Unifor: Canada's newest union

I am still catching my breath from one of the wildest weeks in my life: all the events that culminated in the founding convention last weekend in Toronto of Unifor (formed from the combination of the CAW and the CEP). The new union will represent over 300,000 members working in over 20 different defined economic sectors. It is not just a private sector union -- there are 35,000 or more members in various public sector capacities (including health care, transportation, and utilities). So it isn't quite right to call Unifor the "largest private sector union" in Canada (as some have done for shorthand). More precise would be to say that "Unifor represents more private sector workers than any other union." Or, "Unifor is the largest industrial union" if you use that term broadly (as does Statistics Canada) to include any economic sector (as opposed to any industry which has smokestacks at its workplaces!).

Throughout the process that led to this event, leaders and activists on both sides emphasized the need for a strong component of union innovation and union renewal. We do believe that in this case "bigger is better": the size and breadth of Unifor's membership will give it more influence, more stability, more potential power. But we also recognized from the beginning that it couldn't just be a traditional merger. We had to implement features that reflected the changing labour market, and the changing pressures and constraints faced by labour. We also had to take the opportunity provided by the launch of a new organization to "re-boot" the perception of unions among the broader working class (including its non-unionized majority -- many of whom have been influenced by neoliberal efforts to paint unions as a special vested interest, rather than as the most important voice of workers, inside and outside of the workplace, for unionized and non-unionized workers alike).

Thus the rhetoric at the convention, and the content of our documents and plans, consistently stressed the need for better outreach to non-union workers, more emphasis on the broader social and political role played by unions, new structures to allow working people (even in precarious jobs) to join the union, despite the increasing difficulty of accessing collective bargaining through the traditional majoritarian (i.e. Wagner Act) model. Allan Gregg's remarks to the convention Saturday morning strongly ratified this approach: his public opinion research suggests that a strong majority of Canadians still support unions because of these broader efforts to shape society.

Researchers and students may be interested in some of these links:

-  Unifor's new website.

-  The discussion paper that first laid out the rationale for a new union last year, and its main structural features; this paper (Toward a New Union) was endorsed last year by the CAW and CEP conventions, and opened the door to the creation of Unifor last weekend.

The Unifor Constitution.

-  The main policy papers that were discussed and adopted at the Unifor founding convention. The key "issue" papers (under the sub-title "Vision for the Future" -- as distinct from the various procedural documents and policies listed further down) include one setting out Unifor's plan of action for the first couple of years, one on its broader policy on organizing, and one on its plan to create "Community Chapters" through which workers outside of certified or recognized bargaining units would be able to join the union.

-  An archive of photos and videos from the convention, including a complete set of livestream videos of all speakers (including Allan Gregg, Naomi Klein, Mary Walsh, Olivia Chow, and an inaugural address from Jerry Dias, Unifor's first President) and the floor debate.

-  An op-ed that appeared in the Globe and Mail from Jerry Dias.

A couple of interesting commentaries from labour researchers and others about the new union, including:

Duncan Cameron: http://rabble.ca/columnists/2013/09/unifor-workers-united-all

Morna Ballantyne: http://unionleadership.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/the-promise-of-unifors-community-chapters/

Gary Engler: http://rabble.ca/news/2013/08/unifor-and-potential-rebirth-militant-union-activism

Getting Unifor off the ground was a huge undertaking for both organizations. Operationalizing that plan of action, and realizing the hopes that have been lifted by our launch, will be a much bigger challenge. Thoughts and suggestions are always most appreciated!

Photo: http://www.underconsideration.com

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