In a decision made in January 2018, Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, has split with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) over its inaction towards what the former perceives as anti-democratic tactics within the latter, according to Unifor President, Jerry Dias. In the eyes of some observers of Canadian labour, the split has been long coming and represents the culmination of a profound difference in the attitudes and governing philosophies of the Unifor contra those of most unions affiliated with the CLC.
The CLC has functioned as a trade union congress for well over sixty years, representing a huge swath of different Canadian unions in both collective bargaining disputes and via lobbying at the governmental level. Unifor, meanwhile, was founded in 2013 as a result of a merger between the Canadian section of the United Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP). At its founding, Unifor elected Jerry Dias, a former local president from CAW as president. He remains in office to this day. The merged union remained a part of the CLC due to its pedigree; both aforementioned unions were members of the Congress. Since its founding merger and subsequent convention, however, tensions between the social philosophies of Unifor and the CLC have increased in pitch, leading ultimately to a much publicized divorce.
President Dias’ main objection to continuing affiliation with the CLC is what Unifor views as the continued lack of censure by the Congress towards US-based unions imposing their will on their Canadian locals. This winter, hotel workers across the Toronto metropolitan area have voted to disaffiliate from UNITE HERE local 75 and join Unifor. The elections to decide which union to affiliate with were conducted on a hotel-by-hotel basis. Some shops have opted to remain within UNITE HERE, an American-based international, but others have attempted to affiliate with Unifor, a Canadian-based international. Those who have done the latter have since run into voracious opposition by UNITE HERE. Upon ratification of the vote at several hotels in Toronto, UNITE HERE immediately challenged the elections that resulted in disaffiliation to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, who, at that point, sealed those ballot boxes, pending further investigation. It seems the ballot boxes may not remain sealed for long, however, the Ontario Labour Relations Board have already reopened one containing the votes of the Toronto Hyatt Regency Hotel workers, thus allowing those workers to join Unifor.
The workers in question showed a disregard for the policy of the UNITE HERE International vis-a-vis their Canadian locals. Not disrespect, exactly, more an impatience with the perceived lack of responsiveness by the UNITE HERE American headquarters toward the specifically Canadian problems faced by said locals.
Dias had (as a leader within the CLC) taken issue with the occasional practice of imposing trusteeships on Canadian locals wishing to disaffiliate for months now, calling the enforcement of rules on Canadian locals by their (usually) US-based Internationals a threat to union democracy. Remaining members of the CLC, on the other hand, have accused Dias of both factionalism and (prior to the split) of attempting to “raid” locals so as to increase the scope and influence of Unifor.
To the critics, it is no coincidence that the cases of anti-democratic measures that Dias is taking issue with have occurred in locals that were attempting to affiliate with Unifor. Hassan Yussuff, the president of the CLC, has accused Unifor of impeding solidarity between unions and making it harder to create a united front through which Labour can further fight for its objectives in the political sphere. (It should be noted that Yussuff is himself a member of Unifor and on texting terms with Dias). Likewise, the United Steel Workers Canada have condemned Unifor for their raiding activities, calling the split “both regrettable and disappointing.”
To Dias, it is no coincidence that many of his most verbal critics have come from members of Canadian locals of American-based internationals. Moreover, many labor observers north of the border regard Unifor as one of the most democratically run of the Canadian unions, attempting best as it can to both encourage rank-and-file participation and address the ensuing membership concerns. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Unifor used to be part and parcel of the CAW, themselves the Canadian section of the United Auto Workers. The UAW is still considered one of the more democratically run labor organizations in the US.
As well, despite accusations of “raiding”, Unifor has no apparatus by which it actively seeks locals that are willing to disaffiliate from their internationals and affiliate with Unifor. The reason that locals of UNITE HERE and ATU (in the latter’s case Local 113, also of Toronto) have sought out affiliation with Unifor is due to the latter’s democratic attitude towards its affiliates, not active proselytization thereof. If the members of a particular shop are unhappy with their current international and are actively seeking another, Unifor will not show them the proverbial door. The former CAW organization first encourages said local to remain and attempt reform from within before considering affiliation.
From the press coverage given to the attempts by The UNITE HERE locals who voted to disaffiliate and, instead, go with Unifor, such popular opinion among the hotel workers seems obvious. ATU, on the other hand appears to be a case of the local leadership jumping the gun. According to labor observers, members of the Local 113 administration reached out to Unifor for rapprochement, claiming the membership was fed up with the ATU and was seeking to join a Canadian-based union. As well, the question of friction between a Canadian local and its American affiliate has been one visited by Canadian unionists for a long time. Much of the reason Canadian unionists had continued to endure control by their American Internationals was the chances provided by said internationals to work in the United States. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, these opportunities have slowed to practically zilch and have left those unionists asking why they could not continue as a part of a Canadian union.
Some locals take such independence to risky ends. In 2005, a local known as the McMaster University Staff Union (made up of maintenance workers at the eponymous University) was affiliated with the Canadian Section of the United Steel Workers, an international famously founded and based in the U.S. After having faced a number of issues being unaddressed by their American brothers, from south of the border, the local voted to decertify completely and then organize under the banner of CAW.
Yet, for all the sound and fury coming from both sides of the split, the two main actors remain on speaking terms. Says President Dias “We met, had a conversation … but look, there’s no way Unifor is going to surrender our democratic principles. We will not be part of any centralized labour organization or cartel that denies basic worker rights.” If the split remains final, Yussuff’s role as president may well be in question, given his membership in Unifor.