Labour Solidarity Critical for Union Density, Says Lewenza

April 9, 2010, 5:00 PM EST

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In a wide ranging address to CAW Council on April 9, CAW President Ken Lewenza urged delegates to build labour solidarity, including working with other unions and engaging non-unionized workers on the importance of getting organized.

"Union density in Canada continues to slip, from 30 per cent to what is now about 28 per cent, and this is a trend that must turn around if we are to promote progressive values and ideals and stand up for the principles of social justice," said Lewenza. "This cannot happen unless each of us understands our role as union organizers."

Lewenza said that since being elected, he has encouraged labour affiliates, particularly in the province of Ontario, to put previous disputes behind them and focus on building strength in the labour movement.

This also includes supporting union shops and services. "If there is a unionized grocery store and a non-union grocery store, you belong in the unionized store.  We need to educate our members on buying union."

The Council celebrates the 10th anniversary of approximately 20,000 members opting to join the CAW from a U.S.-based union. The members work in health care, education, hospitality, gaming, retail and other sectors.

Sectoral bargaining

In Nova Scotia, the CAW worked closely with CUPE to reach new collective agreements in the hospital sector. In Ontario, approximately 95 per cent of the hospital agreements have been bargained and overwhelmingly supported by union members, prior to the major wage restraints measures announced in the recent Ontario budget. In a meeting with Premier McGuinty, Lewenza stressed that any further cuts to government health care funding will lead to a massive strain on services and downward pressure on health care workers.

The union has several major rounds of long-term care home bargaining over the coming spring and summer months. "Nursing homes in Canada are doing incredibly well and we are reminding these employers that workers have a right to share in good times when companies are profitable," said Lewenza.

In the auto industry, Lewenza thanked delegates for their support last year during the difficult restructuring period. Part of this restructuring has also meant the loss of thousands of jobs, in particular the GM Transmission plant in Windsor will close in June of this year (represented by CAW Local 1973) and the Ford St. Thomas plant which is set to close in 2011 (represented by CAW Local 1520).

He commended the bargaining committee at CAMI Automotive in Ingersoll, Ontario which is back at full employment. He also commended the CAW Local 200, CAW Local 1285, CAW Local 707 and CAW Local 222 committees for their hard work in negotiating and ratifying new agreements which secured new investment.

In the auto parts industry, employers are taking total opportunity to press workers for more concessions, said Lewenza. The downward pressure is worsening. "We need a strategy to ensure one workplace doesn't get pitted against another," said Lewenza. Rank and file leaders from the auto parts sector will gather in Port Elgin for the Auto Parts Conference April 30-May 1.   

In the mining industry, CAW members in Sudbury recently ratified a new agreement with Xstrata. Currently, the company intends to close its Timmins Metallurgical operations. Lewenza, joined by a coalition of Northern Ontario mayors, federal and provincial politicians, met with Premier McGuinty and urged him to use the power of government to stop the closure. Similarly, the union is urging the government to reverse the closure announcement at the Siemens plant in Hamilton. "The provincial government must recognize that Siemens cannot close a plant and then turn around and bid on major government procurement projects," said Lewenza.

In the airline industry, the recent Canada -European Union Air Transport Agreement, which will deregulate air travel between Canada and the 27 state EU, will create major downward pressure on airline workers. Since deregulation in the early 1990s, 25 airlines have gone bankrupt, including the recent example of Sky Service, whose workers are represented by CAW Local 2002.

In the rail sector, VIA Rail bargaining is ongoing while contract talks for both Canadian Pacific Rail (CP) and Canadian National Rail (CN) will open in the late summer and fall.     

In retail, Lewenza commended the recent arbitration award which saw workers at 21 PharmaPlus stores in the Ottawa area receive pay raises retroactively, which the company had been refusing to pay. 

In hospitality and gaming, the industry has been hard hit by the dramatic rise of the Canadian dollar. "We should be angry that our federal government sees a high Canadian dollar, driven up by a demand for Canadian natural resources, as advantageous," said Lewenza.


There is one outstanding strike in the union at St. Marys Cement in Bowmanville, Ontario over company demands to eliminate the pension plan. Lewenza urged all delegates to get involved in the effort to double the Canadian Pension Plan, a campaign orchestrated by the CLC. "We need to push for a real universal pension plan that provides the income necessary for all people to retire in dignity."

Lewenza commended the mobilization in support of former Nortel workers that saw the Ontario government include money in the recent budget to protect members' pensions. This wouldn't have happened without action and it shouldn't be taken for granted, Lewenza said. 

Lewenza also encouraged delegates to take on the issue of mental illness, an invisible epidemic effecting families and workplaces across the country. "The CAW is going to be an advocate on dispelling myths around mental illness."

Lewenza also took up the issue of violence in the workplace, complimenting CAW Local 111, in Vancouver, B.C. for their campaign to bring in legislation protecting transit operators. On June 15, Bill 168 will come into effect in the province of Ontario where workers can refuse what they deem to be unsafe work, due to harassment or threats of violence, a great victory for working people, particularly women, said Lewenza.

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