Wednesday Jun 20

Northern Light: Little Unity in UNIFOR

The largest private sector union in Canada has quit the Canadian Labour Congress. UNIFOR wants to be able to sign up members of other unions, are actively doing so, and the raids and disaffiliation have sent shockwaves through the Canadian labour movement.

The Canadian Auto Workers and Communication, Energy and Paperworkers of Canada merged in 2014 to form UNIFOR.

The UNIFOR merger was touted (by UNIFOR) as a new start for Canadian labour. UNIFOR was going to devote 10% of their budget to the organizing department.

UNIFOR also had plan to organize and service Community Chapters, because as us ACORN organizers know, community organizing is something big labour can pick up with a little training and a reading of Rules for Radicals. It’s totally easy!

Further back, the Canadian Auto Workers famously split from the UAW on nationalist grounds. They felt that UAW negotiated contracts with American workers at heart, and so they broke free and started CAW. Many older trade unionists in Canada speak proudly of Canadian unionism and how they split from the US-based international unions. Ever since their formation, the CAW has questioned the legitimacy of the other international unions, which make up the majority of private sector unions in Canada. Now UNIFOR is taking that a step further.

ATU Canada President Paul Thorp sees UNIFOR as a direct threat. ACORN Canada works with ATU Canada on their Keep Transit Public campaign and have a joint action planned calling for community benefits to be part of a new Light Rail Train the province is building in the Peel region abutting Toronto. In my conversations with him he has pulled zero punches about UNIFOR raids. Thorp and the ATU fought off an attempted UNIFOR raid last year of ATU’s largest local. His predecessor Bob Kinnear, in a protracted struggle with ATU International, signed a UNIFOR member card and invited UNIFOR to raid ATU Local 113. In the end the raid was unsuccessful but was a sign of things to come.

This year UNIFOR had its sights on the feisty and progressive UNITE HERE Local 75 - also based out of Toronto. ACORN has worked closely with Local 75 on a campaign to stop AirBnb from sucking up what’s left of Toronto’s affordable rental housing stock. Local 75 was having differences with their international over their budget and dues allocations, but nothing that seemed to even close observers like ourselves to be of great concern. Then stunning everyone, UNIFOR announced that they were quitting the CLC over the issue that article 4 of the CLC constitution needed changing in order to allow for members to change unions more easily. Simultaneously, UNITE HERE 75 President Lis Pimentel announced she had signed a UNIFOR Card and UNIFOR began to raid 17 unionized hotels in Toronto. I didn’t see that coming.

ATU’s Paul Thorp is adamant that UNIFOR wants to be the big union in Canada and expects more raiding, as do many other unions in the Canadian

Labour Congress. UNIFOR, and their new Local 7575 now represent 800 hotel workers in Toronto. Surely, they must have thought they would have done better than winning only four of the seventeen hotels in Toronto. Everyone in the labour and progressive community is left scratching their heads wondering why UNIFOR would split the house of labour over 800 members.

A look over into the situation at the CLC itself is no less messy and confusing.

CLC President Hassan Yussuff comes from UNIFOR. UNIFOR campaigned hard to get Yousef elected over incumbent Ken Georgetti, a rival from United Steelworkers, a few years back. It is clear now that UNIFOR wanted the CLC and Yussuff to ease rules on raiding. One can assume that Yussuff was either unable, or unwilling, to do that once elected.

Now the question on the local level is what happens to all of the UNIFOR members who are deeply embedded in the CLC’s organization of provincial labour federations and local labour councils. As UNIFOR members they technically no longer have standing within the labour federations, since they are no longer affiliated. The big labour leaders from UNIFOR are staying. Yussuff has accepted an honorary membership from the Public Service Alliance of Canada and has been allowed to stay on as President. Likewise, Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley has taken out a membership in another union and is staying on for president for now. UNIFOR members elected both, so you have to think they have little chance on being re-elected when their terms run out, unless UNIFOR re-affiliates.

In Peel, just outside Toronto, the labour council president cancelled his meetings on the day UNIFOR quit the CLC because he felt, as a UNIFOR member, he no longer was able to be on the council. He’s just out, and the relatively weak Peel Labour Council is left hanging. Sad and bizarre.

Does UNIFOR come back? In 2000 when the CAW raided SEIU locals they were barred from the CLC and returned after the dust settled. It is possible. Also, quite possible that Paul Thorp is correct in his analysis that UNIFOR wants to be Canada’s big union, and in doing so sees it as manifest destiny that the members of the international unions would join its ranks. The saddest part of all of this is that most working-class people need an explanation as to what the CLC even is, let alone see it as a force advancing their goals. Perhaps UNIFOR knows this, thinks the CLC is irrelevant too, and wants to supplant the CLC as the voice of workers in Canada.

It is all very depressing to say the least.

John Anderson is the Head Organizer of Toronto ACORN. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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