmanship? Are these tactics still applicable? You tell me. I do not know.

What I do know is that things have to change or we are in more trouble here.

Any views that you would like to express are desired, especially solutions. They would be most eagerly welcomed.