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Guest Blog: Rosenfeld on Controversies Surrounding the Magna-CAW Framework of Fairness

I have considered in earlier posts the issue of “neutrality agreements” in Canadian labour law, agreements between employers and unions that grant unions beneficial arrangements to improve organizing success in exchange for certain concessions from unions.  I have provided a description of these agreements in this summary. The most noted example in Canada is the agreement between Magna and the CAW known as the “Framework of Fairness”.  That agreement grants the CAW all sorts of plum benefits, including the right for union organizers to communicate with the workers at work and during working hours, to hold a meeting with employees at the workplace, to the endorsement of management, and to the right to “voluntary recognition” (union recognition without a vote) on the basis of a count of union membership cards.  In exchange, Magna received an agreement by the union to not strike among other conditions in the collective agreement that will benefit Magna.

The Framework came into effect in December 2007 with much fanfare.  However, not much has happened since. And a front page story in the Toronto Star this past weekend described the nasty internal fighting at the CAW over the application of the Framework at a Magna factory in Mississauga.  The national executive of the CAW argue that the employees freely chose to join the Framework model, whereas members of the Local union argue that workers were pressured by the National office of the CAW and the employer to accept the Framework agreement rather than go the normal route of union certification and collective bargaining that would not have simply handed the employer a ‘no strike’ clause.

In this guest blog, Herman Rosenfeld, a long-time CAW National Representative (recently retired) provides additional information of the circumstances at the Mississauga Magna facility referred to in the Star article.  Once you have read Herman’s description of events, ask yourself whether someone who objects to the Framework arrangement being applied at Mississauga Seating could challenge the new Collective Agreement imposed under it as invalid under Section 53 of the Labour Relations Act, which invalidates any agreement where the employer has participated in the formation or administration of the union or has provided “support” to the union.

Here is Herman Rosenfeld’s Guest Blog:

Angus MacDonald tells, through his individual experience, the story of how the CAW, formerly known as one of the few stalwart workers organizations against neoliberalism and for working class independence from employers, has essentially changed directions in the past few years.

MacDonald was a newly elected president of a local union that had previously suffered under a corrupt administration. Under the old guard, the local union hadn’t had a membership meeting in over three  years and had severe problems with wasted resources, such as personal cell phones for 70 of the supporters of the old administration. MacDonald was elected on a platform of honesty, democracy and opposition to the CAW-Magna Framework for Fairness (FOF). The old guard supported the FOF.

Opposition to the FOF was widespread across the CAW, from the moment it was introduced in October of 2007. It represented a radical break from many of the union’s basic principles: it gave up the right to strike; it proposed a model of organizing new members that essentially relied on the good will of the employer, rather than the power and potential of the union; it argued for a structure of workplace union representation that was not independent of management, giving up the right to an independent, elected, shop-floor set of union representatives, to organize, mobilize and inspire the members to defend their interests against the employer.

The Framework had been initiated by Magna owner Frank Stronach as a way of bringing the CAW in as a kind of extension of management’s human resources department. Instead of having to stave off union organizing drives, he sought to integrate the CAW’s representational structure into the anti-union structure of quasi-representation that he had long used to keep the union out. Desperate to increase the level of union density in the parts sector, then CAW president Buzz Hargrove took the bait and negotiated the actual FOF. After a relatively lively but short debate, in an organization that had not had any real internal debate in over 20 years, the FOF was passed by the union’s CAW Council in December 2007.

The Star article makes it seem that that FOF was simply a way of bringing union and management together. The reality is it was an effort to change the nature of union representation in Magna, proving a kind of unionism more characteristic of the kinds of models used by employers in the 1920’s an 1930’s to keep the new industrial union movement out of workplaces.

By the time Angus MacDonald had gotten elected and prepared to participate in collective bargaining with Magna, the FOF had failed to organize more than one workplace: a small plant in London, Ontario. Another unit, Windsor Modules, had been the first to become part of the Framework, but it was not organized from scratch. It was in the process of being organized into a normal CAW unit with the right to strike and with an independent in-plant committee. But, in order to hasten the passage of the Framework in the overall union, the leadership of the CAW forced the unit into accepting the FOF. Other than these units, the CAW had failed to use the FOF to organize anyone.

It was clear that the Framework had failed to inspire any real union organizing. But, rather than let the FOF die a natural death, new CAW President Ken Lewenza decided to bring the Magna-owned Mississauga Seating unit, of CAW Local 1256, Angus MacDonald’s local union, into the Framework. With an independently elected in-plant committee, the right to strike and a belief in maintaining a real union representation, there was massive opposition to these efforts that was reflected in MacDonald’s election. Instead of respecting the members’ wishes, the CAW leadership worked to pressure the 400 workers at MS to change their minds.

The grossly undemocratic practises that Angus describes in the article reflect the desperation of a union leadership that has changed directions: instead of working to support and inspire a group of workers to challenge their employer, it worked to help the employer bully and threaten workers into accepting the business agenda. They first tried to convince the members that the FOF would cost them nothing and not have any negative effect on their union organization; they then argued that their workplace would lose customers and therefore jobs if they voted against the FOF; when that didn’t work, they pressured the bargaining committee into accepting the FOF and kicked the Local Union president out of the bargaining. Taking advantage of a 5 week layoff, the employer allowed FOF supporters to roam the workplace during the week they returned to work, arguing for the FOF.

On the day of the voting for the new contract, they didn’t allow the local president to address the assembly. The meeting was structured in a way that the opposition didn’t have much of a chance. The company was allowed to directly address the membership (an almost unheard of travesty of union democracy)  defend the new contract  and threaten the jobs of the members if they didn’t vote in the FOF. The pamphlet handed out by the leadership made the contract look like a great victory. People were encouraged to vote before there could be any reasoned debate – an old trick for stampeding ratification votes into ignoring discussion.

The real question is why would the once proud CAW allow this? If you read the article, you can see that the National President pleads total innocence. But if you read between the lines, you can see that there is a logic to all of this: In this instance, the CAW has become the partner of the employer at Magna. In such a situation, the union becomes the means to shape worker opinions towards acceptance of the demands of the employer.

  • In order to do this, the union must turn union democracy on its head: deny elected representatives the ability to represent their members; prevent open and honest debate; twist the truth; stand in the way of democratic practises.
  • In an environment of economic crisis and fears of job loss, the union repeats the employer’s threat of losing jobs, reinforcing tendencies not to fight back, rather than inspiring members to defend past gains. In other words, the union, in this instance, becomes a barrier to worker confidence and self defence.

But workers are not “blank slates”, especially in a union with a long tradition of independence from the employer and struggle. The goal here of the leadership is to quash those traditions and convince the members that they are not appropriate for this new era. Of course, on the other hand, these traditions die hard, and those who still work to create a spirit of independence and struggle, continue to build on these very real traditions.

Really interesting.  Thanks Herman.  Comments welcome as always.  In particular, would be great to hear from any of the Magna employees.

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2 Responses to Guest Blog: Rosenfeld on Controversies Surrounding the Magna-CAW Framework of Fairness

  1. Charles Reply

    February 6, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Scary and sad. I can remember when CAW was , the union ( or at least the proto union) that would not give concessions when its international union was caving, the union of Bob White, the private sector union that stood with the public sectors and that same union that said no to the social contract and later was ready to take a stand with those union and social coalition partners against Mike Harris.
    But now- this union is putting jackets on Paul Martin, going into framework deals with Magna and opening its collective agreement mid term to give wage rollbacks.
    Sad and scary…….

  2. CAWS Reply

    February 13, 2009 at 10:24 am

    All I can say as a Bargaining Committee Member at Mississauga Seating is that Angus biggest fear was that we joined the F.F.A and that meant we would be put into a new Local resulting in himself having to go back to Oakville Transit and drive a bus due to the Local not having enough Members to justify a full time President.
    There is more to this picture than what Angus is saying, just keep an open mind people.

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