Auto union takes the high road

Canadian Auto Workers

Sixty years ago, in the spring of 1937, industrial unionism was born in Canada.

In some ways, the times were not much different from our own. The country was emerging from the Great Depression. Corporate profits were skyrocketing and managements were demanding wage cutbacks, claiming that they were necessary to maintain competitiveness.

In Oshawa, General Motors announced that 1936 profits were $200 million, the highest in the company’s history. Yet with days, it cut employee wages for the fifth consecutive time in five years. Then it ordered a speedup in production.

There was a strike. The prime issue was whether the fledgling union could gain recognition, and standing smack in the way of recognition was Mitch Hepburn, the Liberal premier of Ontario. Hepburn hated unions. He saw the strikers at General Motors as subversives, dedicated to undermining corporate power.

« We know what these agitators are up to,’’ he declared. « …(t)hey are working their way into the lumber camps and our mines. Well, that has to stop, and we are going to stop it! If necessary we’ll raise an army to do it.’’

Despite Hepburn, the union won and thus was born what was to become the CAW — now known as the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union (CAW-Canada).

What’s more, Hepburn’s premonition proved correct. The victory in Oshawa inspired industrial workers across Canada to form unions. And yes, Ontario’s mining industry was soon unionized.

It was a watershed in Canadian history. Now, sixty years later, I find it fascinating to see how firmly the CAW remains in the forefront of issues. It has taken up the struggle against global warming, and it is promoting policies that will have the inevitable consequence of reducing the use of cars.

This seems to me to be an enormous stride for it to take. The jobs of its members depend on the sales of cars; yet it is recommending that fewer be used.

Last year, the CAW adopted what it calls its Statement on Transportation and Environment. It notes that « Toxic smog and climate change are 30 per cent directly connected to transportation, because when we run our vehicles, fossil fuels are burned, releasing these pollutants.’’

The statement calls for the use of cleaner fuels and more efficient cars. But it also calls for building cities that reduce the need for cars.

« As the number of cars in our cities increases, urban roads and highways become more congested.’’ What follows is the construction of more highways. Why, it asks, ‘’is the construction of more and more highways seen as an investment by the government when it so clearly saps the public purse?…

« We need to redesign our cities so that we live closer to where we work and shop. We need to increase urban density to build real communities. We need to be able to walk safely where we want to go. We need to ensure that public transit should be seen not as a subsidy, but an investment in building the community, the urban environment and urban planning. We need to support van pooling so that groups of workers can ride to work together.

« Deregulation has meant that there are increasing numbers of ever more heavy trucks hauling freight on our highways, yet our members in the trucking industry still have trouble making a living.

« We need re-regulation of the trucking industry. We need to commit to increased rail freight transportation. We need intermodal systems so freight travels most of its way by rail or by water, with local delivery being made by trucks. Rail transportation reduces road congestion and is much more fuel efficient than trucks.’’

It took a year and a half to get the statement approved. « We had to go through a lot of nervousness,’’ says Cathy Walker, director of the CAW’s health and safety department. But in the final analysis, « It’s wrong, it’s immoral, not to be concerned with issues that bear on the well being of people, no matter where they are.’’

She’s right. In addition to everything else, global warming is a moral issue.

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