Inside the jacket

Understanding the Canadian Autoworkers’ break with the NDP


Perhaps no other event in the history of the Canadian Autoworkers has evoked more of a reaction than when, in December 2005, CAW National President Buzz Hargrove presented then-Prime Minister Paul Martin with a CAW jacket to wear during his re-election campaign. New Democratic Party members and supporters were infuriated and their hostility toward Hargrove has not diminished. The Liberals were ecstatic. The Left outside of the NDP cringed.

But “jacketgate” was largely misunderstood. It did not, as many believed, mark a sudden or dramatic shift in the political and class orientation of the CAW. The CAW’s right turn, exemplified by that spectacle, has actually been evident for almost a decade. It has been taking shape since shortly after the 1995-96 Ontario Days of Action were deliberately wound down by a union bureaucracy in Ontario in which the right-wing “pink paper unions” achieved hegemony in the Ontario Federation of Labour.

The Days of Action were Ontario labour’s response to the hard right policies of the provincial Tory government elected in 1995. They involved a series of rotating city-wide general strikes and mass demonstrations. The high point occurred in October 1996 when an estimated 250,000 people hit the streets of Toronto and engendered widespread but unrealized hopes for a province-wide general strike.

Days of Inaction: A retreat into electoralism

The demise of the extra-parliamentary social movement that was mobilized during the Ontario Days of Action went hand in hand with a deliberate and general retreat into electoral politics by organized labour in Ontario, where the CAW’s membership is concentrated. Initially this led to some political disarray, then to a focus on the 1999 Ontario election. Defeating the province’s Tory government at the polls became the sole objective of Ontario labour.

While there was unity with regard to the objective, there was none with regard to the electoral strategy for achieving it. Essentially two contradictory strategies were pursued. One focused exclusively on supporting the NDP. The other focused on voting strategically for whichever candidate was seen as most likely to defeat a Tory—which, in most cases, meant voting Liberal. The CAW, which had been a bulwark of support for the NDP since the party’s formation in 1961, broke new ground at this point by embracing the latter strategy. The Tories won re-election anyway.

This marked a sea change for the CAW. Back in 1995, while steadfastly continuing to support the NDP in the rest of English Canada, the CAW leadership had punished the Ontario NDP for its government’s anti-worker Social Contract legislation, which tore up public sector union contracts. In the 1995 Ontario provincial election, the CAW only supported NDP candidates who defied the NDP government of Premier Bob Rae by openly opposing the anti-labour Social Contract legislation. This effectively meant the CAW adopted a political position decisively to the left of both the NDP and every other private-sector union. This political alignment to the left of the NDP remained clearly in force for the next couple of years while the Days of Action were taking place in opposition to the Tories’ policies.

With the collapse of the Ontario Days of Action and the movement associated with it, however, the CAW’s shift from unwavering support for the NDP to strategic voting came to be seen in a different light. Many CAW activists and local CAW leaders opposed this shift, wanting to remain loyal to the NDP. Others farther to the left opposed it for different reasons, seeing it as a clear opening to the federal Liberals and an effective abandonment of class struggle in the CAW’s political lexicon.

Significantly, these developments went hand in hand with an extensive survey of the CAW rank-and-file members concerning the union’s involvement in politics, to be used in shaping the political course of the union. The leadership analyzed the results of the survey and concluded the CAW would be more effective politically if it focused its political work on key issues rather than just on building support for the NDP. A new “non-partisan” strategy could now be justified and was put into action. This new strategy proved to be wholly compatible with and conducive to strategic voting, which then became an entrenched CAW policy.

The collapse of the social movement embodied in the Ontario Days of Action set the stage for much more than just an embrace of strategic voting and a measured degree of electoral support for the Liberal Party, however. It also led to a significant change in the way the CAW addressed social issues. Specifically, extra-parliamentary political action ceased to be a central feature of the CAW’s mobilization around political issues, meaning the CAW’s advocacy of “social movement unionism” started to ring increasingly hollow. Rather than focusing on action in the streets and workplaces, more and more effort was channeled into lobbying politicians and conducting postcard and letter-writing campaigns. The CAW effectively disavowed militant mass protest and the politics of the street.

The new tactical emphasis on lobbying coupled with the embrace of strategic voting only served to push the CAW into a closer relationship with Canada’s “natural governing party,” particularly since today’s Tories barely give unions like the CAW the time of day. Lines of communication between the Liberals and the CAW were consequently strengthened, and bridges were built between the union and the party, to the obvious pleasure of Liberals ever mindful of any opportunity to undercut labour support of the NDP. This, in large measure, set the stage for last year’s “jacketgate.”

Concessions and strategic alliances in the neoliberal era

To understand these recent shifts in the CAW’s political orientation, we must look to the changes wrought by the North American Free Trade Agreement and its impacts on the development of the auto and auto parts industries in Ontario. The past decade and a half saw the aggressive implementation of corporate work reorganization strategies and the relentless downsizing of CAW-affiliated plants, especially at Canadian “Big 3” operations (General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler).
Worse still, these measures have occurred in conjunction with the major expansion of non-union auto manufacturing operations at Toyota and Honda, expansion prompted mainly by increased sales and growing market share. The result is the growth of a non-union workforce in the Canadian auto industry that directly threatens the future of industry-wide CAW agreements.

These developments have also resulted in fierce competition for a diminishing number of jobs at GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, prompting those corporations to step up their pressure for both contract concessions by the CAW and massive government subsidies (which the CAW, desperate to stop the relentless job losses, has supported). Confronted with this increasingly dire situation, the CAW has become overtly non-adversarial in its relationship to these employers and increasingly willing to accommodate their demands for more flexible collective agreements, which take their toll on rank-and-file CAW members.

The end result is yet another reason for the CAW to cozy up to the Liberal Party: the industry increasingly looks to the government for subsidies, and the Liberals tend to be best positioned to deliver such subsidies in exchange for new investments in Canadian-based operations.

Compared to the Liberals, the NDP has little to offer electorally. At the fringes of power both federally and in Ontario, the NDP cannot deliver government subsidies and can only be useful to CAW members in the auto and auto parts industries if and when it holds the balance of power in a minority Liberal government.

The CAW’s decisive break from the NDP cannot be accurately and thoroughly understood without grasping these facts. Indeed, the context they define also goes a long way towards explaining the CAW leadership’s fury at the NDP over the federal party’s decision in late 2005 to stop propping up Paul Martin’s federal Liberal government. This context, combined with the odious recent experience of having Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, largely explains the entrenchment of deep CAW disillusionment with the NDP.

On the other hand, this does not explain why the CAW has never made a serious, let alone sustained, effort to mobilize within the NDP in order to pressure it to take up organized labour’s goals in a more meaningful way. Nor does it explain why the CAW and the Canadian UAW before it have more often than not either openly aligned themselves or passively gone along with the NDP establishment, sometimes even in direct opposition to the left within the NDP.

The end of the affair

In the wake of the CAW’s formal decision at a CAW Council meeting in April 2006 to terminate its relationship to the NDP and opt for a redoubling of its support for its social movement partners (a decision that was reaffirmed at the CAW Constitutional Convention in August), it is not entirely clear what progressive CAW members should push for.

Demanding an increasingly unlikely but not inconceivable return to the previous status quo in terms of a restored relationship with the NDP would be a political dead end. There is no reason to believe that a restored relationship would be followed by a determined CAW effort to internally challenge either the NDP leadership or the increasingly right-wing drift of the party. The effective absence of any such effort throughout all the years the CAW was in the NDP precludes any credible hope that this would be attempted. Regardless, the rightward drift of social democratic parties globally in the context of 21st century capitalism demonstrates that any attempt to turn the NDP decisively to the left is most likely doomed to failure.

Working towards the development of a political alternative decisively to the left of the NDP is a more plausible option. But it has little support currently within a CAW content to drift with the prevailing political winds. In the absence of much more support this must be considered a distant goal. Nonetheless, ongoing advocacy of a political alternative decisively to the left of the NDP is still critically necessary in order to methodically build support for its eventual formation.

In the meantime, there is a compelling need for an immediate political strategy to be advanced from within the CAW which combines sustained attacks on continued CAW electoral support for the Liberals with relentless demands that the CAW leadership return to an adversarial and meaningful anti-concessions stance towards employers, fully cognizant of how succumbing to corporate demands for flexibility is ultimately suicidal for a workers’ organization. Finally, the CAW leadership must also be relentlessly pressed to effectively practice what they are now preaching in relation to our social partners. They must be compelled to forge a renewed, sustained and consistent commitment to grassroots, extra-parliamentary political action of the kind we saw during the Ontario Days of Action, the end of which largely set the stage for the current, muddled political mess highlighted in December 2005 by “jacketgate.”

Bruce Allen is the Vice-President of CAW Local 199 in St. Catharines, Ontario. He founded the CAW Left Caucus.

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