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Mega-union promises major impact on labour front

Canada's union movement has increasingly become a public-sector organization

The decision of two of Canada's largest private-sector unions to create a new, national "super-union" of more than 300,000 members, including many in strategic sectors like auto manufacturing and the oilsands, could have a major impact here in B.C.

With 27,800 members in this province, a new union formed by the merger of the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) would have a major presence in the pulp industry, aluminum smelting, hospitality, air services, media, oil refining and public transit.

The new union would increase expenditures on national organizing to $50 million over five years, more than double the amount now being spent by the two unions together.

Back that with an amalgamated strike fund of $135 million, capable of paying $250 a week to a lot of strikers for a long time, and you have the ingredients for a whole new ballgame on the labour scene.

The proposal must pass muster at national conventions of the CAW and CEP this fall, but there is no possibility that auto president Ken Lewenza and CEP president Dave Coles, a B.C. pulp industry veteran, have any doubts on that score.

The new union will become a reality at a founding convention in 2013, complete with a new name, a new "brand" identity and a wide range of innovative approaches, including a commitment to provide membership and benefits to dues-payers who are not working under a collective agreement. Unions have experimented with this before; none has made it a core strategy.

Innovation will be necessary to reverse the long-term trends the two unions have bluntly set out in the 45-page New Union proposal.

Union density in Canada's private sector is in free-fall, still well above the US level of 7% but tumbling to 17% here as manufacturing heads overseas, outsourcing picks up steam and technology reshapes the Canadian economy.

Canada's union movement has increasingly become a public-sector organization. Labour has simply been unable to win new collective agreements in emerging sectors of the economy, especially the service sector.

Is the "new union" an act of desperation? Not at all, the merger document declares, just an overdue response to a long-standing employer offensive and the corrosive effects of neoliberal economic policies.

But the changes proposed by CAW and CEP, both the product of past mergers, are more far-reaching than any in Canadian union history.

The commitment to create a new union with a new name, not a merger, suggests lessons have been drawn from the experience of CEP, which never really overcame its roots in three different sectors: energy, communications and paper.

The allocation to organizing is very significant, provided it is achieved. Not only will other expenses have to be trimmed – always a challenge in a democratic organization – but the new union will have to be strategic and focused. There will be a powerful temptation to scatter the new money everywhere.

Nonetheless, this organizing war chest would be the largest such fund in Canadian history.

Although the constitution has yet to be drafted, it's clear that the president of the new union will have far-reaching powers, including the appointment of all staff.

This authority, well used by gifted former CAW leaders like Bob White and Buzz Hargrove, is essential for the union to be nimble in organizing, bargaining and deal-making, provided it is subject to appropriate membership oversight.

But Lewenza has been clear he was a reluctant CAW president, and Coles is close to the end of a remarkable career. Both are products of Canada's now-fading manufacturing sector and its unions.

Who will lead this "new union" may be the most interesting question of all.