Strike against Canada Bank Seen as Pivotal Labor Fight

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Strike Against Canada Bank Seen as Pivotal Labor Fight

The Canadian financial services industry is closely watching talks between the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Union of Bank Employees aimed at ending a strike against the bank that could have far-reaching consequences.

Since mid-June, 250 striking employees have kept closed down a key Visa card-processing center in Toronto that serves 650 Ontario branches of Canadian Imperial. If labor wins its battle over certain salary and employee security considerations, Canada's third largest bank stands to lose millions while the union will have gained an important foothold.

But if Canadian Imperial wins, an already disintegrating union movement within the 150,000 employees of Canadian banks could become practically nonexistent.

In past years, banks have fought hard to keep unions out of the industry. To date they have succeeded. Of 7,500 bank branches, only 62, with 1,542 employees, have been unionized. That figure accounts for about 1% of the work force. Canadian Imperial itself has 420 unionized workers in seven branches out of 32,000 employees and 1,560 branches.

When the Canadian Labour Relations Board decided unions could certify individual branches in 1977, union leaders had bright hopes for the future. But establishing an effective union by organizing across Canada branch by branch, with each unit separate for collective bargaining purposes, has proven a difficult task.

Besides the Union of Bank Employees, the unions that have tried include the Brewery Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers International, and the Confederation of National Trade Unions.

The Union of Bank Employees is affiliated with the two-million-member Canadian Labour Congress, which is having problems of its own. Key battles have been lost with T. Eaton Co., the department store chain, and with Michelin Tires (Canada) Ltd. In other areas, union negotiators have worked hard just to maintain the status quo.

After eight years and millions of dollars spent trying to organize the bank work force, the Labour Congress and Union of Bank Employees have reached an impasse. Dissatisfaction with bargaining results among unionized bank employees has lowered membership from a high of 93 units and 2,000 workers to present levels.

The 250-person "Visa unit' is the largest group of organized bank workers in Canada. When contemplating negotiations for this unit, the Union of Bank Employees asked the Labour Congress for an experienced collective agreement negotiator. It turned to the powerful and victorious United Auto Workers for negotiator Jim O'Neill. …