Labour’s bad day

Latest clash in war in union movement's top echelon sees renegade autoworkers boycotting the big parade

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When the Labour Day parade sets out from University and Queen this Monday morning, the largest private-sector union in Canada won’t be there. The Canadian Auto Workers have decided to have their own event, thank you very much, rather than walk in shame at the ass end.

On the day that’s supposed to send a don’t-fuck-with-us message to the big, bad bosses, unions are instead clawing each other’s eyes out and hurling allegations of deceit, double-dealing, fraud and craven manoeuvring for power. Norma Rae would not be proud.

The worst split in the labour movement in 50 years is about an attempt by eight Ontario locals of a U.S.-based union to break away from their parent and merge with the CAW. In the labour business, it’s called a raid — when one union signs up the members of another in a hostile takeover bid. There have been lots over the years, and they always involve their share of bitterness.

But the circumstances in which 30,000 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) became the object of this tug of war are more sensational than any garden-variety union raid. The entire union movement has been dragged in, creating a toxic stew of personality squabbles, political differences and competing egos that no one can clean up.

tragic split

“It’s tragic, the worst possible time in our history to have a split like this,” says Judy Darcy, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Of course, as with any other latter-day dispute that threatens labour unity, the spectre of Buzz Hargrove looms large. It was he who signed the merger with the eight renegade SEIU locals, and it’s he who faces the wrath of his fellow union executives — even those who are usually on his side.

So now the CAW has become the scourge of organized labour. Sanctions imposed by the Canadian Labour Congress — the body composed of reps of the country’s unions — mean that CAW people can’t take part in Congress activities or in provincial labour federations or local labour councils. But those meting out the punishment have to take their licks, too — they lose their valuable CAW funding. Already, the Ontario Federation of Labour has had to send out layoff notices to staff.

With the stakes so high, there has been a lot of pressure to get the thing fixed. But a last-ditch meeting last weekend in Calgary in which the international president of the SEIU flew in from Washington, DC, to participate ended in a stalemate. Now a prolonged period of estrangement looms. A Berlin Wall has just gone up in the middle of the Canadian labour movement.

The body that has imposed sanctions — the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) — is, perversely, the same one that’s responsible for getting everyone back together. So far, it hasn’t had much luck.

First, the CLC appointed an umpire who looked at the squabble. He ruled that because the attempt to merge took place with the CAW’s backing, it violated the CLC constitution, which sets out its own process for how workers can leave one union and join another. He also ruled that because there were contracts in place with employers, the merger was illegal. Cease and desist, the CLC ordered.

But the CAW kept signing up members, even as the CLC imposed an increasingly serious series of sanctions, culminating in the ouster of CAW reps from the CLC and all labour bodies affiliated with it. Still, the unions keep slugging it out in the old-age and nursing homes where most SEIU members work.

CLC president Ken Georgetti — who got his job thanks in large part to Hargrove’s backing — says other squabbles over raiding have never gone this far. “When a finding of guilt has been delivered by the independent adjudicator, most of the time the affiliate has decided to discontinue its action, but in this case the CAW has decided to continue.”

deal failed

Georgetti’s latest attempt to broker a deal ended in failure at the Calgary meeting, though some thought it might go somewhere. The usual participants had been joined by two guests — president Andy Stern from the SEIU Washington office and former CLC head Bob White, the president of the CAW when it was formed as a breakaway from an American union.

“There was a complete difference of opinion on the part of the parties as to how to get the dispute resolved,” White says. After four hours they called it quits.

On the SEIU side, the demand was for the sign-ups to stop before they would talk about anything else. On the CAW side, the bottom line was that SEIU staff reps fired for being involved in the merger be taken back and that former executive members of the runaway locals be allowed to run in future elections — even if the locals end up back in the hands of the SEIU.

This, says SEIU spokesperson Collin Gribbons, is a non-starter. “It’s just illogical to think that people who have betrayed your organization should come back and work in their old positions.”

Instead of getting closer to a settlement, matters are just getting more fired up. CAW organizers have yelled “Yankee go home!” at some sites, and Hargrove has been cast by SEIU activists as a marauding Saddam Hussein.

staffers fired

With the recriminations flying around him, the labour movement in disarray and several fired SEIU staffers still out of work, the man who led the merger attempt says there might have been a more piecemeal way to deal with the matter. “You could argue that we should have been more astute in terms of how much notice we gave them under the constitution,” says Ken Brown, the SEIU’s top executive in Canada before all this took place.

But he points out that the SEIU constitution makes it possible for as few as seven dissenting members to prevent locals from switching unions, which all but prevents mergers with other unions.

Brown says members did not have time to ratify the merger with the CAW because the SEIU locals were placed under trusteeship.

“The elected leaders of those locals went into a process,” Brown says. “(The merger) would have been ratified by the members” if the SEIU had allowed elections to take place.

Of course, in an emotional dispute like this one, the combatants on the other side are offering a counter-explanation of why the breakaway artists acted as they did.

The way the SEIU’s Gribbons sees it, Brown’s reasoning doesn’t stack up. For one thing, he says, the large locals he complains of (see sidebar) are just as much a feature of the CAW, which has locals in the airline industry that stretch from one end of Canada to the other.

Gribbons also questions Brown’s reasoning that the difference between health care industries here and south of the border make it difficult for a U.S.-headquartered union to respond to the Canadian reality. In the U.S., the industry is largely privately run and 90-per-cent non-unionized. Here, it’s mostly public sector and 90-per-cent organized.

“With the privatization trend that’s going on now, you’re seeing more and more American companies crossing the border. These are companies that the SEIU in the States deals with on a day-to-day basis, so they know what kind of bargaining approach to take.”

The foes of the secessionists have their own explanation for what happened. It centres on self-interest, the promise of jobs from the CAW and the suggestion that Brown feared he would not be re-elected to the VP spot this fall.

“One issue that people had with Ken Brown was cooperation with the international. People saw that he had a confrontational style. He would have got beat (in elections for VP), so he gathered his troops and did his thing,” says Gribbons, noting that Brown is now employed as an assistant to CAW prez Buzz Hargrove on health care issues.

As the accusations and counter-accusations fly, the entire Canadian labour movement has been pulled into the fray. Once again, Buzz Hargrove finds himself in the middle, insisting he’s on the moral high ground. It’s all about democracy, he says, and the right of workers to belong to the union of their choice and not be treated as chattel owned by unions.

But unlike other arguments in the house of labour — and there have been many — in this one Hargrove finds himself all by his lonesome. Not surprisingly, members of other international unions are on his case, many fearing that this latest set-to is part of a larger Hargrove plot to destroy the CLC and set up a replacement more to his liking.

Suspicious moves

“There are some people who are saying that Buzz’s desire from the beginning has been to set up his own (labour) movement and maybe his own political formation, that he’s always had this in mind,” says Peter Leibovitch, an activist in the United Steelworkers of America, the CAW’s archrival.

Hargrove’s recent movings about setting up a group of unions to rival the CLC only add to his enemies’ fears. The CAW president says he’d prefer to work within the existing labour congress, but adds that if he left, some other unions would follow him into a new body. “Given a real alternative (to the CLC), you would see quite a significant response.”

But some who are close to Hargrove think, for the moment at least, that he’s got himself in a bog from which he can’t extricate himself. “I think Buzz underestimated what the backlash would be,” says one labour leader who’s sympathetic to Hargrove. “He allowed himself to become isolated, with no labour leaders openly supporting him.”

It’s particularly telling that a “joint solidarity statement” issued in May whose call for unity and respect for the CLC constitution was a direct swipe at Hargrove, is signed by union heads who are usually in his camp, among them CUPE’s Judy Darcy.

“Judy has been a fair-weather friend,” Hargrove says. “When it’s been to her benefit to have our support on things like the social contract (the controversial law brought in by the Rae government), then that was fine. But once there’s another dispute on principle, she very quickly walks away.”

Darcy’s endorsement of the statement is also noteworthy because she herself had initiated discussions with the SEIU about the possibility of their joining CUPE, says Brown — discussions that quickly came to an end when the international office in Washington found out about them. Ironically, says Brown, when he first went to Hargrove in 1998 about the possibility of bringing over his SEIU members, the CAW president encouraged him to work out matters within the SEIU.


Hargrove says self-interest is the cause of Darcy’s position now. “I supported Ken Georgetti for president of the Congress (rather than her), she did not want our union in the health care sector, and she was pissed off at Ken Brown because he did not bring them to her union.”

For her part, Darcy says she is opposed on principle to raiding and that her discussion with Brown was prompted by rumours swirling about SEIU Canada joining CAW.

Darcy recalls, “I asked Ken, ‘Do you have a mandate for merger?’ He said no. I said, ‘Fine, if you ever do have a mandate for merger, you should be talking to CUPE as well.'”

So far, the rank-and-file worker is oblivious to how poisoned the air is in the highest echelons. As CAW local president Larry Wark from Halifax notes, “I think if you did a tour across Canada and asked average working people in trade unions ‘What do you think of the CLC?’ they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.”

If Joe and Jane Worker did know what’s going on in those tension-filled backrooms, perhaps the dispute would not have become so out-of-control. For if the big-shot union execs had to look ordinary workers in the eye and explain how this mess puts them any further ahead, they’d be at a loss for words, which after all this would be a very nice sound indeed.

Labour look

Number of members of the Canadian Auto Workers Union: 238,000

Members of the Service Employees International Union: 1.4 million

Members of the Service Employees International Union: 1.4 million

SEIU members in Canada: 85,000

SEIU members in Canada: 85,000

SEIU members in Ontario: 60,000

SEIU members in Ontario: 60,000

Number of members of the eight locals involved in the &quotemerger&quote: 30,000

Number of members of the eight locals involved in the &quotemerger&quote: 30,000

Number of Canadian workers represented by the Canadian Labour Congress: 2.4 million

Number of Canadian workers represented by the Canadian Labour Congress: 2.4 million

Percentage of Canadian workforce that’s unionized: 30

Percentage of Canadian workforce that’s unionized: 30

Percentage of U.S. workforce that’s organized: 15

Percentage of U.S. workforce that’s organized: 15

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