On 20 August 2012, Dave Coles, sat down for a short interview with Fightback’s Mike Palecek to talk about the New Union Project, a proposed merger between the Communication, Energy, and Paperworkers union (CEP) and the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW). Dave Coles is the president of the CEP; Mike Palecek is a national union rep with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
Mike Palecek: As you know I’m a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, but Fightback magazine and Marxist.ca are both edited and laid out members of CEP local 2040, so this topic is of particular interest to us. I wanted to start by thanking you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Dave Coles: I enjoy talking to all media, but particularly to alternative media. It’s refreshing that somebody actually has something intellectual to ask.
MP: There’s a lot of interest in this proposed merger between the CAW and the CEP, but I’ve noticed that every time I say the word “merger”, I’m quickly corrected and told that this is not just a merger, but the formation of a new union. Can you explain the reasons for the difference in terminology?
DC: Well, there is a big difference and Ken (Lewenza) and I spoke about it at length before we agreed to bring this to our unions. Quite frankly, the CEP has institutional arrogance — we are the best, just ask us — and I would imagine in CUPW it’s the same, and certainly it’s the same with Autoworkers, just ask ‘em, they’re the best. We talked about that a lot and you couldn’t, in my humble opinion, have proposed to merge the two organizations together and have it be successful. The only thing that makes any sense at all, is to take this opportunity in history to start over again. You ask the question of yourself, “If you had a chance to do it all again, what would you do different?” And that’s the fundamental premise we started from.
So it isn’t, your classic taking two organizations and blending them together – you would have ended up with something similar to what we have now. So we said, “Look, if we really want to be relevant, let’s start with a clean slate, let’s accept our histories and our strengths and our cultures for what they are.”
In the CEP we’ve got bargaining units that are a hundred and fifty years old, some of the graphical units, and I imagine that some of the autoworkers have got longstanding historical relationships with their employers, so we said, “This is where we’ll start”. Then we put the question up on a blackboard, with our committee and said, “If you’re going to do it all again, what do you have to do to be relevant?”
We have to be able to fight back against the capitalist class that is really coming at us hard. That’s how we came up with this list of things that we have to do differently. It caught wind and I think it’s inspiring to some. Quite frankly, my concern is not making it happen, my concern is delivering: changing the rhetoric, to actually delivering something that is uniting and that is fundamentally different. This is a bit of a battle-cry to unite the labour movement, which is very fractious. We haven’t had a lot of good leadership for a while and you witness the results: the multinationals, the corporations and the governments are riding right overtop of us.
MP: I think one of the most interesting parts of this whole proposal is the idea of community-based locals that are open to all workers, whether they’re in an established bargaining-unit or not. It is really reminiscent of the One Big Union movement a century ago. Can you explain how exactly this is going to work and some of the broader reasons behind it?
DC: Well the reasoning I can give, how it will actually function, well, great minds are trying to think this through. It really is, to go back to my earlier remarks, about trying to unite workers, those who want to be workers: students, those who have been workers: retirees and social activists in the community who may or may not be workers. There is a whole group or class of workers, who work in precarious work who may never have collective agreements. All of what makes up the working class, I believe, needs a vehicle where they can be heard, have a voice and try to make changes to our society that are in the best interest of all of us.
MP: There’re a lot questions being asked about this new union and its community-focus being seen as “stepping on the toes” of the Canadian Labour Congress. Will the new union be affiliated to the CLC and what sort of relationship will it have with the Labour Congress?
DC: There’s never been any discussion that we wouldn’t be affiliated to the CLC. Our leadership supports the concept of a central labour organization. You’ve got to remember, the CLC in fact, both by leadership and by policy have called for a uniting of unions at the Executive Council level and now the Canadian Council level. There are always these discussion that there need to be fewer unions that can be more efficient and learn to fight. I mean, one of the things that’s happened here is that the propaganda is such that many workers believe we live in a classless society – that we’re all equal and… which was never true and never supported by anyone who understood politics and the economy. But the 99% movement actually brought back that debate. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, you’re a worker, unless you’re a capitalist.
The left hasn’t done a very good job. There’s been lots of rhetoric and calls for a general strike and stuff like that. But the hard stuff about actually making shit happen hasn’t been so successful.
MP: As I’m sure you are aware, the capitalist system internationally is in a state of crisis. What impact is this having on workers in Canada and how can the New Union face these challenges?
DC: I’m one of these guys that don’t believe in crisis. They take wealth from the working class and give it to the rich, and we feel like it’s in crisis because we’re getting the shit beaten out of us, but I think structurally, it (capitalism) can never succeed. It’s the old adage and I’ve heard it all my life, “out of the ruins and the ashes shall rise the phoenix”. Bullshit. Bullshit! These guys just keep taking money away and rights away and giving it to them. So it’s a crisis for us, but the money’s not gone, they didn’t put all the money in a big pile and burn it, it’s just concentrated. Fewer and fewer have more and more.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to talk like this. It wasn’t until the great recession of 2007, 2008, 2009 that we were able to talk to our members in that type of language because the propaganda had been so successful. We were branded as some sort of political lunatics, or left-wing wackos. We hadn’t been very successful as leaders in trying to change the language or model so that we can win the hearts and minds and it wasn’t until the great industrial collapse and all the jobs are gone that we could talk about it. Remember, workers didn’t leave the unions, the work left the country. We didn’t have de-certifications, our density has gone up, but there are less workers in unions because the jobs are frickin’ gone. Lots are talking about a crisis and it’s a crisis that workers are being beaten to death, but capitalism is just trucking along doing just fine, thank you very much. They don’t give a shit. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll just start another war.
MP: So then it’s as the old saying goes, the system isn’t broken, it’s designed to function this way?
DC: Exactly. I’m an old student of Engels and Karl and more copies of Das Kapital have been sold in the past three years than the previous thirty. People are trying to reach out to understand what the hell is happening to us. It’s just a busted model and what’s wrong here is that we, and we take blame for it and I think we should as activists, we lost the message. We didn’t respond to all of these economic collapses. We didn’t have models that worked. We didn’t know the answer. We kept saying, “kinder gentler capitalism” all of that. Quite frankly, this is not about any of that; this is about power and control. We don’t have the power or the control right now and the model will carry on indefinitely forever unless we figure out a way to at least have a balance of power.
I mean, the Prime Minister of this country says to me personally in his office, “We should let the market decide the future of forestry work.” Now first off, I’ve never met this guy Market, or this woman Market, I don’t know who the hell he or she is. Give me a freakin’ break! Some institution that sells stocks and bonds and marks profits by quarters is going to determine the future of the forest industry? That’s crazy. And it’s that kind of lunacy that we’ve failed to be able to deliver the message against. Okay, now people will listen to us, now after they got ran over by the truck, right? They shouldn’t have walked across the street. They should have looked to see if the truck was coming while we were yelling, “Hey look out, the truck’s coming!” But we were branded as naysayers or anti-Canadian or fascists or some stupid thing they would call us. They red-baited the hell out of us. But their system has failed. It’s failing for the majority, the 99%. The rest keep getting richer. They’re happy with it.
MP: Is there such a thing as a kinder gentler capitalism?
DC: I don’t believe that there is. I’m not an economist. We’ve hired some good guys. I just hired Travis Fast, you know, one of the premiere pinko-economists out of Laval. One of the things we haven’t done on the left, is we haven’t answered the issue of debt and the monetary system. We have to be able to propose something that can actually work. Not just say that we’re going to be like a bunch of hippies sitting on a corner selling beets, another kind of capitalism. We really have not had hard intellectual debate about what to do about monetary systems, about debt, about how do we function. We’ve talked about state-controlled capitalism and all of its bumps and grinds. But we need to talk about a model that is inherently democratic. But it can’t be democratic in a way that the majority get to control the minority or that the little minority wacko-groups get to destroy the majority. So it’s a complicated issue and I don’t pretend to have the answers, I just know that the question is very large when it comes to the economy and money and debt and the monetary system for the world. And we should take blame, that the left, the progressives of the world should take responsibility for our inability to come up with a model that intrigues and excites working class people. Otherwise they’ll just blow us off as a bunch of wackos.
MP: Well thanks a lot for talking with me today and maybe we’ll do it again when the process is a little further along.
The CAW and CEP’s “New Union Project”: Fightback’s opinion
Organized labour stands at an impasse. Union density in Canada has dropped from just under 40%, to the current level of about 30%. It is even worse in the private sector, where the manufacturing crisis has reduced the private-sector unionization rate to 17%. The capitalist crisis has unleashed a wave of attacks by the bosses. Lockouts, privatization, back-to-work legislation, legislated contracts, contracting out, and off-shoring have been used to beat down unionized workers. In response, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers (CEP) have proposed uniting their forces, in a New Union with over 300,000 workers. Fightback considers this fusion to be a positive step forward. However, size alone will not solve the problems of the union movement; to really build the movement, militant and democratic methods, linked to the formation of a socialist society, are necessary.
What is proposed?
The New Union, if agreed upon at the CAW and CEP’s conventions this fall, will be Canada’s largest private sector union. CEP’s traditional base is in media, communications, mines, forestry, and power. CAW has its heart in the auto industry, manufacturing, and transport. Both unions have some public sector, healthcare, and service sector workers, as well. Significantly, rather than a merger, the two organizations are proposing creating an entirely new union with the intention of re-energizing the labour movement.
Organizing is to be a central focus of the new union — it has been proposed that 10% of the budget, worth $50-million over five years, should be allocated to this struggle. This figure is double the combined figure currently dedicated to organizing by the CAW and CEP with the intention of “launching a wave” to capitalize on the excitement around the founding convention.
The most exciting proposal of the new union is to open up the membership to workers without collective agreements — unemployed workers, students, and young people. This is an excellent proposal that cuts across the institutionalization of the labour movement, where a worker can only join a union if a representative of the capitalist state (the “labour board”) approves it. Many workers in precarious situations have a very difficult time organizing by traditional means. In the manner proposed by the New Union, they can join a union to exercise whatever power is possible via collective action. We would not be surprised if this method actually led to far more workers actually achieving collective agreements where nobody thought such a movement was possible.
What remains unresolved?
With any new structure there are always unresolved issues to be determined in the formation. This struggle is to be welcomed as new situations throw ossified configurations up in the air with the potential to overturn old bureaucracies. Fightback has identified three key issues that need to be resolved in the founding of the new union:
1) Democratic representation
It is fantastic that the new union will open its doors to workers and youth without collective agreements, but how are these members to have their democratic voice heard? An early draft proposal put forward an idea of city-wide super-locals, in which all members in an area could attend (with smaller sub-locals for members under a collective agreement). This idea appears to be absent from the final draft. However, without such a structure, there would be no democratic forum for precarious workers. The formation of these bodies, with regular monthly meetings, is an essential factor in unleashing the energy and activism of the most oppressed section of the membership.
2) Political representation
The CEP is affiliated with the New Democratic Party, while the CAW (after former president Buzz Hargrove came into conflict with the party hierarchy) is not. This is not the time to re-hash old arguments, which we believe were a damaging squabble between two bureaucracies, but this is a key issue that needs to be resolved. The CAW has even supported the Liberals in the recent period, which we believe is a betrayal of everything the labour movement stands for. Dave Coles, the current CEP president, has said that the issue of political affiliation will be put off until the new union is founded and that he expects a pro-NDP outcome. Significantly, CAW head Ken Lewenza rejoined the NDP after the federal election breakthrough, and campaigned for Peggy Nash in the federal NDP’s leadership contest. It has been said that apolitical unionism is yellow unionism and we believe that it is vital that the unions not only affiliate to the NDP, but fight for the party to run and implement pro-worker policies.
3) Political standpoint
The principles set out in the new union proposal identify austerity and corporate power as the problem and propose “social unionism” as a solution. This is a step forward but it is a far way from a clear appreciation of the problem and the solution. The problem is capitalism, and the solution is class struggle unionism linked to the formation of a new socialist society. Social unionism is the idea that it is the job of organized workers to fight for the benefit of all workers, both union and non-union. This is a laudable goal, but repeatedly we have seen this be jettisoned by union bureaucracies that just protect the narrow interests of their members (and sometimes not even that!)
Transit workers should fight for free public transit; workers in the education sector should fight for free tuition; all trade unions should fight to raise the minimum wage and improve government pensions. Where possible these demands should be backed up by militant action, including strikes. Lewenza appears to be moving leftwards, but only a few years ago, he essentially sold the farm by giving up massive concessions to the Big-Three automakers without a fight. At the time we explained that the bosses would just see this as weakness and come back for more; this is exactly what is occurring in the current round of auto negotiations. If the new union leadership capitulates on the vital struggles, it will not matter one bit how good its structures are. Nobody joins a union to go backwards.
In his interview with Fightback, Dave Coles admits to not knowing what the answers are and appears to be in denial about the nature of the capitalist crisis. We consider Dave as a comrade and friend, but we believe he is wrong on this point. In our opinion the crisis is real and there will be no going back to the “good-ol’-days” of the 1960s. The problem is not just inequality — it is the capitalist system itself. Austerity is not just a “neoliberal” political project; it is the best this system can provide workers. As long as workers’ organizations accept that there is no alternative to capitalism, then we will see nothing but concessions and rollbacks. The wave of concessions after the 2009 crash typified this approach. We say, “If capitalism cannot meet the just demands of the workers, then we must do away with capitalism.” Only if the unions adopt a revolutionary socialist philosophy that questions capitalism can concessions be won in this period of crisis.
Irish revolutionary James Connolly said it very well:
“The possessing classes will and do laugh to scorn every scheme for the amelioration of the workers so long as those responsible for the initiation of the scheme admit as justifiable the ‘rights of property’; but when the public attention is directed towards questioning the justifiable nature of those ‘rights’ in themselves, then the master class, alarmed for the safety of their booty, yield reform after reform — in order to prevent revolution.
“Moral — don’t be ‘practical’ in politics. To be practical in that sense means that you have schooled yourself to think along the lines, and in the grooves those who rob you would desire you to think.”
Therefore, while we support the formation of this new union as a step forward and an opportunity to increase workers’ power, it is vital to continue and step up the fight for socialist policies and militant democratic tactics within this union and the wider labour movement. Only then will we see a turning around of the setbacks suffered by organized labour in the past period and an end to capitalist austerity.