Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Jobs of Canadian Auto Workers on the Line

January 1, 1988 -

Bob White is now one of the best known and most often quoted Canadian union leaders. His candid autobiography, Hard Bargains: My Life on the Line, tells the story of his rise from a factory labourer to the top position in the 140,000-member Canadian Auto Workers union.

The main theme of Hard Bargains is an explanation of the 1985 break between the American and Canadian sections of the unionized autoworkers. White's book is filled with anecdotes about tough, all-night negotiations and risky confrontations with the three giant automakers. It's a success story in the sense that Bob White managed to lead his troops at negotiation tables and picket lines to settlements that have made the autoworkers among the best paid industrial workers. White is determined to demonstrate that the United Auto Workers union in the U.S. has lost its early vigour, whereas the CAW is a progressive and successful union. He explains his view of collective bargaining as follows:

I didn't agree with the American UAW's premise that job security could be bargained successfully. The auto industry is dependent solely on the consumer. No collective agreement, however wise, can protect workers against the vagaries of the marketplace. lf a worker is in a good plant where they build one popular model after another, he can expect to work maybe a lifetime with few layoffs. But if the worker is making Edsels, he's likely to be on the street in a hurry. No matter how high the plant productivity or how low his wages, his job will be gone. A union can't do much about that, but we can negotiate long-term income security. 

White fails to explain in this brief treatise on collective bargaining how long-term income security can be achieved without job security. What he seems to imply here (as he has stated elsewhere) is that a union's job is to increase wages, while companies are responsible for making certain that plants continue to operate profitably. But when this separation of functions is made in the context of adversarial collective bargaining, true job security as well as income security is jeopardized. For as adversaries, how can workers and management share the objective of making the enterprise as economically and socially healthy as possible?

A rigid and adversarial division between labour and management benefits no one in the long run. The tremendous changes and challenges now faced by all industries, particularly the automobile industry, are making this more obvious all the time. In fact, advances in technology and mounting foreign competition have already forced some auto plants to adopt a cooperative approach.

John Holusha of the New York Times recently reported that the labour and management of a General Motors factory in Lansing, Michigan, have abandoned their adversarial stance and have adopted a cooperative approach to the production of cars. Instead of rigid and extreme divisions of tasks, all workers do a variety of jobs and supervise themselves. This team approach, based on trust and respect, has led to remarkable improvements in attitudes, in the relationship between labour and management, and in the quality of the product.

Holusha explains that many other companies have been forced to rethink their management style for the sake of their very survival. Whatever their motivation, those companies that have appealed to the interest and judgement of their employees and have entrusted them with real responsibility have almost always seen dramatic changes for the better. Productivity and quality climbed, and employees as well as employers found the workplace socially rewarding and challenging.

CAW's style of adversarial bargaining, while seemingly successful in the short run, may make it difficult, if not impossible, for Canadian industries to prosper in a free trade arrangement with the U.S. It is safe to predict that Bob White and his associates will blame the "Rambo, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest kind of society" (White's epithet for the U.S.) for such a failure. That will be of little benefit to those workers who thought they were backing a winner but were in reality being led straight into the arms of defeat.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment