by Christo Aivalis
In recent weeks, a major controversy has enflamed the Canadian labour movement, and how it relates to the international unions centred within the United States. Last month, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113, which represents around 10,000 members working within the Toronto Transit Commission’s system, was placed under trusteeship by the union’s international headquarters. This decision was made after Local 113 President Bob Kinnear had approached the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to activate a clause (Article 4) that would partially suspend provisions that prevent ‘raiding’ (where unions take members from another union rather than organize un-unionized workers) actions between CLC member unions.
Kinnear justified his actions based on the assertion that his local lacked sufficient autonomy in its ability to operate and received insufficient support from the international office. Further, Kinnear and others—including officials within UNIFOR like President Jerry Dias—have deemed the trusteeship an act of American domination. Dias sold this event as a wider struggle in Canadian labour, suggesting that he was “sick and tired of the heavy handed arm of the United States determining our collective bargaining strategy and determining how we operate.” This direct intervention from UNIFOR—which has included paying Kinnear’s legal fees—has led some to suggest that Kinnear’s goal was to transfer Local 113 from the ATU into UNIFOR. Despite all this, Kinnear’s move was opposed by a majority of local 113’s leadership, as well as the heads of five of Canada’s biggest unions, which include unions headquartered on both sides of the border.
While the story has a multitude of further details, the result has been that the CLC has reinstated the article 4 clause that would prevent raiding between CLC member unions, and Bob Kinnear has officially resigned his position as 113 President. As it stands, then, the main issue is largely resolved, but the fact remains that this whole affair has reignited divisions within the labour movement based on this question of American influence into Canadian unions. A large part of this is due to a sustained historical context that has played out for more than a century.
In the early days of the Canadian labour movement, there were few exclusively Canadian unions. Of the major unions at the time, most were centred in the United States, and had locals in Canada. For a time, these two overarching groups cooperated through the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada (TLC), which was founded in the 1800s. But things changed at the 1902 TLC convention at Berlin, Ontario. Here, under pressure from the TLC locals affiliated to American Federation of Labor (AFL), the decision was made to kick out the purely Canadian unions. Some of these expelled unions would go onto form the Canadian Federation of Labour (CFL), but the body would be largely weak and ineffectual.
A few years later, in 1908, we would see the birth of Canada’s first major independent union: the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE). It sought to broaden the labour movement outside the ‘skilled’ trades, and with solely Canadian members. The CBRE would quickly become of one of the country’s biggest unions, and in the late 1910s, it would join the TLC. But around the same time, an American railway brotherhood that represented many of the same job classifications as the CBRE came to Canada, and also obtained TLC membership. In keeping with the 1902 Berlin decision, the CBRE was forced to join the American union or face expulsion; the latter happened in 1921.
By 1927, however, A.R. Mosher and his CBRE would join with remnants of the old CFL, along with the One Big Union and numerous Communist unions to form the All-Canadian Congress of Labour, which was predicated on resisting the conservative, exclusive, and American-dominated TLC unions. And while the ACCL would be racked by internal strife and the Depression, the body was kept afloat by the CBRE.
Luckily, developments in the United States gave new life to the ACCL. In the mid-1930s, the AFL expelled many unions, which would go on to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the latter of which were more inclusive in their organizing strategy, and were more politically proactive. By 1939, the TLC kicked out Canadian CIO unions, which left them without a federation. It was thus that a marriage, largely of convenience, was consummated between CIO unions in Canada, as well as the exclusively-Canadian ACCL. The result would be the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), founded in 1940. Initially, neither side fully trusted the other, because the CIO unions knew of the ACCL’s prior denunciation of American unions, and the ACCLers worried about becoming dominated by quickly growing unions like the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers.
But what would happen was a compromise between the ACCL and CIO forces that developed over a decade or more. From Mosher’s perspective, as well as that of CCL Secretary Treasurer Pat Conroy’s, the CIO locals in Canada needed further autonomy from their American headquarters, in terms of finances, power structures, and the production of educational materials. The result was that even though the CCL by the 1956 formation of the CLC would be dominated by American-centred unions, it had locals that were relatively autonomous in their functions. It was thus that, when CCL-TLC negotiations were taking place to form the CLC, the former demanded that AFL locals in Canada move in the direction of increased Canadian control independent of international headquarters.
But the story doesn’t end here, because changes in political and organizational contexts gave rise to another wave of Canadian labour nationalism from the 1960s into the 1980s. With the rise of public sector unionism came many large Canadian-only bodies, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). These unions were often on the forefront of fighting for Canadian labour autonomy and could do so because they had no direct ties to American labour centrals.
But beyond the growth in public sector unionism, the rise of anti-American sentiment from the 1960s into the 1980s made many Canadian workers wary of too strong an attachment to the American movement. This was in addition to a general sentiment among Canadians that American control of Canadian businesses and natural resources could erode political and economic sovereignty. And while most Canadian unions remained loyal to their American headquarters, many sought increased autonomy. This issues among others even led to some full-fledged splits, resulting in the formation of new, all-Canadian unions like the Canadian Auto Workers (now part of UNIFOR).
The relations between the American and Canadian labour movements have never been without controversy. Originally, American unions often sought to dominate or subjugate Canadian counterparts, and even into the mid-1900s, there were few efforts made to recognize the unique experiences and desires of Canadian members. And while changes have (and continue) to be made to ensure resources and objectives include the Canadian viewpoint, there are still discrepancies between the movements generally, and within unions straddling both borders.
What, then, does this history mean for the ATU 113 case? Some, like Jerry Dias, imply that Kinnear’s efforts were undertaken in the context of overbearing American labour bosses. But this perspective is applied inelegantly, without a clear understanding of historical progress or the intent of the CLC’s article 4. From the historical perspective, the reality is that Canadian unions are as autonomous as they have ever been, and from a constitutional perspective, article 4 requires that the CLC be approached by a group of workers, and not simply an individual.
Likewise, article 4 is to be applied only when internal dispute routes within a union are exhausted, which did not happen in this instance. As the aforementioned letter from major CLC-affiliated union leaders noted, the application of CLC provisions in this case were “not based on a legitimate application under the clear wording of Article IV.” More poignantly, the letter clearly denounces how Kinnear, “after an overwhelming vote of non-confidence by his Board, is using the CLC’s justification process as a tool for continuing his campaign of opposition to his union.” Finally, it suggests to the CLC that, if anything, investigations in this matter should be aimed towards the actions of “another affiliate,” which might well point to the involvement of UNIFOR in this process.
Ultimately, the issue here is less a legitimate concern into the historical American dominance of Canadian labour, and more an attempt to use that history for ulterior motives. Canadian workers deserve a movement in which they are free to make their own decisions, but the actions in this particular case only serve to wrap inter and intra-union skullduggery in the Canadian flag. This belittles the historical fight that Canadian unionists—including CAW luminaries like Bob White—have waged for increased Canadian autonomy. Perhaps more importantly, this weakens any future fight against legitimate American overbearance into Canadian union affairs.
Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.