The approaching merger between the Canadian Auto Workers (caw) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (cep) will create the largest private sector union in Canada with over 300,000 members employed in 22 sectors of the economy. As such, it has the potential to profoundly affect the political direction of both the labour movement in this country and ultimately the political future of Canada.
Accordingly, these things pose the immediate and unanswered question of what the political direction of the new union will be. This in turn brings into focus the deafening silence within the caw concerning this question and precisely how it will be answered.
The only thing that is known for certain is that the question will be addressed by the delegates to the founding convention of the new union, expected to take place next summer. That said, there are a number of related and as yet unanswered questions. Will the delegates be presented with a political policy paper formulated in advance by staff representatives which sets out the political direction of the new mega union and then be expected to rubber stamp it? We just do not know. Or will there be a genuinely democratic and wide open debate where different political positions will be presented and chosen from? Again we just do not know and quite reprehensibly no one is giving the membership of both organizations any clue.
From a historical perspective, both the silence surrounding the question of the political direction of the new union and the lack of forthright explanation of how it will be answered should really come as no surprise. The silence must be viewed as symptomatic of the lack of democracy intrinsic to the caw at national level in particular and to the fact that the question of the new union’s political direction is very awkward for both unions within the context of the [End Page 225] upcoming merger. This is the case precisely because the current political directions of the caw and the cep are irreconcilably at odds, especially with respect to the New Democratic Party (ndp). Indeed, the particular approaches to the ndp evident in these two unions are like oil and water. One position will prevail and the other is going to be discarded, meaning that the political legacy of the union whose political direction does not prevail will disappear into an Orwellian-like memory hole.
History again makes all of this abundantly clear and predictable. For the past two decades the cep has been formally affiliated to the ndp. Consistent with this, the cep has actively participated in the life of the ndp including in its most recent contest to elect a federal leader. It supported the unsuccessful leadership bid of Brian Topp, revealing that it has no inclination to shift the political direction of the ndp to the left.
The cep’s loyalty to the ndp and its leadership has in fact been unequivocal over the years, regardless of the policies of the ndp leadership. This was most vividly on display in Ontario in the mid-1990s. Back then the cep was one of the “Pink Paper” unions in the Ontario Federation of Labour which objectively sided with Ontario ndp Premier Bob Rae’s government during the fight against its anti-union Social Contract.
In stark contrast to the cep, the caw has been anything but politically consistent with respect to its relationship to the ndp. At the time of the fight against the Rae government’s Social Contract, waged principally by Ontario’s public sector unions, the caw commendably positioned itself clearly to the left of the Ontario ndp by strongly supporting the public sector unions. But that positioning to the left of the ndp proved to be relatively short lived. As the 1990s drew to a close, the caw made a sharp turn to the right by embracing strategic voting and warming up to the Liberal Party, and subsequently to Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty in particular. This orientation towards the Liberals (particularly but not exclusively in Ontario) has continued to this day, effectively making a mockery of past caw criticism of...