Magna-CAW Framework of Fairness Agreement is an Affront to Union Democracy

Geoff Bickerton

Like most agreements between Unions and Employers the devil lies in the details. The Framework of Fairness Agreement between the CAW and Magna International is no exception. Much has already been said and written about this agreement. Unionists such as Sam Gindin, Gord Wilson and Sam Hammond have provided thoughtful critiques of the many and serious shortcomings of the agreement.

One subject that has not yet received much scrutiny is the fundamentally anti-democratic basis upon which the entire agreement rests. The basis of democratic trade unionism is the right for workers to select their leaders and run for leadership positions without interference from employers.

The Code of Ethical Practices, included in the Constitution of the Canadian Labour Congress provides that all union members have the right to take part fully and freely in their union, vote for their officers and stand for and hold office, subject only to fair qualifications uniformly imposed. Does the Framework of Fairness agreement between the CAW and Magna International permit union members to exercise these rights without interference from management? Does it provide union members with the right to vote for candidates of their choice? I believe that the answer to these questions is no. Instead the agreement provides Magna management with the power to effectively veto union members from being selected as union representatives (known as Employee Advocates).

Under the agreement the senior union representative at the Magna facilities is called an Employee Advocate. Each facility will have one such Employee Advocate which will be a full-time position in plants of 150 workers or more. These Employee Advocates will constitute the executive council of the single amalgamated CAW local which will represent all CAW Magna workers. These Employee Advocates will elect the local executive including the local President. The problem is that management will have a significant influence determining which workers are eligible to serve as Employee Advocates.

The agreement also stipulates that each Magna facility will have a union – management consultative committee called The Fairness Committee. The purpose of this committee is to facilitate the resolutions of disputes and build a positive and productive work environment. Fifty percent plus one of the members of this committee are to be “non-managerial” members which are selected by the workers by secret vote. The Fairness Committee shall select three facilitators, one representing bargaining unit workers, one representing management and one representing non-bargaining unit employees. The Agreement states that one of the criteria for successful Fairness Committee members is a good disciplinary record but it does not elaborate on how this will be enforced.

This union-management committee (the Fairness Committee) has a huge influence on the selection of Employee Advocates. Under the Agreement all workers with three years of service may apply for the position of Employee Advocates. All of the applications are then forwarded to the Fairness Committee. A four person Fairness Committee Panel will then conduct interviews and rank the applicants. The names and scores of the top three ranking candidates will then be forwarded to the Assistant to the President of the CAW who will make the final decision. In other words it is not the workers, but rather a panel of the Fairness Committee, which might include management and non-bargaining unit representatives, which determines the short list of three from which the Assistant to the President of the CAW will chose the Employee Advocate. It is these Employee Advocates who will select the executive and the president of the amalgamated CAW local union. The only involvement of the membership in this process is their right to remove the Employee Advocate by secret vote once every three years after the initial appointment. However the Assistant to the President of the CAW has the power to overrule any decision of the membership and retain the EA even if the workers have voted for his or her removal.

This whole arrangement is an affront to the democratic practices and traditions of the labour movement. Workers should have the right to stand as a candidate for elected positions without being subject to a vetting process conducted by a panel which may include management representatives. And all workers should have the right to vote for their representatives instead of having them selected from a shortlist prepared with input from management. •

Geoff Bickerton is a member of CUPE 1979 and labour columnist for Canadian Dimension.