Example Of Canadian Labour And International Unions Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Workplace, Union, Human Resource Management, United States, Movement, America, Auto, Labor

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/02/21

The impact of the international unions on the Canadian Labor movement is not universal. At different points of the Labor movement history, various objective and subjective factors have influenced the interaction between the International unions and the Canadian movement. Therefore, the impact of international unions cannot be generally classified as “positive” or “negative”. Each case is trade-specific and should be analyzed in the historical context. Two examples that are going to be discussed in this paper will illustrate how the interaction with international unions can have both favorable and unfavorable effect on the Canadian working class.
Before going into the specifics of each case, it is necessary to point out to some general concepts when evaluating the Labor movement. The most basic and general idea behind a labor union is that it is an organization that represents the workers of a specific trade or location as opposed to the owners of the business or employers. Due to the nature of the interaction between the employees and the employer, their basic goals are, to a substantial degree, in conflict with each other. Therefore, the labor union’s primary task is to represent and defend the worker’s interests in their dealings with the owners. The main interests of the workers are to get a stable, predictable and adequately compensated employment. The workers are also looking for equal and fair treatment, additional benefits, etc. On the other hand, the owners, trying to maximize their profits, are naturally encouraged to keep the labor cost with all relevant contributions and compensations at a minimum. This underlying conflict is the basis for any labor union/employer interaction. It is logical to look at the international unions’ impact on Canadian Labor movement from this basic perspective when judging its successes or failures.
The first example to be analyzed is based on the 1980 Jerry Lembcke study “The International Woodworkers of America in British Columbia, 1942-1951.” The simple account of events from the inception in 1937 until the early 1950s shows that the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) has gone through an intense leadership contest. The first IWA president, Harold Pritchett was a Canadian Communist. He was expelled from the USA at the beginning of the Cold War. The movement has established its local branch in British Columbia. However, at some point during that period the Communist leadership of IWA created the independent Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC). The process of leadership election was fully democratic and the leaders enjoyed support from rank-and-file members. Unfortunately, the new union lasted only three years. Most of the local organizations returned under the wing of IWA.
On the surface, the creation of an independent Canadian entity was in the best interest of the woodworkers. The local organization was closer to the working people; they understood their needs much better. Furthermore, the WIUC position was clearly anti-employer. It made no concessions to business owners. The research shows that the organization was fully democratic in its operations. The quick downfall of such a union should be considered a drawback from the workers’ point of view.
The deeper analysis shows, that the reality was not that simple. John Manley in his 1998 work “Does the international labour movement need salvaging? Communism, Labourism, and the Canadian trade unions, 1921-1928” showed that the Communist Party of Canada, as early as 1920 was guided by Moscow, including substantial financial aid. It was never an independent entity. However, the “guiding hand” was never close to the needs of the Canadian woodworkers. The Soviet Union’s strategic goal was to spread the communist ideology throughout the world. Despite the peaceful rhetoric, the Soviet Empire was fighting the United States for the world dominance. Labor movements were used by Moscow to further its interests in the countries of the capitalist world. Therefore, the ultimate goal of the communist leadership of the WIUC remains unclear. It seems that the organization was used as a vehicle to spread the communist influence in Canada.
The quick downfall of the WIUC was inevitable. It was a part of the wider struggle between the two leading ideologies of the time. The anti-communist campaign in the US at that time was in full swing and the Canadian union never had a chance to survive against such an opponent. It can be argued, that the leadership change in British Columbia branch of the IWA was conducted in an undemocratic way and without the proper support from rank-and-file. However, was the pro-communist alternative a better solution for the woodworkers? It seems inevitable that at some point the communists would switch from working class interests to the tasks dictated from Moscow. From this perspective, the return of IWA is in the best interests of the Canadian woodworkers.
The second example has a similar storyline: a creation of an independent Canadian Auto workers union that broke free from the United Auto Workers union (UAW) in 1984. The process is studied in detail in “Breaking away: the formation of the Canadian Auto Workers” by Sam Gindin. As with the woodworkers in 1940s, the autoworkers started as the branch of the American union and gradually worked their way to the fully independent organization. However, similarities end here. The economic situation in Canada and the USA at that time were different enough to generate a different reaction of the union members and local leaders to the same actions by the auto corporations. Canadian auto industry was in a better position than its American counterpart was. This was due to the fact that the Canadian factories were more modern and the market enjoyed a more balanced model mix. This resulted in bigger lay-off in the United States. Favorable exchange rate and cheaper Canadian labor also put Canadian auto workers in a better position. Lower labor costs combined with higher social security contributions created a situation where almost three Canadian workers could have been hired for the price of two American ones. American auto workers were making 40 percent more in wages than the workers of the other industries. In Canada the difference was lower – about 20 percent. The political situation in the two neighboring countries was different as well. American Reagan administration was more reactionary than the Trudeau government in Canada. The two countries also had a different status in the world. The United States, as the world superpower, were trying to win an advantage in the next round of the Cold War. The union movement in the US has made considerable concessions to the government and the corporations. At the same time, Canada had no such problem. Canadian union movement was more successful compared to the Americans. All these factors gave Canadian branch of the UAW much more flexibility in negotiations with the corporations. Eventually is has put Canadian and American auto workers in the conflicting situation. While Americans were negotiating concessions with the corporations, the Canadians were explicitly against any concessions. At that point, the split became inevitable. Furthermore, it was advantageous to the newly independent Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW).
The split brought up a surge of confidence in the Canadian Auto Workers movement. It has emphasized the importance of collective bargaining as the cornerstone of the unionism. The creation of the independent union has also brought structural changes to the movement. It has considerably decreased the bureaucracy of the union. The organization became more democratic. The decision-making was moved to Canada, where the conditions were different from the US. More freedom in making critical choices brought the union closer to the needs of the workers. New officers were closer to the local members. It gives the president a better understanding of the situation at the local units and also creates a better system of checks and balances. The split has developed a so-called “culture of struggle”, the determination to build an organization that truly represents the working class.
Despite all the positive factors that were created by the split from the IAW, the general situation of the Canadian economy and Canadian working people remains unchanged. The country has accepted its integration into the economy of the United States that creates a sense of insecurity and vulnerability for Canadians.
The two examples from the history of the union movement in Canada has shown that in the different historical and economic context the impact of the international union movement on the Canadian labor organizations can be absolutely different. There is no set recipes for “good” or “bad” influence. Every situation is unique and demands a separate careful analysis of the underlying interests and objective factors. What proved to be a drawback for the wood workers union in 1950s has turned out to be a favorable development for the auto workers organization in 1980s.


Gindin, S. (1989). Breaking away: the formation of the Canadian Auto Workers. Studies in Political Economy, 29, 63-89.
Lembcke, J. (1980). The International Woodworkers of America in British Columbia, 1942-1951. Labour/Le Travail, (6), 113-148.
Manley, J. (1998). Does the international labour movement need salvaging? Communism, Labourism, and the Canadian trade unions, 1921-1928. Labour/Le Travail, (41), 147-80.

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