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Canadian Auto Workers: the birth and transformation of a union.

Sam Gindin, The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company 1995).

IN STYLE, Sam Gindin's The Canadian Auto Workers is a textbook, designed to introduce union members to the history of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). In content, it is, as the author claims, an "essay" on the CAW's history, intended "not to be comprehensive ... but to address and develop questions and themes that are relevant to the union in the present." (vii) In particular, Gindin wants to explore the reasons for the CAW's 1985 decision to break away from the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and to examine the demands that historic event placed on the Canadian union. Writing a textbook and a synthetic essay are decidedly different tasks, and Gindin does an admirable job pulling them together. The book is engagingly written, well illustrated, and effectively supplemented by a number of informational boxes, precisely the attributes of a first-rate textbook. His interpretative framework is thoughtful and provocative. Perhaps because he sees his primary goal as speaking to present CAW concerns, however, Gindin overstates the degree to which UAW and CAW leaders and activists determined their unions' paths. As a result, he downplays the pivotal political contexts within which union leaders made their decisions.

Gindin, a high-level CAW staff member, follows the gradual divergence of the Canadian and American auto workers from the pre-union era to the present. He recognizes that broad social forces -- economic change, corporate policy making -- helped to shape the two groups' experiences. In Gindin's view, though, the American and Canadian UAWs were driven apart primarily because they developed difference union cultures, rooted in different forms of nationalism. In the 1930s and 1940s, Canadian autoworkers followed the lead of their American brothers and sisters, battling the state for legitimation and employers for recognition and a share of power. The Canadian UAW took longer than the American to achieve their victories, but by the late 1940s the two groups had secured the same basic right to collective bargaining.

From that point on, Gindin argues, the Canadian and American UAWs followed increasingly different paths. Under Walter Reuther's direction, the American UAW forged a compact with industrial capital and the liberal state. Reuther traded any claim to a say in corporate decision-making for an ever-more generous package of raises and fringe benefits. He undercut rank and file militancy by bureaucratizing the union. And he surrendered the UAW's political independence for an increasingly intimate relationship with the Democratic Party. Building on nationalist fear of American hegemony, Canadian UAW leaders refused to accept the same deal. The Canadians continued to contest production, health and safety standards inside the shop, while rejecting those portions of the American agreements, such as profit sharing, that reduced militancy. They maintained a healthy degree of democracy inside the union. And they refused to commit themselves unconditionally to, though they certainly allied themselves with, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation/New Democratic Party (CCF/NDP).

The divisions created in the 1950s widened in the next three decades. The Canadian UAW drew renewed strength and vigour from the social movements that in the 1960s challenged the postwar order, while the calcifying American UAW "proved incapable of tapping into [the movement's] energy and potential." (166) The Canadians were thus prepared to fight back when capitalists and their political allies viciously turned on organized labour in the late 1970s. American UAW leaders, meanwhile, folded in the face of the corporate onslaught, retreating into concession bargaining. This fundamental difference, brought to a head in the 1982 bargaining round, led the Canadians to leave the UAW in September 1985 and to form the CAW.

Gindin makes a critical point as he traces the long-standing differences between the Canadian and American UAW. But he stops short of probing the source of those differences. Gindin's discussion of the 1950s and 1960s makes the problem clear. Contrary to Gindin's assertion, Walter Reuther never abandoned hope of breaking management's control of corporate decision-making. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he repeatedly called for national economic planning, public control of pricing policy, and public review of technological innovation. Similarly, the UAW was hardly divorced from the social movements of the 1960s. The union played a pivotal role in the most important of the decade's movements, the struggle for civil rights. Taken together, these efforts indicate that American UAW leaders were not all that different from their Canadian counterparts in their hopes and aspirations for the Union. the crucial difference between the two branches of the UAW, rather, lay in the leaders' ability to act on those hopes and aspirations. That is the difference that Gindin's analysis needs to probe.

Any such analysis should begin with the political contexts within which the unionists operated. As a number of commentators have noted, the American constitutional system essentially marginalizes third parties. An organization that wishes to participate in the mainstream of American politics, and therefore to shape public policy, must align itself with one of the two major parties. By so doing, however, it joins a coalition of other groups that may not share its goals. The post-World War II American UAW followed the logic the system had created, joining a Democratic Party coalition that fully supported corporate control of industrial capitalism's awesome power. The UAW tried to change the party's focus, but its efforts failed. As a result, the post-World War II union was forced to operate in a political economy dominated by corporate power. Canadian UAW leaders had a bit more room to manoeuvre. The parliamentary system allowed alternative voices. To be sure, the CCF/NDP did not always provide that voice. But it served as enough of an opposition to unfettered capitalism to prod the larger parties to the left. As a result, the Canadian UAW had at least some room to maintain the oppositional culture that Gindin celebrates.

Gindin ends the book with several chapters extolling the CAW's vibrancy. It became a truly national union in the late 1980s and 1990s, as it merged with a number of other Canadian unions. It works to build and maintain a "culture of resistance" within the expanding union ranks. And it struggles to move from "social unionism" to "movement unionism," through which the union would lead a "profound change in the nature of society." (208) Thus does the CAW remain true, Gindin concludes, to the union culture that led to its creation. Only by understanding the structures that fostered that culture, however, will future activists be able to build on the past that Gindin rightly celebrates.

Kevin Boyle

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
COPYRIGHT 1997 Canadian Committee on Labour History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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