Union Source of Strength During Economic Crisis, Says CAW President

April 17, 2009, 5:30 PM EST

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"Don't misread our determination," CAW President Ken Lewenza told government and corporations in his opening address to the meeting of CAW Council in Port Elgin, Ontario. "Don't underestimate the strength of our union to come together like no other organization."

This stern warning issued by Lewenza came the day after federal Industry Minister Tony Clement and the heads of Chrysler Canada and Chrysler LLC targeted the union with demands that workers make major cuts in the upcoming round of emergency negotiations.

"Our generation has not experienced a global financial meltdown like this nor will we again," Lewenza told the approximately 800 delegates, staff members and retired workers gathered for Council. He blasted the government and corporations whom he said are exploiting the economic crisis to drive down conditions, wages and benefits for workers.

Emergency Auto Negotiations

Lewenza recapped how the union worked hard to negotiate a new agreement with General Motors in March, which was ratified by members in high numbers. "We don't want our members to be satisfied by constant sacrifice, but our members understand and respect the work of the union and the bargaining committee."

General Motors new CEO has publicly indicated on several occasions that the new CAW-GM agreement maintains the Canadian cost advantage and puts the Canadian facilities in favourable standing for the future. In response, both Chrysler and Ford have launched media attacks against the union with the intent of making the CAW break the established pattern.

Lewenza underlined the importance of pattern bargaining. He stressed that not only would the CAW not break the pattern established at General Motors, but the union should also push to create opportunities for sectoral bargaining, to apply to sectors such as retail and hospitality. "Pattern bargaining is the way to make sure workers' interests are best represented." 

No sector in the economy has faced greater difficulty and uncertainty than the auto parts sector as North American vehicle sales have nearly been cut in half in the past several years, said Lewenza. He said that workers employed in major auto parts facilities such as Lear, Fabco and Kitchener Frame, which used to set the standard for wages and benefits across the sector, are now under incredible pressure with many closing their doors.

"The most painful time in our union is when our rank and file members have to go home and tell their families they've lost their job," said Lewenza. "As tough as the economy may be we will not abandon workers who lose their jobs." He also lamented the loss of many talented top local CAW leadership who have lost their jobs because of the economic downturn and who are leaving the union after many years of tireless service to working people and the CAW.  

Across the union, workers in nearly every sector are facing uncertainty about their future. Until recently aerospace had been a bright spot in the union, but in the last two months both Bombardier in Downsview, Ontario and Pratt and Whitney in Longueuil, Quebec announced layoffs of 673 and 500 workers respectively.

Nationalize Air Canada

Workers at Air Canada are now facing the threat that the company may enter CCAA again for the second time in seven years. Since the CCAA process, Air Canada workers are now working longer hours, with less staff and less pay. Lewenza called for the nationalization of the airline, suggesting that the federal government should join other developed nations with a stake in their country's national carrier.  "Air Canada connects one community to another across our nation and connects our country to others."
Lewenza called on delegates to throw their full support behind Air Canada workers in their upcoming fight.

Lewenza also recommended that the union commence dialogue with the Ontario Federation of Labour which could lead to the re-affiliation with the OFL. He indicated that the discussions must include the recognition that the CAW is the largest private sector union in the province. 

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