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Issue #1809      February 7, 2018

Canadian labour movement split

Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union on January 16 announced its decision to leave the Canadian Labour Congress, or CLC, the national labour federation. The decision has sent shock waves through all unions and threatens not just national programs but coordination between unions at the regional and local levels.

Splits in national labour movements are far from unknown. In some countries, longstanding ideological differences have meant that multiple national labour bodies are the norm, as with Poland or India. In the US and South Africa, splits over fundamental political or programmatic positions are more recent. Other than a few years in the 1990s, when the building trades unions formed the Canadian Federation of Labour, the Canadian movement has been united since 1956 when two rival federations merged.

Unifor is the product of a series of mergers between unions dating back decades. Most of the predecessor unions were the result of splits from an American parent union. In the private sector, most unions were and many still are sections of unions based in the United States. The largest of Unifor’s predecessor unions, the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) was formed when Canadian workers resisted the concessions that had been agreed to by the UAW in bargaining with the large American car makers on both sides of the border. Nationalism and a commitment to the creation of Canadian unions runs deep in Unifor culture.

Moves by Unifor to assist leaders of large local unions in taking their members out of US-based unions created considerable conflict within the leadership of the CLC. Unifor sees its actions as supporting the right of workers to freely choose their union. Opponents point to the CLC’s existing process by which unhappy workers can move from one union to another and attribute Unifor’s frustration to its inability to make gains in membership using that process.

Union activists are deeply worried that fighting over already organised workers will waste resources and serves as a distraction from the movement’s real task: organising the unorganised.

When Unifor’s executive made the decision to leave the CLC, it promised not to damage solidarity at the local level where unions coordinate national mass campaigns. Several of these are under way at the moment and were, until recently, considered great successes, including one in support of Tim Horton’s coffee shop workers who had a number of benefits taken away by the employer following a rise in the minimum wage at outlets in Ontario.

Within hours of the announcement, Unifor, in concert with hotel union dissidents, began raiding workers who are currently members of UNITE-HERE, a US-based union. At this point, the Unifor campaign is having considerable success. Leadership reaction to the split varies by union. They range from attacks on Unifor to appeals for unification talks. Activists across the country are expressing concern about Unifor’s motives and goals. Cross-union caucuses and local Labour Councils (where activists from different unions co-ordinate local activities) are working to ensure effective solidarity despite the split.

The Canadian sections of what in North America are called international unions are turning inward and focusing on preparing their members for an approach by Unifor, on defending from a loss in membership. Canada-only unions, referred-to as national unions, appear to be largely unconcerned about direct confrontations with Unifor. Local Labour Councils and provincial Federations of Labour are working to minimise the impact, sometimes not knowing if the Unifor members elected to lead them are still eligible to do so.

Labourstart Canada

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