By Bruce Allen
New Socialist Blog
Monday, 23 May 2011
So what exactly am I talking about? How can I make such sweeping assertions? Consider the following. Since auto plants were first organized in this country at GM, Ford and Chrysler back in the middle of the last century pattern or industry-wide agreements have provided autoworkers with essentially the same wages and benefits. That is they did so until 2 years ago when a pattern ceased to exist. A pattern no longer exists because post-2008 concessions bargaining there are now very different benefit packages at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Specifically Health Care Trusts (HCTs) were negotiated at Chrysler and GM but not at Ford. Furthermore the HCT at GM is funded well enough to only secure the benefits of retired GM workers until 2024 while the HCT for retired Chrysler workers is funded well enough to secure their benefits until 2043. Stated otherwise the fund at GM will run out of money in 2024 leaving GM retirees with no benefits while Chrysler workers will maintain theirs until 2043 and Ford workers will retain their benefits indefinitely because no HCT was negotiated at Ford.
This is a real mess. It is also the direct result of concessions bargaining in which the corporations not the union have set and defined the collective bargaining agenda. This too is profoundly significant. It is profoundly significant because pattern or industry – wide agreements had comprised the centrepiece of collective bargaining strategy for the UAW and CAW in the North American auto industry and in doing so facilitated the historic gains achieved by autoworkers in the last half of the 20th Century. Absent pattern bargaining these gains never would have been achieved precisely because it enabled autoworkers to successively build upon and match each others collective bargaining achievements.
I make this point because as I have said many, many times before if workers increasingly identify their interests with their employer's interests and the interests of the two become seen as essentially one and the same the very rationale for having a union is shattered. Stated otherwise the absence of pattern or industry wide agreements strengthens the hands of employers in the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the workforce. Furthermore when a union loses that battle it becomes essentially powerless and incapable of functioning as an independent, class based organization with its own distinct agenda and one which is consequently at odds with the employer's agenda.
This is not abstract theory. This is increasingly a danger prevalent in auto today particularly given a CAW leadership petrified of doing anything the auto bosses disapprove of. They are petrified because they believe employer threats about putting no more investments in Canada unless they get their way and further weaken our collective agreements.
All of this duly noted one thing becomes very clear with respect to developing a strategy for fighting back and reversing the backwards trajectory of the CAW in auto. Autoworkers must demand that one thing in particular be realized in 2012 collective bargaining in auto in Canada. That being the meaningful restoration of a pattern agreement in the Canadian auto industry as the principal means by which we can fight to regain all that we've lost and in the process put autoworkers back at the forefront of the labour movement by leading the way in realizing historic gains for the entire working class and meaningfully empowering ourselves in the process in order to win the larger battles that lie ahead in the face of Capital's ongoing offensive against Labour.
Bruce Allen is Vice-President of CAW Local 199.