Last summer Willie Lambert, a rank and file transit worker from Oakville, Ontario, challenged Buzz Hargrove for the leadership of the Canadian Auto Workers. Lambert campaigned on a program of rank and file driven action against concessions. He argued that the leadership had been moving closer and closer to management and were relying more on backroom deals than militant action. Brother Lambert also strongly criticized the CAW leadership for backing the Liberals in several ridings in the last federal election. The CAW bureaucracy came down hard on him. It was clear leading up to the convention that they were not satisfied by simply winning, but were intent on crushing Willie Lambert.
There were numerous stories of people being severely pressured from the bureaucracy to withdraw their support for the challenger. The executive of Willie Lambert’s own local first endorsed him, then later under pressure from above, revoked that endorsement. That decision was finally overturned by the rank and file of Lambert’s local at a membership meeting and the endorsement stood. This is just one example of the maneuvering that took place all across Canada throughout the entire campaign. In the end, Brother Lambert was forced to withdraw hours before the vote as even his nominators were pressured into dropping their support for him.
For years, the leadership of the CAW has been drifting to the right. Without a mobilized membership, they have been free to do as they please. But with massive concessions being brought down on the rank and file, this situation cannot last. We hope Brother Willie Lambert’s campaign will be a turning point in the CAW, back towards the militant rank and file driven action that the North American auto industry is famous for. We publish here excerpts from Comrade Julian Benson’s second interview with Lambert. While Fightback doesn’t necessarily agree with all points raised in the interview, we believe it sheds some light on the current state of the CAW.
Julian Benson: Why were you running in the first place in your own words?
Willie Lambert: Like I said to you before, the matter of positions that we were taking, as a union, at the bargaining table towards the employers and the government was my main area of concern. I’d seen a real capitulation. The dominance and the easy mobility of capital being such that its created a new surrendered approach, where we don’t militantly stand for what we believe in, we don’t mobilize our members, we don’t counter the corporate agenda, we don’t try to fight for the rights of our members against this huge tide.
And that was the primary reason why I attempted to develop a campaign with a position that would contrast that criticism.
JB: During your campaign you faced a lot of obstacles, and during the convention same thing there, so would so say there is an official discouragement to challenge the leadership’s line?
WL: Well you know Julian, like you do have an opportunity to run. But it’s such a remote vantage point for someone to attempt to do so. Our processes are driven by a delegate body that essentially looks to the administration in all forms that represent our union, from the national president, to the secretary treasurer, to the national executive board, all of these bodies, we look to the administration to propose what is called an “administrative caucus.” And when those candidates get approved by the administration, those people get elected. Elected through acclamation, there is no formal election because there is no opposition on the floor. And that’s what we often have dubbed “managed democracy”. That’s what they call it.
My thinking is that the opportunity for us to be heard at that level is a perilous path. And when you go in that direction it isn’t that it’s just remote. There are so many forces opposed to you as you begin that journey. Like I had my own local president flip-flopping on me, a good degree of the executive of my local throwing all kinds of crap at me. Trying to sink your ship as you try and set sail.
And why are they doing that? You gotta’ ask yourself, why are they doing that? Are they doing that because they just have some problem with you, when they supported you out of the gate? Obviously the stresses and the pressures from the top of the administration are motivating their rather vicious moves against you. Because at first we did have the support of the executive, then we didn’t have the support and then we had an outright conflict with the president of my local, and a conflict with the majority of the executive of my local. And we had to fight that back with our membership. And even when you win that, and you beat the executive and the president they don’t want to acknowledge that you have the support of the local. It’s just Kangaroo court. And why is it Kangaroo court? Well it’s a Kangaroo court because the people above the local leadership are motivating them to throw a wet blanket over top of any effort and take baseball bats and beat the hell out of you. Any conceivable way imaginable to try and put you either off your game, or take you out entirely. And they did put us off our game, Julian, and in the end when we had people departing us and when we didn’t have the nomination in Vancouver, it was an embarrassment for me. It’s like something you begin that you can’t finish, you can’t end. It’s worse than humiliating, honestly, because I wrapped up six months work and it was an aborted effort ultimately. And it is very discouraging.
JB: You had delegates at the convention who had said they were going to support you, is that not true?
WL: Yeah absolutely. And I had a bunch come up to me and say, “oh we’re going to vote for you.” But the thing is, as ridiculous as this is as it sounds to people, to stand up and nominate, that’s the question. And we only needed two delegates, one to nominate and one to second. Now we had people lined up, but they backed away. And I guess they were thinking if they do that their going to be looked at as a pariah, as an alien within the structure of their own union. Because you’re going against this delegate body which was unbelievably whipped up. The kind of fervour, the kind of support that was whipped up in favour of Brother Hargrove. I had never seen it as intense as that. But then again there was the question of a campaign, where I was running against him. So obviously there may have been a reaction like that. And it maybe is predictable that their would be.
JB: Is there such an atmosphere of intimidation not only at convention, but also throughout the union, that so scares people from running against the leadership that they think they would be seen as a traitor?
WL: Yeah, exactly! Or “an anti-union element.” Or somebody that’s got some sinister agenda at play. Or somebody that’s working off some kind of method that’s foreign to the interests of our members. And also a lot of significantly experienced trade unionists that I’ve talked to say, “Hey look Will, there’s maybe 70% or more of these delegates that want to be national staff.” I mean that’s their opinion, I don’t want to quantify it. But that was their opinion. And I know a lot of them do want to be staff. Does that also discourage a more through going reflection of a debate, or a campaign in an election? I think it does.
JB: I think your right. I mean if you go to an NDP convention there’s a lot of careerists that won’t rock the boat. Same thing.
WL: Like these delegates they are elected by their local unions. Members of their home locals vote for them and then they go to this convention. But what some of the leadership that I’ve talked to, that I’ve been close to, and even some of the ones I got to know over the last six months running around a little bit, say to me, “Hey, seven out of ten of these people want to get on staff.” Now I don’t know if that’s accurate entirely. It’s a speculative thing to say. But I know that does exist, Julian, I know it exists. And if it exists to the degree where that’s the case, then of course that would answer some of the problem of getting a rather objective outcome, and an objective hearing prior to that outcome in a convention like that. And that’s one factor that’s involved. The other factor is if you do oppose the National’s position on a recommendation, or a resolution you get pummelled! I mean Buzz Hargrove will stand up there, no word of a lie, for ten or twenty minutes after the debate’s finished, and just blast the hell out of anybody that did in fact criticize. And if you criticize, from a constructive point of view, and you support your arguments with facts you get even more brow-beating from Brother Hargrove. And I’ve seen that happen for years.
So when people see that they say, “Do I want to venture in that area? Do I want to try that?” Obviously it’s something that discourages people from being rather candid, forthright, or kind of brave about their stated opinion at our councils or at our convention.
JB: So considering all that, the intimidation of your local and your local’s president, the intimidation of the delegates, the prepping of a new leadership by the old leadership, would you say in a practical sense that the CAW is still a democratic union?
WL: Well, I think you have the right to exercise your ability as far making and argument, maybe running for an office. But the process is extremely imperilled. Your imperilled by going out and doing it. There are so many obstacles, there are so many pressures, there’s so many unreasonable and difficult forces at work, that either attempt to trip you up or create greater hardship for your attempted effort. It is something that does defy the fact that you have the opportunity. I think the one-member, one-vote system would wash away a lot of this problem. I have a belief in that process all the more than I did, seeing what I saw.
You know I’m part of the CAW, I’ve seen it at an incredible point as a youngster. Looking at all the good things that it did. But it’s a union that’s changed remarkably. And it’s isn’t just that the economy has changed and the world has changed, we hear that all the time and that’s true. But it has changed us, we are not the same union that we were. We are something far different and I think not nearly what we have to be in this period, on behalf of our members.
Answering the question exactly to say, “are we democratic or not?” I really don’t think we’re democratic enough, that’s for sure. No doubt about that. There’s democratic opinions and opportunities available but it’s like walking through a snake pit when you want to exercise them. So, it is a good question. I think people have to be brave and we have to venture in no matter what and fight the good fight and mean to do the work you’re supposed to. As a union rep, on behalf of your members, when you go to these affairs, these councils, these constitutional conventions, you should always remember that you’re there for your members and for the greater good of society that the labour movement stands for. And where there are things that aren’t right, and that you know are not in line with those priorities, you have a duty, I think, to do something about it, to challenge that. But you have to be brave.
Like you think back, you asked me before, about the prior generations of people, that didn’t even have legislative recognition for their unions in Canada. How did that happen? It didn’t happen because people were scared into submission or somehow put off the path. They were very brave and strong, and they had to be, there was no choice otherwise. We are not nearly a comparison to that now, but we have to be you see, we have to be.
JB: Throughout this whole campaign you’ve been working with rank-and-file workers, is there growing support for change in the CAW?
WL: I think among the rank-and-file workers, absolutely. But the leadership is in a position to make the decisions at these conferences and conventions. And I think we need to move forward challenging the processes, moving the argument toward one-member, one-vote, propositions like that, that more thoroughly allow the membership’s ability to move the margins for our union, and shape our union for the future. That’s what I think is expected and needed. And for us as leadership to see the problem and do something about it is very important. And that’s what’s going to be in the next little while, what we have to concentrate on.
JB: Mr. Lambert I’d like thank you very much again for talking with me today. And I want to say, no matter what happens, you did a very, very brave thing. And you did it for the good of the union so you should be proud of that.
WL: You know your very kind to say that, Julian. I feel like a bit of an idiot that fell off a moving vehicle and tumbled into a ditch. But it’s nice to hear somebody like yourself tell me that, because sometimes in life you try things and you end up on the short end.
JB: Well, I want to thank you again and wish you the best of luck. And hopefully you’ve changed a few people’s minds.
WL: You do great work and I appreciate your work too. Thank you.