It’s been a red hot labour summer across Canada. Workers, who have been feeling the pinch of the rising cost of living, are fed up with being asked to tighten their belts while big corporations rake in large profits. In the public sector, years of government austerity and draconian legislation have left workers further behind. A number of high profile tentative agreements have been rejected by rank and file workers, who are demanding more. The number of person days lost to strikes remains relatively high.
While workers are united in their frustrations with employers, their own class institutions remain bureaucratically divided. This has been most readily apparent during the Metro grocery worker strike in the GTA. This summer, 3700 Metro workers at 27 stores in the Greater Toronto Area, represented by Unifor, rejected a tentative deal and went on strike on July 29. Hammered by the rising cost of living, workers demanded more from a company that is earning record profits.
Years of price gouging by big grocery chains meant the strike received widespread public sympathy. Unifor picket lines were strong and the shutting down of GTA distribution centre later in the strike was an effective economic tactic. The Justice for Workers campaign was able to help build support amongst the broader public and labour movement.
However, what was largely missing was the organized solidarity of the rest of the labour movement. There were no big rallies organized by the rest of the labour movement and no organized presence to bolster union solidarity on Metro picket lines. Individual union members and locals organized to show support, most notably striking TVO workers and Ontario Nurses Association members visited Metro pickets lines. But these efforts were no substitute for organized strike support effort from the broader labour movement.
When Unifor left the Canadian Labour Caucus (CLC) in January 2018 an institutional barrier to building effective working class solidarity was created. Unifor members in elected positions at local labour councils and federations of labour had to step down. Unifor’s per capita donations to the CLC (and to federations of labour and labour council) totalling more than $10 million a year were stopped. This was a financial hit for those institutions that directly impacted campaigning and staffing.
The stated reasons Unifor gave for leaving the CLC was over the question of Article 4 of the CLC constitution, the disputes procedure, specifically over the section that details the process by which members can leave one union and join another. Unifor also painted itself defending the autonomy of Canadian unions in the face of international union leaderships based out of the United States.
This issue was coloured by two conflicts.
One was Unifor’s support of Bob Kinnear, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 in Toronto. Kinnear was in conflict with the ATU International and in early 2017 he manoeuvred to disaffiliate the local from ATU. ATU 113, representing TTC workers, was the largest ATU local in Canada. Kinnear filed an article 4.9 request to disaffiliate, but was not supported by any executives, stewards or members at his local. It turned out Kinnear was supported by Unifor, who paid for his lawyer and splashy ads in newspapers that painted the conflict as one between an US led International union versus Canadian workers. Kinnear was eventually kicked out of the ATU and Unifor’s role in the affair was exposed.
The second conflict at the time of the split was the internal power struggle happening at UNITE HERE Local 75 in Toronto. Local 75, which represents hotel workers and food service workers, was divided internally and in conflict with UNITE HERE International over priorities. The international trusteed the local leadership. The local leaders then left and joined Unifor. This happened at the exact same time as Unifor left the CLC.
What followed was Unifor raiding in Toronto’s hotel sector, which ultimately divided workers. A huge amount of money and energy was expended by Unifor and UNITE HERE and the result was workers ended up much weaker in the sector than before.
“The Unifor-CLC split is crass power play politics, where the temptation of new members trumps principles. This of course is dressed up in the language of nationalism and democracy, and is being justified by pointing to a dispute about the dispute resolutions process…It is not Article 4 that is broken, but our union leadership which is willing to engage in a civil war instead of fighting the bosses.”
Divisions inside labour
Beyond the immediate causes of the split there are underlying issues that divide the labour movement. Unifor supports a non-partisan approach to political campaigning – CAW, one of the two unions that merged into Unifor, disaffiliated from the NDP in 2006, but in reality had moved to supporting strategic voting by the late 1990s. At the 2017 Ontario Federation of Labour convention, delegates voted to support the NDP and reject strategic voting, to the displeasure of Unifor delegates. But Unifor is hardly the only union to oppose a blanket endorsement of the NDP. Teachers unions like the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, as well as unions in the trades like LiUNA and the Carpenters support strategic voting. In the last provincial election in Ontario, the largest LiUNA local in the country, Local 183, backed Doug Ford’s Conservatives.
The labour movement has weathered splits before. In 2000, the CAW left the CLC for two years over charges of raiding SEIU in Ontario. NUPGE briefly left the CLC in 2010 over the handling of raiding by the Teamsters. In 2010 the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) and other unions began a dues strike at the OFL because it disagreed with the elected OFL president. All of these disputes weakened rather than strengthened the collective power of workers.
The basis for many of these disagreements were power politics: disputes over turf and personality conflicts. This isn’t to say that there are not real political divisions inside the labour movement, but rather, the institutional divisions and splits that have occurred are rarely about those political questions.
The idea that Unifor should sit outside the house of labour because it advocates for strategic voting does not hold water. The reality is the labour movement as a whole would benefit by having open political and strategic debates at our labour conventions and meetings amongst members that include Unifor’s perspective. Siloing our movement off because of tactical and strategic questions is a recipe to deaden political engagement in our movement. We need to debate these questions out openly while also building a strong labour movement. There is no real political reason why Unifor should not be in the CLC.
Many of the leaders who were at the centre of the Unifor-CLC split are no longer there. Hassan Yussuff is a Liberal appointed senator. Jerry Dias resigned due to a corruption scandal. Smokey Thomas, one of Jerry Dias’ biggest allies in the labour movement, resigned and is mired in Canada’s largest ever union corruption scandal. Dias has been replaced by Lana Payne as president of Unifor. Payne is a staunch progressive. J.P. Hornick, who led the 2017 Ontario college faculty strike, was elected as OPSEU president in 2022. There is an opening right now to rectify the split.
Unity from bottom to top
Workers and union members don’t care about the bureaucratic split in our movement. When workers are on strike fighting for better working conditions and pay against the boss, our natural instinct is to support it. Solidarity means not caring about the flag workers are waving when they are fighting the boss. As workers, we know we are always stronger when we are fighting together.
This was powerfully demonstrated by the massive solidarity with education workers in Ontario who were facing down Doug Ford’s Bill 28. Rank and file workers and community members organized far-reaching solidarity actions in their communities and workplaces. Unifor coordinated efforts with other unions and when the time came to show a united front amongst unions against Ford, Unifor was there. Workers were united and forced the government to roll back its draconian legislation.
If the labour movement wants up its game it needs to be united.
The OFL’s Enough is Enough campaign in Ontario hints at the potential of what the labour movement could do. Uniting workers and social movements in a fight for better public services and higher wages for all. The large June 3rd day of action in Ontario was impressive, but it was also notable because Unifor was nowhere to be seen. Any effective campaign to advance workers interests in Canada needs to include the largest private sector union in the country. How much stronger would the Enough is Enough campaign be if Unifor members were part of it, if Unifor was chipping into help finance it?
While there are certainly back room discussions about the possibility of Unifor returning to the CLC. It is high time the labour movement openly discussed the political importance of a united labour movement. It is too easy to get hung up on financial details and personality conflicts behind closed doors. Workers are facing a cost of living crisis, a renewed assault by employers, and the prospect of a reactionary Pierre Poilievere government. Workers can’t afford a divided labour movement.
This labour day, Unifor members will be marching in Labour Day parades across the country. Workers are building unity from below, it is high time labour leadership follows.
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