John F. Lawrence

Canadian UAW Needs Lesson in Solidarity

January 06, 1985|JOHN F. LAWRENCE | John F. Lawrence is The Times' economic affairs editor

Back in the days when management sent goons with clubs to beat down strikers, the word "solidarity" meant hanging together against overwhelming odds, at some risk to job security and even life and limb. Labor-management relations have progressed to a more reasonable level so the old battle cry is somewhat less compelling.

It may not be surprising, then, to see the union that still calls its headquarters Solidarity House losing a significant share of that solidarity. In what was one of the more ominous developments in the labor movement last year, the Canadian wing of the United Auto Workers became independent.

The move is ominous because it spells trouble for management and employees alike in a business that still faces major hurdles in recapturing its competitive position in the world. Even before the Canadian pull-out, Canadian UAW workers, objecting to terms of the agreement the international union negotiated with General Motors Corp. in the United States, struck GM's Canadian plants. In short order, that action produced major layoffs of U.S. workers in plants dependent on receiving parts from the GM factories north of the border.

The irony is that the Canadian UAW wouldn't have such leverage if GM had not long ago bowed to pressure from Canada to locate facilities there. True, GM gained from the move. It tapped a supply of good labor and it made its products at least psychologically more attractive to Canadian consumers. Moreover, it prevented the imposition of cumbersome import restrictions. But the result has been that it has bolstered the Canadian economy and provided Canadians with high-paying employment.

Now Canadian UAW leaders are chafing under the leadership of the international union, which they feel has not paid enough attention to their particular concerns. One of those concerns is that GM is paying the Canadian workers less than U.S. workers because the Canadians are paid in depressed Canadian dollars. Hence, the contract worked out last fall will offset some of that differential by paying the Canadians a higher wage rate.

Labor contracts in one industry don't change a whole economy, but it is interesting that the weakness of the Canadian dollar, currently worth only 76 cents U.S., is a reflection of that country's economic problems, including high inflation. Those problems will be compounded and the Canadian dollar pushed still lower if Canadian unions insist on compensation in U.S. dollar values.

Further, the tougher stance taken by the Canadians implies criticism of the international's approach to auto industry bargaining. In recognition of job losses to foreign companies paying lower wages, the UAW has sought job security, moderating its wage demands.

If that looks like a loss of militancy to the Canadian union leaders, it looks to many others like realism. Furthermore, it reflects a welcome trend toward less adversarial attitudes in union-management relations that will work to the benefit of all.

Many observers believe basic nationalism is the underlying reason for the Canadian pull-out--a feeling that Canadians should not be under the thumb of U.S. leadership. While that may be understandable, it is shortsighted. By the same logic, each district of the UAW within U.S. borders would be better off operating on its own, making its own contract demands and striking to win them if need be. For a time, such regional action might so disrupt much larger operations that it would have the force of a national strike.

But sooner or later, any centrally managed organization is going to find a way to cope with such regional disturbances. Under the old divide-and-conquer strategy, it can play regions off against each other. It can, for instance, threaten to close a plant one place and promise to open one where it can get a better deal.

Whether GM will be forced to take such steps against its Canadian workers remains to be seen. Such a strategy takes time to work out. So for the time being, the Canadians may revel in out-negotiating their former associates in the UAW. In the long run, they may wish they hadn't forgotten the spirit of solidarity.

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