Monday, April 28, 2008

30 years after the Fleck strike

Many people may not remember the events in a small town in Ontario called Centralia thirty years ago. People like Stephen Harper want us to forget; even state that those caught on the wrong end of the debate were in the wrong. But it was in 1978 that the union movement in Canada changed forever.

A group of plucky women at a plant making wire harnesses for the auto industry, sick and tired of being treated like scum by their employer, Fleck Automotive, were able to certify a local of the United Auto Workers. The company refused to recognize the legality of the vote, furthermore they vowed they would never deduct union dues from those who had decided not to join the union.

In so doing, they were challenging an informal principle called the Rand Formula which the Big Three put in place after a nasty strike at Ford Canada in 1945. The Rand Formula ensures union security by making sure the company doesn't play favourites with those who because of conscience or politics don't want to join; since everyone gets the same benefits everyone should pay for those benefits through union dues. Rand does allow such conscientious objectors to have the dues redirected to either the in-house charity or a mutually agreed upon third party NGO.

When the women at Fleck went on strike, the company struck back hard. Using its connections at the office of then Premier Bill Davis -- it just so happened the owner was also a top official in Davis' office -- 500 OPP officers were on force at the plant and brutalized the women at Fleck, day after day; while ensuring replacement workers got free passage into the plant. The burly set at some auto assembly plants as well as at parts plants like Budd Canada had to come down to Centralia to act as bodyguards for the women. More notable was that when the press attempted to report on what the OPP was doing, the cops raided TV stations and newspapers, destroying tapes and ripping up manuscripts in Gestapo-like fashion.

The strike went on for 23 weeks. Finally, a mediator was sent in from of all places the Canadian Senate. He suggested a compromise: The company recognize the union local and agree to a compulsory check-off; but that all plant workers, including the replacement workers, vote on the first contract. It was quite risky but the UAW took the bait and they won the day by a margin of 3-1.

Humiliated by the conflict of interest and embarrassed by what became a huge public relations disaster, Bill Davis made the Rand Formula mandatory in Ontario law -- with the same compromise in the Fleck strike; that all workers in a bargaining unit either in or out of the union get to vote on contracts.

I have stated in the past that if I was in a non-union environment and a union came in, I would probably stay out if my relationships with management were cordial. But if a union was already present at a place of employment, I would definitely be in. The fact is, in either scenario, I support the Rand Formula because it ensures union security. Unions are the reason why much social progress has been made in Canada and why many of the better places to work have such good wages and fringe benefits. They've sought top of the barrel treatment and not bottom rung.

We need to fight to ensure that unions remain a vital force in our way of life. Unions helped build Canada as much as big business did, perhaps much more. There is an argument that in the present world unions should not be so inflexible in terms of job classifications. But we also should not allow the provinces to become right to work jurisdictions where it becomes a free for all, where companies become bullies and workplace safety is an afterthought.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

really enjoyed your post about the Fleck strike. Obviously the days of massive anti-union intimidation are once again upon us.

What these women demonstrated was something becoming exceedingly rare in our lives: true COURAGE. How often in life are we called upon to stand up to official threats of intimidation, violence and abuse for something that is right? Standing up for what's right takes unimaginable fortitude and good old fashioned guts. Much respect to these women--I only hope that when my moment comes, I am half as brave.