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It’s time for Canada’s unions to work more closely with U.S. counterparts

It’s time for Canada’s unions to work more closely with U.S. counterparts

Steven Tufts

October 22, 2023

United Auto Workers union member Steve Bliss holds a picket sign during a strike along the south side of the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex on Friday, Oct. 13, in Toledo, Ohio.

Steven Tufts is a labour geographer in the faculty of environmental and urban change at York University.

In the first half of the 20th century, two-thirds of unionized workers in Canada belonged to international unions – ones based in the United States. It made sense for U.S. unions to organize workers in Canada’s branch-plant economy, which was dominated by factories owned by U.S. multinationals. There were, however, immediate tensions. In the worst cases, workers in Canada were sold out in bargaining to benefit of the larger American membership.

A surge of postwar left-wing Canadian nationalism, U.S. union corruption and anti-democratic practices, the failure of American union leaders to understand Canada and Cold War ideological divisions led workers in Canada to struggle for independent organizations. Therein also lies a geographical paradox: As the North American economy became more deeply integrated with postwar trade agreements, from the 1965 Auto Pact to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, unions in Canada gained greater autonomy from U.S. unions.

Today, less than a quarter of Canadian unionized workers belong to international unions, and in many of those unions, there are now structures that give workers here more national autonomy.

Independence has arguably served unions in Canada well. The power of organized labour has declined in both countries, but currently only 10 per cent of U.S. workers are union members, compared to 30 per cent in Canada. Yet despite the different trajectories and experiences, it may be time for Canada’s unions to consider strengthening relations with their U.S. counterparts.

It is not as if international and national unions in Canada currently fail to work together. There are local, provincial and national campaigns by international and national-affiliated unions, campaigns lead by umbrella organizations such labour councils and other coalitions. Unions on both sides of the border also exchange information and strategies that are relevant in both jurisdictions.

But there is a lack of concrete co-ordination necessary to build the transnational union power to take on transnational corporations such as Inc. AMZN-Q +0.02% increase and Walmart Inc. WMT-N -0.13% decrease There are good reasons for North American unions to re-engage with one another.

One is the reality of the integrated North American economy and production system. “The most famous split from a U.S. union was the 1985 formation of the Canadian Auto Workers (which morphed into Unifor). Canadian members of the United Auto Workers union had resisted concessions to automakers at the time, but lacked the autonomy to reject them. So, Bob White, the Canadian union director, led workers out of the UAW. Fast forward to today, however, and the two unions stand divided against the Big Three Detroit auto companies on both sides of the border.

The two unions have adopted very different strategies. The UAW is in a generational round of bargaining with the Big Three – General Motors Co. GM-N +1.17%increase, Ford Motor Co. F-N +1.00%increase and Stellantis NV STLA-N +0.88%increase – as Unifor bargains a pattern agreement with the same three multinationals in Canada. But one has to ask whether there was an opportunity to scale up bargaining beyond the regional to all of North America with a co-ordinated strategy. How would GM, Ford or Stellantis respond if one of them faced a continental strike?

Building stronger continental alliances is a stepping stone to a more comprehensive labour internationalism. There are a number of global union federations that bring together unions in the same sector. Innovative campaigns have been developed to exert worldwide pressure on employers that have global supply chains.

The challenge for Canada’s unions is to build deeper alliances without again being dominated by large U.S. labour organizations. The historical and geographical logic for independence of unions in Canada remains sound. Moreover, labour internationalism remains a limited project, and there have been cases of labour imperialism as unions in rich countries exert power over labour organizations in the Global South. So, what is needed is a double movement that simultaneously achieves autonomy for Canadian unions while expanding transnational solidarity.

The first step is to expand autonomy and democracy in all unions in Canada, national and international. Before workers can scale up action, they need more local democratic control in their own unions. If workers can engage in democratic debate and play a greater role in shaping the strategies of their unions, they are more likely to have the confidence to build solidarity with other organizations.

The second step is to develop structures that bring different unions together in concrete ways. In Canada, unions do work together through local, provincial and national labour councils. Representatives from different unions focus on public policy campaigns and lobbying.

Solidarity pacts are another tool unions have used in the past to work together. Select unions and community groups agree to work together on a common issue. U.S. and Canadian unions could conclude a number of sectoral North American solidarity pacts to develop common organizing and bargaining strategies. Unions in a pact would commit to work together as equal partners. Automaking is an obvious sector for such pacts, but the need for co-ordinated efforts extends to retail, hospitality, health care, education and many others.

Relations between unions in Canada and the U.S. must extend beyond having labour leaders as international guest speakers or supporting projects with money but not real power and co-ordination. Unions in Canada have achieved a great deal of independence over the decades and are no longer weaker subsidiaries of U.S. labour. It is time to re-engage with U.S. unions to build transnational power from a position of confidence and respect to benefit all workers, and to escape the geographical paradox.

Originally posted on The Globe and Mail