The Star. Two of the country’s most prominent unions are quietly holding merger talks in what could become the biggest consolidation in Canadian labour history. In a response to harder times for organized labour in a tough economy, leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union revealed Thursday that discussions have started and will probably accelerate during the next few months. “There’s a lot of work left to do,” said CAW president Ken Lewenza. “We’re moving along but we’re still at a preliminary stage and far off from a deal.”
Labour watchers say a new union between the CAW, which represents about 200,000 workers, and CEP, which has about 125,000 members, would mark the biggest single merger in the history of the labour movement here. The CAW and CEP are already among the 10 biggest unions in Canada.
“This would certainly be the largest among mergers in the private sector,” said Robert Hickey, an assistant professor of industrial relations at Queen’s University.
Some unions in the public sector have merged their regional units into broader umbrella federations such as the National Union of Provincial Government Employees.
The merger talks come as top labour leaders are becoming increasingly worried about the waning influence of unions while corporations and governments wield more power that is undermining workers.
Furthermore, unions are trying to find more efficient ways to represent workers as membership levels remain flat or fall, and finances become tighter. It has prompted some smaller unions to look for bigger partners.
“We’re trying to figure out how the labour movement is going to look in five years and how do we strengthen the commitment to our members,” Lewenza said.
He revealed other unions have also discussed mergers with him but acknowledged that a tie-up with CEP is getting the most focus now. Other major unions are also talking to counterparts about possible mergers, he noted.
CEP began distributing a discussion paper internally to staff this week that outlines issues which both sides need to resolve before a merger could proceed.
Union president Dave Coles said the biggest issue facing CEP and CAW in any merger would be blending their “cultures.” CEP is a more decentralized union with strong local autonomy while the CAW is more centralized, he noted.
“We just have to find a new model for both of us and it can be done,” Coles said. “After all, we have a common enemy. That’s one of the drivers in this whole process.”
He said the Harper government is implementing far right conservative policies that are seriously weakening social benefit programs and favouring corporations over workers.
“They’re leading us in a direction that I believe Canadians don’t want to go and we’re trying to use our economic clout through things like mergers to influence policy,’ he added.
Noles said the two sides should be able to easily determine whether a merger can proceed within a year. It would need approval by delegates from each union at separate conventions.
“I think it would be a good fit,” he said. “We’re both Canadian unions with representation in many sectors.”
CEP formed in a merger of the Canadian Paperworkers Union, Communications and Electrical Workers of Canada and the Energy and Chemical Workers Union in 1992.
Since then CEP has expanded by organizing and adding smaller union. It peaked at about 150,000 workers about five years ago but the last recession and turmoil in the forestry and manufacturing sectors have battered membership levels .
The CAW broke away from the United Auto Workers in 1985 and has added another 142,000 workers through 39 mergers. It topped 265,000 members during the last decade but the decline in manufacturing particularly the auto sector in southern Ontario has also slashed its numbers.
Meanwhile, Ken Neumann, national director for the United Steelworkers, said smaller unions are moving to bigger unions to help defend themselves against the global movement of capital, which has little regard for workers.
“The mergers that we’ve been involved in have made us a better union,” said Neumann who represents about 210,000 members. “I think you are going to see more mergers as time goes on.”