Challenges, Resistance, Opportunity and Renewal

August 18, 2009, 8:45 AM EST

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CAW President Ken Lewenza's wide ranging opening address to the CAW's 9th Constitutional Convention covered the key economic and political challenges facing the union as it heads towards its 25th year.

Lewenza's speech supported the convention theme of "challenges, resistance, opportunity, renewal" and stressed the importance of rank and file activists, membership and leadership in helping the union continue to build during a time of crisis.

"Sacrifices are being made by our members but our members acts of solidarity are continuing to grow," Lewenza said.

Global Challenges

Lewenza reminded delegates of the many international crises that are impacting not only CAW members, but all Canadians. He urged the Canadian government to advocate for peace and re-establish its long-held role as a peacekeeper. Delegates must push for the return of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, where 130 Canadians have died during the current conflict, including 127 troops.

He also stressed the need for a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis, and the importance of demonstrating for democratic rights in Iran and Honduras and reminded delegates of the courageous struggle for democratic elections and rights in Burma by pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the first winner of the CAW Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award.

While auto workers across the globe have faced hardship during the current economic crisis, none have seen the same kind of repression as South Korean auto workers who staged a 77-day sit in, where water, food, electricity and gas were cut off by authorities. More than 150 union members were injured but a tentative agreement was reached. Lewenza urged all delegates to push for the immediate release of all Ssangyong workers from South Korean prisons.

Resistance in Canada

Voters in Quebec and Newfoundland must be thanked for stopping the Stephen Harper Conservatives from getting a majority government in the last federal election. Lewenza urged leaders from the NDP, BQ and the Liberals to continue working together to challenge the Harper agenda.

Efforts to form an opposition coalition after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's November 27 declaration that Canada was not in recession forced Harper to change his agenda.

While those efforts had an immediate impact, Lewenza reminded delegates to look no further for Harper's real agenda than that of the right wing National Citizens Coalition lobby group, of which Harper was a past president. Lewenza said that NCC agenda will be the real agenda if Harper achieves a majority in the next election.
Harkening back to the free trade debates of the late-1980s lead by former CAW President Bob White against Thomas D'Aquino's pro-business lobby, Lewenza also urged delegates to remain vigilant in the fight to prevent the Harper government's proposed expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The proposal would limit the ability of governments to establish local purchasing policies to protect Canadian jobs and encourage regional economic development.

"It's ridiculous to think governments will be stripped of the right to use public funds in order to maximize the economic benefit of communities," Lewenza said, noting recent CAW campaigns focused on Buy Canadian purchasing policies including joint efforts  with the United Steelworkers, Canadian Union of Postal Workers and other organizations.

Lewenza highlighted other important struggles the union has led in recent months including a campaign to improve access and extend benefits under Canada's Employment Insurance system, an effort to improve both public and private pensions for all active and retired workers, to push for stronger environmental standards to combat climate change and foster new green economic development and to continue the fight to end poverty in Canada and around the world.

"There's always been a consciousness in our union that we care for those most vulnerable in society and this must be a commitment in earnest by all of our members," Lewenza said.


The difficult rounds of collective bargaining the union has been involved in over the past year, including numerous rounds with General Motors as well as Chrysler, Air Canada, Bombardier, International Truck, Lear and other auto parts manufacturers has been an opportunity to connect and build solidarity with leadership and the members.

It has provided the opportunity to outline the issues and challenge the false solutions presented by right wing governments and business leaders who are using the global economic crisis to undermine workers rights and the historic gains made by the labour movement.

The fight back to gain severance pay owed workers whose plants have closed through occupations at Aradco/Aramco, Ledco, and Collins and Aikman demonstrates the courage and commitment of CAW members and their leadership. From the fightback by  CAW Mine/Mill Local 598 members who were laid off to FFAW/CAW members fighting to preserve the fishing industry, Lewenza praised the efforts of CAW members and leadership in the face of incredible odds.

Lewenza said possible success by the Obama administration on health care reform, union card check certification and other progressive measures will inspire activists in Canada and elsewhere to continue fighting right wing agendas.

Right wing, business and multi-national lobbyists in the United States must not be allowed to capture the agenda on U.S. health care reform from the Obama administration. In addition U.S. progressives must support the need for expansion of the card check system in union organizing drives and continue to fight the attacks on the federal government's stimulus package.

"We need to push that envelope as far as we can," Lewenza said.

Railing against the economic contradictions expressed between workers and CEOs during the current economic crisis, Lewenza encouraged delegates to consider the exorbitant compensation packages and bonuses given to CEOs and top executives of corporations and financial institutions as white collar crime. These social and economic injustices should infuriate workers and mobilize them to get more involved in political and community action, Lewenza said.


Lewenza also emphasized the necessity of making more space for young workers in the union.  "We all need to be thinking about how we can grow the union through the energy of young people," said Lewenza, who recently took part in the union's 4th ever youth conference.  Lewenza stressed that youth are a tremendous resource for the union and have been doing important work in networking across the country.

He also spoke about the need for the union to reflect the country's ever more diverse workforce. "Canada is changing for the better in that regard," said Lewenza.  He said the union must find new ways to harness the energy and ideas of the constantly changing workforce, including increasing the union's representation of workers of colour, immigrant workers, temporary workers and low income earners, as well as workers from all economic sectors. 

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