Nicely timed for the lead up to the Labour Day holiday, the Canadian labour movement celebrated the creation of Unifor on Aug. 31 at its founding convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, attended by 4,000 people.
Unifor now stands as the country’s largest private-sector union, the product of the merger of the iconic Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) with the historic Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union.
Unifor has some 300,000 members across the country in 20 industrial sectors, mostly in the manufacturing, communications and transportation sectors. (Tucked in there are 35,000 public-sector members, so it is more correct, if long-winded, to call Unifor "the union in Canada representing the largest number of private-sector members.")
In mining and smelting, Unifor has 6,000 members, especially in the country’s potash, aluminum and non-ferrous smelting operations. Half of these members work for Rio Tinto in Quebec and B.C., while 1,500 work for potash companies in Saskatchewan and another 1,000 work for Xstrata in Sudbury.
Unifor’s first president is Jerry Dias from Burlington, Ont. A veteran of the CAW, Dias won the presidency with 83% of the vote. In his fiery inaugural address, Dias called for the labour movement to "stop playing defence" and said that "it’s time we started to play offence."
Apart from the traditional labour concerns — such as salaries, safety, pensions, foreign ownership, free trade, austerity measures, and the rights of women, minorities and aboriginals — big labour in Canada has specific beefs at the federal level, including Bill C-377, a private members bill that would require greater union transparency.
Bill C-377 was rejected by the Canadian Senate — with enough Conservative senators breaking ranks with the government to vote it down — for being too stringent and potentially offside with privacy laws. The bill will go back down to the House of Commons in the fall.
There’s a bit of a visual style change with the new union, too. Eschewing the more muted blue, red and green colour schemes of their predecessor unions, Unifor is going with a stronger red in its new logo, perhaps as a not-so-subtle nod to the more famous "Reds" of socialism’s past. (The result was a founding convention of wall-to-wall, fire-engine red.)
Plus, the name "Unifor" is designed to be useful in several languages, and more inclusive in that it doesn’t specify the actual trades of members.
It’s hard to say right now whether Unifor will in time truly be a more inclusive entity for workers, or whether it will, as many non-union workers have long complained, only represent specific, vested interests at the expense of the country’s wider workforce.
The 225,000-member Canadian arm of the U.S.-based United Steelworkers union has now been eclipsed as the country’s largest private-sector union. But it continues to be by far the biggest union in Canadian mining and smelting, with 65,000 members in the steel industry or mining.
The USW has also had considerable pull with the New Democratic Party both nationally and provincially, and with the Parti Québécois in Quebec.
From time to time, the food service-oriented United Food and Commercial Workers Canada union has held the title of "biggest private-sector union in Canada" though, with its lower-wage workers, it hasn’t been as heavy a hitter politically as juggernauts like the CAW and USW, and now, Unifor.
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