Unifor’s Founding Convention: The Predictable and the Unexpected

At this founding convention, facilitated by retiring CAW President Ken Lewenza, the new union leadership moved forward by engaging in exactly the same kind of rhetoric it engaged in the day before when the CAW held its final convention: the usual “we fought for this, we fought for that.” So if we ask the question “what kind of union is Unifor likely to be?” I’m going to say it will be just a larger, more tightly controlled Old Boys’ club.

I had the privilege of being a first-time delegate at this merger convention and I wasn’t expecting anything more than the same words I’ve been hearing for the 15 years I’ve been a CAW member. I expected sycophants giving their orchestrated standing ovations and speeches as expected. But the unexpected happened: the delegates offered some criticism and even some democracy, rarities in these patriarchal organizations that are traditionally plagued with appointed reps, nepotism and tokenism.

A sister, Kerry Ann Taylor, from the former CEP Local 232 spoke out about the lack of women and people of colour in the presentation of the new union. This led other delegates to say that it was only the Old Boys playing starring roles, and that this was the underlying culture of this historical event: the CAW leaders, all men, were controlling the democracy. This set the stage for the elections of the new national leaders of this new union, as Dave Coles, retiring President of the CEP, opened the nominations.

The anointed prince for the position of Unifor’s first National President was the CAW’s Jerry Dias. He is a careerist official who has been a union representative for most of his working life in the CAW, a self-titled “rank and file man” who spent most of his time in office. Then a challenger was nominated by Bruce Allen, militant activist and Vice President of former CAW Local 199. After a compelling introduction he nominated me for National President, not only the first rank-and-file member to contest the top position in Unifor or the CAW before it but also a woman. 

Instead of controlled democracy we had democracy forced from the floor. This developed further:  when Coles wouldn’t allow the candidates to speak, the delegates spoke out and demanded it. I received 17.49% of the vote, a great indication that many delegates were not happy founding a new union on old guard practices. I campaigned on a platform that we must be the change we want to see, with One Member One Vote for national officials and nominations open to the rank-and-file. My leaflet stated “Lindsay Hinshelwood recognizes that solidarity knows no borders and the struggle against the austerity agenda cannot be effectively fought just in this country. She does not endorse reducing workers to being competitors, competing for lower wages, undercutting each other and impoverishing all, rather she believes in forging international solidarity.”

With the election over and the other 24 nominees acclaimed, it was time to review and adopt the new Constitution and Vision,  and this is where the union remains the same. There are few changes in the policies and procedures except that the role that the Public Review Board played in the CAW, as a body to which rank-and-file workers can make appeals, becomes diminished. The new vision implies that concessions are sometimes necessary, a frightful statement coming from the collaborationist, concession-seeking CAW officials. There is a plan to somehow include workers who work in non-unionized workplaces or who do not have jobs. This is a twisted irony for the Unifor members who are low-waged supplemental workers on General Motors’ assembly lines who pay union dues but are not protected under the collective agreements.

Overall, the microphones were stacked with servile officials harping on about how good the union has been for them and these performances were always met with thunderous applause. However, there were also many delegates who addressed the floor on issues which concerned workers, issues which Dias just glossed over.

The merger does come with a glimmer of hope for change, and that will come from future delegates and members who demand change, contest the tradition of appointments and acclamations for national level positions, continue to publicize their critique of the union and raise the issues which concern them. The delegates of the founding convention forced a historic election, which has been more or less ignored by the new Unifor. I fear the driving down of workers will only accelerate before any progress is made.

Lindsay Hinshelwood is a member of Unifor Local 707 (Ford Oakville). She has been referred to as “the most outspoken critic of the CAW.”