Like other unions of manufacturing workers in North America, Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, is facing tough times in its auto plants. And like other unions before it, Unifor recently decided to call for all Mexican-made General Motors vehicles to be boycotted by the Canadian public in response to the company’s closure of its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
This boycott is a nationalist strategy with a long history — one that can only stoke xenophobia and racism around the idea of foreigners taking jobs. It’s a strategy that Canadian autoworkers should reject. With the North American automotive industry being integrated through NAFTA and now the USMCA, nationalism won’t solve the plant closure crisis or secure a better future for auto workers.
Unifor represents workers at the Big Three automakers and many parts plants in Canada. Last month, the union bought commercial time during the Canadian airing of the Super Bowl. The ad targeted GM’s decision to close its plant in Oshawa, Ontario and relocate production Mexico after accepting billions in government bailouts.
While not explicitly calling for a boycott of Mexican-made GM cars, the commercial has a strong nationalist tone: while scenes of life in Canada come across the screen, the narrator juxtaposes a supposed Canadian spirit of generosity that led to the company’s bailout with the company’s production relocation to Mexico, “a move that’s as un-Canadian as the vehicles they now want to sell us.” Footage rolls of the Mexican border and a large Mexican flag flapping in the wind.
The strategy has drawn significant attention. In a highly publicized event, Sting took his musical The Last Ship, which was playing in Toronto, about forty miles eastward to Oshawa to perform for employees of the closing plant and their families. The parallels of The Last Ship, which is about the closing of the shipyards in Wallsend, North England, to the situation of autoworkers in Oshawa was not lost on anyone. It garnered significant media attention, and Unifor used it as a PR coup to help promote the boycott.
Canada’s social-democratic labor party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), has come out in favor of the Canadian government boycotting all GM cars not made in Canada and pursuing a made-in-Canada procurement strategy. The Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, one of the largest public sector unions in Ontario and the country, also endorsed the boycott, as did the UAW’s leadership.
But this strategy is doomed. The pitfalls of shortsighted economic nationalism aside, it just won’t work. GM sold over 9.6 million vehicles last year, but only 288,000 were sold in Canada. That’s only 3 percent of GM’s global sales.
Instead of the weak power of the individual consumer, the union’s best leverage against GM is the power of workers to bring GM’s production and profits to a halt. It’s how the Flint and Oshawa GM workers won union recognition in 1936–37 and has remained workers’ best weapon against the company ever since.
Just last year, Korean autoworkers won major concessions against GM’s threats to end its Korean operations by threatening mass strikes, conducting illegal job actions, office occupations, and even trashing the GM Korea CEO’s office. Embracing that kind of action could lead to a better outcome for Unifor members.
Unfortunately, the union isn’t going that route. Their boycott effort highlights the longstanding contradictions in not only Unifor’s strategy but of nationalism within the Canadian labor movement.
Unifor and Nationalism
Unifor was created in 2013 as a result of a merger between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP). The CAW was once the UAW’s Canadian section. In the immediate wake of the famous Flint sit-down strike, GM Oshawa struck in 1937 demanding an eight hour day, higher wages, better working conditions, a seniority system and recognition of the UAW. After two weeks, the union was recognized and marked the onset of the UAW’s advance in Canada. Less than a decade later, striking UAW members at the Ford plant in Windsor, Ontario, in 1945 led to a Supreme Court ruling that enshrined the closed shop in Canadian labor law.
As the postwar consensus broke down, so did the relationship between UAW and its Canadian section. Despite the fact that the Canadian and US auto industry had been practically integrated since the signing of the US-Canada Auto Pact in 1965, the economic crisis of the late 1970s helped to drive a wedge between the two countries’ UAW leaderships and members. The Canadians sought to resist concessions, while the US leadership was ready to accept them and force them across the border.
While the Canadian UAW had both leadership and a membership that were creative and militant in resisting concessionary bargaining, objective factors were also in their favor. Canadian auto plants were newer and as efficient as any plant in the United States. And because of the exchange rate and the existence of public health care in Canada, three Canadian autoworkers could be employed for the cost of two Americans.
In the aftermath of the 1984 GM strike in Canada, a strike that featured no concessions, the US leadership of the UAW, realizing they had no base among their Canadian membership, agreed to a relatively amicable split with the Canadian section. The creation of the CAW in 1985 led to a number of Canadian sections of international unions breaking with their US-based leadership, and CAW picking up many similar breakaway unions that had formed during the 1970s labor revolt that swept much of the world. In many cases, international unions that managed to hold on allowed for more autonomy for their Canadian sections.
CAW emerged as a relatively militant union with a dedication to social movement unionism. Despite leaving the international union, Sam Gindin has noted that the CAW actually became more internationalist in its outlook after the split. Into the 1990s, the CAW was willing to break with conservative, private-sector, mostly international unions and align itself with public-sector unions to resist the Ontario NDP’s u-turn into austerity.
But neoliberalism came into full force in Canada later than the United States and the CAW’s militancy began to show cracks. By the early 1990s, the union had broken with the NDP in Ontario, calling for strategic voting to keep the Tories out of office. By the early 2000s, this “Anybody But Conservative” strategy was taken Canada-wide. The CAW was involved in a huge raiding war, trying to organize members outside of their core constituencies (a big no-no in the labor movement) in the early 2000s that led to their being kicked out of the Canadian Labour Congress for a time.
It wasn’t long until questionable activity in the political realm turned inward. A toothless neutrality agreement with nonunion auto parts giant Magna was signed in 2005 and proved completely useless in organizing the company. Efforts at organizing nonunion Toyota and Honda assemblies also failed as the early 2000s recession saw more and more assemblies and parts plant close.
During the Great Recession, Unifor finally capitulated to concessions in order to save GM. Its most recent round of bargaining with the Big Three in Canada was controversial, because it accepted a de facto two-tier wage system where new hires had a longer “grow-in” period before reaching the maximum wage. Ratification votes were historically low, and workers at the Ford Oakville assembly in fact rejected the contract.
In just over twenty years, the CAW and its successor, Unifor, had gone from rejecting the UAW’s concessionary bargaining, to making it the new normal.
With union density and power declining across the auto sector, Unifor has turned to raiding other unions’ already organized members. In early 2017, they launched an incredibly bungled and failed raid on Toronto’s ATU Local 113, North America’s second-largest transit workers local. A year later, Unifor withdrew from the Canadian Labour Congress in early 2018 over a dispute over raiding hotel workers in Toronto from UNITE HERE Local 75. Unifor only managed to take a fraction of the hotels that UNITE HERE were present in.
Unifor’s raiding has led to much tension and disgust in the Canadian labor movement, with the CLC-affiliated local labor councils across the country being commanded to expel Unifor members from their elected executive and delegate positions. Meanwhile the Canadian Labour Congress’s president, Unifor member Hassan Yussuf, was able to maintain his leadership by taking out a membership with the federal government workers union, PSAC.
A Boycott Only Helps the Racist Right
The boycott is a huge gift to Canadian racists. By targeting Mexico, the boycott helps bigots, from the fascists at the core of Canada’s phony “yellow vest” anti-immigration campaign, to the Scheer Tories, and the new People’s Party led by former Tory cabinet minister Maxime Bernier. All of these groups are following Trump’s lead in stoking racism against immigrants and foreign workers.
This strategy is about distracting workers from the fact that the Right’s economic agenda offers nothing for the working majority. That agenda offers no good jobs, no rights to organizing unions, and no solution to climate change — just a war of all against all with the rich and powerful sitting on top.
Unifor’s leadership has elevated the boycott campaign above other tactics and was late to the game in claiming support for the thousands of Mexican workers striking dozens of factories, including auto parts plants. The union’s leaders have shown no interest in an international campaign to combat the company’s international race-to-the-bottom strategy, such as past rallies for Mexican workers or coordinating bargaining and other actions across borders. Unifor is going down the path of bashing autoworkers from other countries, which only allows General Motors to play Mexican, American, and Canadian autoworkers off against each other.
“Buy American”: Another Nationalist Failure
Autoworker unions are no stranger to these kinds of campaigns. The UAW is an instructive example. They helped pioneer the “Buy American” campaigns in the 1970s when employers launched an aggressive offensive against the unions amid new economic crises and growing global competition.
Not only did those Buy American campaigns fail, but these campaigns have always had a racist component to them. In the 1980s, there were plenty of examples of American workers committing acts of vandalism against Japanese cars. In the most extreme example, Chinese-American Vincent Chin was murdered by an auto plant superintendent and a laid-off autoworker because they thought Chin was Japanese.
In the age of President Trump and a resurgent far right around the world, we should be concerned about the situation spiraling to these extremes. The impact of any Canadian boycott will be negligible to GM’s bottom line, but it could lay the groundwork for workers to embrace the reactionary, racist right.
This response should be seen in contrast with Unifor’s strategy during the NAFTA renegotiations that led to the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). During the leadup to USMCA, Unifor took a generally continentalist and internationalist position. They worked closely together with Mexican and US unions and highlighted the issue of labor rights in Mexico, particularly the issue of corrupt unions that were basically patronage machines for the PRI (Mexico’s corrupt, then-ruling party) that members had little control over.
Unifor could embrace such internationalist strategies again — as well as advance bold ideas like a Green New Deal.
A Green New Deal
For their part, Oshawa autoworkers have already held walkouts and sit-down strikes to protest the company’s decisions. Rank-and-file GM autoworkers and supporters in Detroit are rallying around demands for a Green New Deal by calling to take over their plants and repurposing and retooling them for green production needs. And their campaign, the Autoworkers Caravan, is spreading the word with a video entitled “Make the Green New Deal a Reality.”
These demands also make sense in Oshawa, where up to twenty-four thousand direct and indirect jobs rely on the plant. Co-operative ownership and re-purposing the plant would give a lifeline to everyone in Oshawa and wider Durham Region, pave the way for a new labor strategy to deal with plant closures and massive job losses, and address the problems of climate change and capitalistic ownership.
Backed up by real threats of coordinated strike actions and plant occupations, only an international strategy across borders — and across company lines — will seriously challenge General Motors and provide a future for workers in Oshawa and around the world. It’s a harder strategy to pursue, to be sure. But it’s one that could save the planet and save Canadian autoworkers’ jobs — unlike Unifor’s campaign of demonizing Mexican autoworkers.