Academic journal article Capital & Class

Does Fighting Back Still Matter? the Canadian Autoworkers, Capitalist Crisis and Confrontation

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Does Fighting Back Still Matter? the Canadian Autoworkers, Capitalist Crisis and Confrontation

Article excerpt


The Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) is Canada's largest private-sector union. The CAW has a proud tradition of union militancy dating back from its forming in 1985, when the Canadian wing of the United Auto Workers split from its parent union over the issue of concessionary bargaining. While the UAW was prepared to accept a collective agreement with major concessions in order to ensure long-term production, the Canadian wing was not. Since that split, the CAW has argued that 'fighting back matters', and has positioned itself as a militant anti-concession union. These characteristics were challenged, however, in a round of bargaining between the CAW and the 'Big Three' US auto manufacturers (General Motors [GM], Chrysler and Ford) that took place at the height of the Great Recession. The Big Three demanded concessions in order to secure their ongoing presence in Canada, and after a bitter round of collective bargaining, the union acquiesced.

The acceptance of concessions by the CAW cannot be treated as an isolated event. The union has been struggling in an increasingly hostile political and economic environment. Neoliberalism, globalisation and deindustrialisation have all taken a toll on the way the CAW conducts itself. The CAW has been forced to adapt to a political economy that is openly hostile to trade unions and their aims. In some ways, the CAW has been able to successfully fight back; in other ways, it has not. This article uses the case of the round of collective bargaining between the CAW and the Big Three during the Great Recession to highlight the struggles of the CAW in this hostile environment. The article argues that while the CAW has been successful in the short term, a dangerous precedent has been set, in that by accepting concessions in order to secure production (which the union did), the union has implicitly bought into the logic of neoliberalism, which, in the long run, has disastrous consequences for the union and the wider labour movement.

The article is organised into five parts. The first uses critical literature to provide an overview of neoliberalism and trade union rights under neoliberalism. The second section provides a short review of the literature on union revitalisation and union responses to contemporary challenges, which will couch the discussion of the CAW. The third section provides a short background to the case study, looking at how the CAW has changed in recent years. The fourth section presents the case: the round of collective bargaining between the CAW and Big Three during the Great Recession. The final section concludes, suggesting that neoliberalism has made 'fighting back' quite difficult, and also argues that the CAW is on the path towards internalising neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and trade unions

Neoliberalism, Gamble argues, 'first made its appearance in the form of political economy as a critique of Keynesianism and a wider critique of state involvement in the economy' (2001: 128). The neoliberal response to Keynesianism meant a restructuring of capitalism to 'provide a means by which capital could begin to disengage from many of the positions and commitments which had been taken up during the Keynesian era' (2001: 131). The neoliberal critique of Keynesianism contained an implicit critique of trade union rights: whereas unions had a legitimate role within the Fordist-Keynesian mode of regulation, neoliberalism sees unions as barriers to flexible accumulation. Neoliberal theory also criticises state involvement in the market. Neoliberals hope to shrink the state, as they argue that state involvement in markets distorts markets, which leads to an inefficient allocation of resources and, subsequently, reduced levels of profit. Hence, neoliberals have sought to dismantle the Keynesian welfare state, and replace it, in theory, with some version of a nightwatchman state.

Neoliberalism entails the deregulation and liberalisation of national economies. …

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