The Demise of Pattern Agreements in Canada’s Auto Industry

By Bruce Allen

More than 15 years of concessions bargaining by the CAW in the Canadian auto industry driven by employer demands for contract concessions in exchange for investments in Canadian auto operations has led to a completely unacknowledged and unnoticed watershed development. That development is the effective demise of pattern or industry-wide agreements in auto in this country and their replacement with different collective agreements negotiated with each employer. The significance of this development in terms of the history of industrial unionism and of the labour movement in the Canadian state cannot be understated. Its implications are so far reaching that it is not possible to fully consider them in a short presentation.

So what exactly am I talking about? How can I make such sweeping assertions? Consider the following. Since auto plants were first organized in this country at GM, Ford and Chrysler back in the middle of the last century pattern or industry-wide agreements have provided autoworkers with essentially the same wages and benefits. That is they did so until 2 years ago when a pattern ceased to exist. A pattern no longer exists because post-2008 concessions bargaining there are now very different benefit packages at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Specifically Health Care Trusts (HCTs) were negotiated at Chrysler and GM but not at Ford. Furthermore the HCT at GM is funded well enough to only secure the benefits of retired GM workers until 2024 while the HCT for retired Chrysler workers is funded well enough to secure their benefits until 2043. Stated otherwise the fund at GM will run out of money in 2024 leaving GM retirees with no benefits while Chrysler workers will maintain theirs until 2043 and Ford workers will retain their benefits indefinitely because no HCT was negotiated at Ford.

This is a real mess. It is also the direct result of concessions bargaining in which the corporations not the union have set and defined the collective bargaining agenda. This too is profoundly significant. It is profoundly significant because pattern or industry – wide agreements had comprised the centrepiece of collective bargaining strategy for the UAW and CAW in the North American auto industry and in doing so facilitated the historic gains achieved by autoworkers in the last half of the 20th Century. Absent pattern bargaining these gains never would have been achieved precisely because it enabled autoworkers to successively build upon and match each others collective bargaining achievements.

This is also profoundly significant insofar as pattern bargaining was instrumental to autoworkers at each company seeing their interests as being identical with those of autoworkers at the other companies, as opposed to their own employers, and as such it was ideologically very important. It was ideologically very important because it effectively facilitated and was conducive to class consciousness. Turn this around. If you have a situation where pattern bargaining and pattern agreements cease to exist it is directly conducive to the rapid erosion of class consciousness and conducive to autoworkers identifying with the interests of their employers rather than other autoworkers and long term that is a formula for eventually calling into question the very reason for the existence of the union.

I make this point because as I have said many, many times before if workers increasingly identify their interests with their employer’s interests and the interests of the two become seen as essentially one and the same the very rationale for having a union is shattered. Stated otherwise the absence of pattern or industry wide agreements strengthens the hands of employers in the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the workforce. Furthermore when a union loses that battle it becomes essentially powerless and incapable of functioning as an independent, class based organization with its own distinct agenda and one which is consequently at odds with the employer’s agenda.

This is not abstract theory. This is increasingly a danger prevalent in auto today particularly given a CAW leadership petrified of doing anything the auto bosses disapprove of. They are petrified because they believe employer threats about putting no more investments in Canada unless they get their way and further weaken our collective agreements.

There is no doubt about this. Recent events clearly revealed how the top CAW leadership has completely subordinated itself to the agenda of the auto corporations to the point where the union’s agenda and the auto bosses’ agenda have essentially become one and the same even as auto employers push for far more contract concessions on top of those made in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. Indeed GM of Canada has told the CAW in no uncertain terms that unless Canadian labour costs are reduced to the point where they are lower than labour costs in U.S. auto plants where the UAW has made and continues to make huge concessions there will be no more investments in GM of Canada operations. In response the CAW leadership has made it clear that they will work with GM to realize those substantial reductions in labour costs necessitating major contract concessions particularly in 2012 auto negotiations.

All of this duly noted one thing becomes very clear with respect to developing a strategy for fighting back and reversing the backwards trajectory of the CAW in auto. Autoworkers must demand that one thing in particular be realized in 2012 collective bargaining in auto in Canada. That being the meaningful restoration of a pattern agreement in the Canadian auto industry as the principal means by which we can fight to regain all that we’ve lost and in the process put autoworkers back at the forefront of the labour movement by leading the way in realizing historic gains for the entire working class and meaningfully empowering ourselves in the process in order to win the larger battles that lie ahead in the face of Capital’s ongoing offensive against Labour.

Bruce Allen is Vice-President of CAW Local 199.