Since I hung up my welder’s helmet for the last time in 2001 to pursue a career in the word factories, I’ve avoided paying too much attention to what goes on in and around the Canadian Auto Workers.
Still, membership card or not, the CAW was, and remains, My Union. For me at least, class is a little like the Catholic Church and hometowns: no matter how far away I am from them, they remain who I am, down to my very bones.
My journeys since leaving my little corner of a Windsor minivan assembly plant seven years ago have taken me across almost every major meridian of longitude on the planet.
But even when I’ve put the Antarctic Circle under my belt, I will remain a worker from Windsor, birthplace of the CAW. My dad, my uncle and thousands of other workers just like them made the union happen in 1985, when they split from the international United Auto Workers, refusing to buy the line that the only way to keep their jobs was by giving stuff up.
Then came CAW prez Buzz Hargrove’s April pact with the Big Three featuring what is essentially a three-year wage freeze.The deal was gift-wrapped and rush-delivered to ratification votes during the Victoria Day long weekend, when the only thing any auto worker in his or her right mind is thinking about is getting far away from the death vigils under way on their plant floors.
Yup, let’s not sugar-coat it. Just as Buzz and the bargaining committees were racing to get the deal signed, GM announced it would leave Windsor completely in 2010, ending its 90-year presence there.
Suddenly, it’s like seeing a church wall collapse on top of a crowd that collected to watch rescuers carry away the dead from a nearby train wreck. I just can’t look away, and I just can’t stop screaming.
I suppose one could argue that no union, government or corp could have anticipated dollar parity or skyrocketing fuel costs, which are getting most of the blame for the current industry crisis.
But I say bullshit. Peak oil is hardly a new idea, and much of the current CAW leadership came of age during the oil shocks of the mid-70s. Back then, Victor Reuther no less, brother of UAW founder Walter, was warning that the Big Three’s affinity for flogging “gas-guzzling mastodons” would be their undoing.
Sure, the CAW unveiled its vaunted Green Car strategy last summer, too late, perhaps, by about 15 years. But it never campaigned on it with anything like the grave urgency of the battles over Rae Days or strikebreakers, despite the fact that its importance for workers’ livelihoods is far more pressing. And Hargrove seriously undermined the message by attacking BC’s attempt to raise emission standards. He simply never attempted to use the union’s numbers to call the bosses out on the foolishness of relying on a cheap loonie and cheap gas to keep the good times rolling.
And now the good times are gone.
If the ratification of the contracts represents the climax of Hargrove’s presidential narrative, the months en route to his mandatory retirement in August 2009 are going to be one long, sloppy, tawdry post-coital smoke.
At least that’s how it felt when I saw who’s helping to plan his send-??off June 11 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the main beneficiary of which will be Eva’s Initiatives, a project that finds homes for at-risk youth. The funds raised by the dinner and assorted “sponsorship opportunities” will go toward funding a new building that will bear Hargrove’s name.
Noble, of course, but what does it say about who you’re hanging out with these days, Buzz?Sure, a few requisite pillars of the respectable Canadian left are on the guest list: Bob White, Stephen Lewis, Craig Kielburger, Shirley Douglas. Then there are a few senators, privy councillors and other symbols of Upper Canadiana, both old money and nouveau gauche.
If you look higher up on the list, though, it’s hard not to get the impression that sometime in the past few years Buzz Hargrove turned into Boss Hargrove.
There’s Magna founder Frank Stronach, with whom Hargrove signed a no-strike pact, and former New Brunswick premier and workfare pioneer Frank McKenna, both thoughtfully stepping into the roles of dinner co-chairs. Oh, and there’s tribute chair Gerry Schwartz, whose ONEX Corp. owns or has interests in several CAW?represented facilities. Schwartz’s wife, Chapters/Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, whose aversion to unions in her operation is well known (one of my first journalistic efforts was a story about just that), merits a spot on the tribute committee. And among the honourary patrons are Mike Harris, Bob Rae and Brian Mulroney.
No one is begrudging a worthy charity a new building, but nor should we pretend that Hargrove’s swank dinner with his newer, better friends is anything but what it is – proof positive that a once-proud labour innovator who aspired to build connections with a broader social movement has now morphed into his opposite.
Hargrove is settling in for a nice, leisurely stroll toward lame-duck status until his 2009 step-down. Rumours abound about this or that person putting their neck on the line to contest any CAW coronation for new leader, but it remains an open question whether that person could counter the Chosen One’s massive institutional advantage, or indeed whether such a struggle is even worth pursuing.