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The Magna/CAW Deal

2 December 2007

The Magna Corporation is the largest supplier of parts to the auto industry in Canada. It employs more workers than GM Canada, all non-union and all working below union rates putting downward pressure on wages in the industry. (It will come as no surprise that CEO Stronach takes home higher than union wages - $100 million over the last three years!). The company represents a significant challenge to the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) and a potentially large source of dues revenue. But the deal that was struck between CAW president Hargrove and Stronach has provoked strong reaction. Here’s why - Stronach agreed to allow a union drive in his plants and to promise no lockouts while Hargrove agreed to give up the right to strike. In other words, the union gets in and Magna gets the kind of union it wants. Disputes will be settled by binding arbitration, workers losing the right to an elected shop steward for each department to speak for them, and instead will be represented by a single employee advocate for the whole plant appointed by a plant committee composed of union and management in equal proportions. “Troublemakers” need not apply!

Criticism has rightly been scathing. Tony Van Alphen, business reporter for the Toronto Star, noted comments such as ‘betrayal of labour principles and a blatant dues grab’ and ‘undermines the union, workers, and other locals and could seriously hurt the labour movement’ (20/10/07). Former Hargrove assistant, Sam Gindin wrote (Toronto Star, 26/10/07) that with the proposed set up the union will have difficulty carrying out its responsibility to its members. He also reported that Hargrove has already offered the new deal to any new GM plant built in Canada and that this deal relieves union pressure on the Big Three auto-makers not to deal with suppliers that oppose union drives. Gindin even quotes Pierre Trudeau, of all people to show the importance of the strike, who, during union drives in Quebec in the 1950s, commented, “In the present state in society, in fact, it is the possibility of the strike which enables workers to negotiate with their employers on terms of approximate equality”. Ironically, the CAW left its American parent in the 1980s over how close the leadership had got to the employers and how far it was removed from the workers.

This agreement is indeed a sad day for labour relations in Canada but will come as no surprise to socialists who understand the place of unions in our present society. The role of the union is to operate within the capitalist mode of production to improve the conditions of labour - wages hours, vacations, treatment etc. That is, while they are essential to workers to gain what could not be won individually, they can only deal with the effects of capitalism. They cannot end exploitation, membership in a union does not mean class-consciousness, and unions do not question who owns the means of production, nor do they advocate social revolution. They are stuck on a continuous treadmill of reacting to the vagaries wrought upon the workers by the capitalist system. Unions are proof positive of the class system and of the fact that workers produce the wealth as shown during strikes when wealth production stops dead. Unions are not run on democratic principles as understood by socialists, and members rely on leaders to do their thinking for them, sometimes with disastrous results as shown by Hargrove’s step backwards.

Thus, while workers should strive to join together to seek protection against a system where the owners hold all the aces, it must be clearly understood that unions will in no way bring an end to the system that creates the conditions of exploitation and a class divided world. As usual, Marx summed it up the best when he wrote, “Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” And, “Instead of the conservative motto : ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword : ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit)

Reference: Samuel Leight, World Without Wages (Excellent book)

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