The antecedents of this crisis are the peculiar politics of the Service Employees International Union, whose Canadian operations have been dominated by a mega-local called 204, a collection of hundreds of nursing and old-folks homes and homeworkers stretching from Toronto to the farthest reaches of southern Ontario.With 30,000 members, it makes up a third of the SEIU membership in Canada. For years it operated under a leadership accused of being too cozy with employers.
Then, in 1996, a more progressive element within SEIU but from outside 204 took the position of international vice-president from the old guard. The new occupant of the union's top spot in Canada was one Ken Brown, who hailed from Windsor, which is both Motor City and a place where the Canadian Auto Workers sets the tone in union politics.
"A lot of what I was trying do in my first couple of years as international director was borrow some of the things that had made (the CAW) successful," Brown says, "like their ability to mobilize, to mount public campaigns and their aggressive representation of their workers."
But Brown says he constantly found himself wedged between local 204 on one side and the office of the international president on the other. To consider the Canadian union's yearning for more autonomy, the SEIU set up what became known as the November group, after the month in 1998 when it was formed. The fruits of its work were laid on the table when Canadian SEIU locals met in Toronto last Valentine's Day. Canadians would have control over dues and decision-making. But voting at Canadian conventions would still be weighted according to the size of the local, which left 204 with its influence.
Brown attended and voted for it. But five days later he sent a letter to the international president in Washington saying he was quitting as international VP and merging his and seven other locals with the CAW.
"When (president Andy Stern's) top staff people sat on (the November group), it was clear that was more an exercise in keeping folks in line with the American vision rather than letting us do anything different over here," Brown says.
At the same time that Stern was conceding a measure of autonomy to Canadians, he was also pushing for the creation of large, state- and province-wide locals, Brown says, just the kind of monster that had proved to be such a headache in Ontario. "Stern has a real bias toward large locals," Brown says, pointing out that there are locals in New York with 140,000 people -- more members than the SEIU has in all of Canada. (Stern's staff in Washington say he's on holiday. SEIU's new Canadian VP, Sharleen Stewart, says no such amalgamations are planned here.)
By last January's meeting in Florida of the international union, Brown says, he and his fellow secessionists "had come to the point where we saw it was unlikely we were going to be able to work within this union to make changes."
That realization set up the chain of events that culminated in the dramatic announcement of the deal to join the CAW and the aggressive counterattack from the SEIU that followed.
If the eight renegade locals' merger agreement with the CAW came as a surprise, so did the SEIU's response. It promptly sued Brown and 22 other executive officers for $5.5 million each and placed the locals under trustees appointed by Washington. And it went to Ontario Superior Court, which ordered meetings of members to vote on disaffiliation to be cancelled.
Foiled by the courts in its original plan to take votes at the locals, the CAW instead has taken advantage of provincial labour law, which says that when a contract has expired, workplaces are in an "open period" and workers are free to vote on changing their unions. Now the two duelling unions are in a form of hand-to-hand combat that sets up contests in nursing homes with as few as 15 or 20 staff to decide whether to stay or go. So far, just under 100 workplaces have had votes and nearly all of them have gone CAW, but in 15 or 20 others the SEIU has either signed contracts or the CAW has failed to get the 40 per cent of signatures of those in a workplace that are needed to trigger a vote on changing unions.
But the costs aren't being borne only by those two unions. The Labour Council of Toronto and York Region, for example, organizers of the local Labour Day parade, has lost 15 per cent of its members and revenue because CAW people are no longer able to participate.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars and the time of hundreds of organizers are being directed at people who are already organized rather than the 70 per cent of Canadian workers who are not members of a union at all. Stewart of SEIU says all her union's organizing resources are going into trying to save its members. "We haven't been (organizing) campaigns, because we've been busy fighting off this raid.