activist notes

Democracy: Too Important to Leave to the Members? by activistnotes
July 16, 2008, 11:25 am
Filed under: Labour movement, Union | Tags: , , ,

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~(((( T h e B u l l e t ))))~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A Socialist Project e-bulletin …. No. 124 …. July 14, 2008

Democracy: Too Important to Leave to the Members?

Sam Gindin

Earlier this summer, it looked like the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union
was about to experience something truly unusual in its history — a
contested campaign for national president. The last contest for the union’s
top Canadian officer was in 1960, a quarter of a century before the
formation of the CAW and a year when Tommy Douglas was Premier of
Saskatchewan and John F Kennedy was running for President of the United

A transition in leadership was coming: CAW President Buzz Hargrove would
turn 65, the agreed mandatory retirement age for union staff and officials,
in March 2009. His handpicked successor was Ken Lewenza who, like Hargrove,
came out of Chrysler’s Windsor Assembly Plant. The succession also included
anointing Peter Kennedy, the current Assistant to Secretary-Treasurer Jim
O’Neil, to move up when O’Neil retired in August 2009. As Hargrove
contemplated exactly when and how he would announce the timing of his
retirement, two very credible candidates, both assistants to Hargrove, had
declared their intent to run: Hemi Mitic against Lewenza and Carol Phillips
against Kennedy.

The possibility of a break with tradition and an actual election did not
come out of nowhere. During relatively good times, the absence of contested
elections was commented on, but passively accepted. Now, with crises piling
up in one sector in manufacturing after another in Canada (the state of the
auto industry being the most publicized), a good number of CAW activists
were increasingly frustrated and restless. It was in that context that
rumors of an election began to circulate and the contesting candidates

This was an opportunity that the union leadership should have jumped at.
After years of growing demoralization inside the union, an election could
have been a catalyst for union renewal, opening a space for membership
participation in the crucial questions facing the union, and developing the
candidates’ own thinking. How could the union’s dismal record in organizing
new members be reversed? What changes in union priorities would an
organizational drive imply and what commitments from the locals did it
demand? The union’s formal policy against concessions was contradicted by
the reality on the ground. What was needed to return the union to its
slogan that ‘fighting back makes a difference’? International solidarity
between unions is often discussed, but what could it concretely mean? The
environment had emerged as a central issue that would transform everything
about how we produce and live. Where did the candidates stand on the
insecurities and opportunities this implies? The regional and sectoral
composition of the CAW’s membership base is today radically different than
when the CAW was formed, but the union’s structures have remained the same.
What do the candidates have to say about how to take advantage of this
potential, and what do the locals themselves want to put on the agenda in
terms of structural change?

It was an opportunity as well to raise the issue of the CAW’s relative
separation from the rest of the labour movement (notably its continued
absence from Ontario Federation of Labour), at the same time that the CAW
drifted closer to the corporate and political elite (symbolized by the
joint dinner with Canada’s business and political elites in the middle of a
CAW Bargaining Convention). Who are the union’s friends and who are its
enemies? Where do the candidates stand on union support for the Liberals?
Can the union really expect to address the crisis in manufacturing jobs,
the restructuring of private services, the commercialization of social
services, or reverse free trade without rebuilding ties to the rest of the
Canadian working class and mobilizing working class communities beyond its

A contested election might have reminded people why unions remain so
important and brought more members into the active life of the union. That
opportunity, in terms of the contest for the CAW presidency, was thrown
aside. The union leadership seemed more concerned with ensuring executive
control over the presidential succession and especially determined not to
open debates it could not control and risk commitments that might hold
future leaders accountable. In a phrase that may come to define his legacy,
Hargrove expressed his impatience with an open electoral contest for the
leadership of one of Canada’s largest and most storied working class
organizations in these terms: “We’re not a political party, we’re a union”
(Globe and Mail, July 7, 2008).

Continue reading:

Sam Gindin is the Packer Visiting Professor in Social Justice at York

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