New Workers’ Initiative

Judy Rebick


on the cutting edge of social change, the Canadian Auto Workers union has just

launched an important new initiative. The CAW has set up "A Task Force on

Working Class Politics in the 21st Century."


is the introduction to the paper that introduces the task force to union



generally think of politics as being about who gets elected and what they do -

that is about governments. But even though this is how it’s normally expressed,

the essence of politics is really about power and change; whose interests and

values get attention and results, and how people organize to affect that. So

politics is really about society and not just government. No matter who gets

elected, as long as power in society remains basically in the hands of a

minority, our lives are shaped and limited by that minority’s control (power)

over production, investment, finances and communications."


CAW is the largest private sector union in Canada. It not only has members in

the auto and airline industries, but it is now also devoting its resources to

organizing in the service sector. The first Starbucks to be organized in Canada

was by the CAW in Vancouver. In 1985 the CAW broke away from the United

Autoworkers because of disagreements about concession bargaining and business

unionism. Since then it is been a major force for social change in Canada and

its President Buzz Hargrove has been perhaps the most visible and consistent

spokesperson of the left in the country.


in the United States where labour alliances with social groups is a fairly

recent development, in Canada the labour movement has been working closely with

women’s, environmental, student, gay and lesbian and other social movements for

several decades. The CAW provides financial support for many social action

groups. It was also at the centre of the Days of Action, a joint labour-community

protest across Ontario that shut down city after city in protest against the

right-wing attacks of the current Ontario government. The CAW also uses its

considerable economic power in Big Three bargaining to negotiate clauses that

promote change like the six week SPA (Special Paid Absence) to cut down on work

time and thus provide more jobs in the auto plants or a $2,000 subsidy available

to parents who are using licensed non-profit child care.


CAW has also historically been one of the strongest supporters of Canada’s

social democratic party, the NDP (New Democratic Party). Unions may have formal

membership status in the NDP and form a considerable power bloc inside the

party. In the 1960′s and 70′s that power bloc was often in opposition to the

left in the party but in the early 1990′s there was a fundamental change.


NDP in a suprise victory became the government of Ontario, Canada’s largest and

richest province, in 1990. Under pressure from a recession and from big

business, the NDP enforced what it called a social contract on labour that

basically removed the right to free collective bargaining from the public

sector. The CAW and the public sector unions publicly broke with the NDP over

the social contract. This created a split in the labour movement with the more

right-wing industrial unions continuing to see the NDP as the path to workers

political power and the CAW and public sector unions devoting more political

energy to social movements and extra-parliamentary political action.


NDP like most social democratic parties around the world is moving further and

further right under the pressure of globalization and the right-wing ideological

shift which hit Canada with a vengeance in the 1990′s. Like Tony Blair’s Labour

Party, the NDP is also putting into question the nature of its relationship to

the labour movement. That provides an opportunity for labour to begin to ask

some fundamental questions. The CAW Task Force is the first attempt by any major

sector of the labour movement or the left to come to grips with this changed

political situation.


of either ignoring the NDP as many social movements have done or just critically

supporting it because there is no alternative, the CAW is actively seeking other

solutions. Some of the ideas that the task force will discuss include: electoral

reform, local councils to make politicians more accountable, changing the

union’s relationship with the NDP or steps towards a new party.


is an incredibly important initiative in the Canadian context. The labour

movement provides the central support for the NDP in terms of resources both

financial and human. Even putting on the table the discussion of labor’s links

to the NDP or the possibility of a new party is very dramatic and radical.


the United States, Canada has had a third party representing working class

interests for several generations. As a result many workers and social struggles

have been brought into the corridors of government more quickly and effectively

than in the United States. While many social activists have never gotten

involved in the NDP and while most social movements maintain a distance from the

party; nevertheless, the NDP has often acted as a transmission belt from social

action to political action.


the NDP starts to look more and more like the mainstream capitalist parties,

fundamental questions are raised for the left. Many groups believe that social

movements alone can bring the kind of change we want. My own view is that a mass

political party with links to the labour movement and the social movements is

essential to any lasting change for the majority of people.


CAW Task Force on Working Class Politics could well provide a framework for

activists inside and outside the labour movement to begin the critical

discussion of how to influence political change from inside the political system

as well as from outside it.


Rebick is an activist, writer and broadcaster who lives in Toronto. She is the

author of a new book "Imagine Democracy"


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