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In Ontario, IWA Blazing Diversification Trails

By Jim Clarke
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Summary: The IWA-Canada involved in grocery supermarkets? Courier services? In coming years, organizing demarcations of the past may be blurred beyond recognition.

Three thousand woodworkers in Northern Ontario are in the middle of a labour agreement that will have raised their wages by nine per cent by the time it finishes in the fall of 1997. It’s remarkable for spanning the impoverished legacy of the Bob Rae NDP years, the harsh retrenchment of the Mike Harris government and the economic uncertainties of the Jean Chretien years in Ottawa.

Clark Not that their wages were chicken feed before. Under the previous contract the skilled millwright rate was $20 an hour and the base rate for labour was $16.28 an hour. There have also been improvements in shift differential pay, to say nothing of a tidy little package of non-pay benefits covering such things as dental care, long-term disability and weekly indemnity programs. The deal was negotiated with a number of companies by the IWA-Canada and is as good as anything the union has managed anywhere else.

Small by comparison with the big industrial unions in Southern Ontario, the IWA-Canada has nevertheless been gaining in influence and recently put a man on the executive council of the Ontario Federation of Labour for the first time. And Toronto-based international vice-president Fred Miron was a member of the forest policy committee set up by the Rae government that blueprinted the current sustainable forestry program.

Harris has so far chosen not to tinker with the program. Labour agreements like the one in Northern Ontario are important but they’re not the whole story. Other industries, some related to wood but many having nothing to do with it, are increasingly grabbing the union’s attention and its organizing dollars. The manufacture of baseball bats and hockey sticks of course does require wood. So do funeral caskets, although historically the union wouldn’t have had anything to do with them. Even wood retailing would never have interested the brawny men of the forests.

Still, in the era of mega home supply stores, the union thinks theres a place for it there. But the IWA-Canada in grocery supermarkets? Courier services? Office furniture manufacture, in steel as well as wood? Hosemaking for municipal fire departments? Trucking? Prepackaging of auto transmissions for shipment to assembly plants? Prefabricated home construction? Making bags for animal feed and those little paper sacks for restaurant sugar?

None of these activities would ever have been thought of as likely targets for organizing by the union when it was the big International Woodworkers of America with an HQ in Portland, Oregon. But having severed its ties with the US, it has not surprisingly expanded its vision a bit. Long regarded as not much more than an appendage of the union in British Columbia, the Ontario branch may now be at the leading edge of union philosophy in the 21st century.

True, this expansion has largely been of necessity in Ontario. As Miron says, most of the woodworkers have already been organized. Growth has to be elsewhere. Originating as the Lumber and Sawmill Workers, an offshoot of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, it doesn’t feel at all strange moving into other fields or in cooperating with unions in those other fields. For instance, it exchanges information and coordinates much of its supermarket bargaining strategy with the Food and Allied Workers Union.

It has an amenable understanding with the Canadian Auto Workers on parts transportation and other automobile involvement. “All unions are going to have to diversify”, says Miron. “Some other unions are doing so already. There just don’t seem to be the jurisdictional lines of demarcation between unions any more. Traditional organization doesn’t do any more. It doesn’t fit the conditions of the 90s and the next century. We’re in some of these fields simply because the people prefer to be with the IWA, even though there are other organizations already operating there. The IWA should be in more of these areas and the whole nature of bringing workers into labour has to change.”

Miron naturally believes there’s more safety in numbers than in union ideology. His furniture members have taken a pounding under the North American Free Trade Agreement. That treaty has almost destroyed the Ontario industry. Tariffs have come down in five years on furniture while the process takes 10 years for other products. The Americans have been flooding the Canadian market with cheaper stuff and “practically every plant has been closed in Ontario”, according to Miron.

So he needs the suport of numbers in a broadly-based union to survive that kind of setback. Ultimately the furniture business may recover but its not the only industry to suffer this way under NAFTA. But even if NAFTA had not forced changes in union philosophy, other events would. International trade is becoming considerably more competitive. The European Union is fighting for its share. So is a rapidly growing Asia, not just Japan. The former Soviet Union will become a factor when its political problems begin to be resolved. And American horse traders are becoming much tougher in dealing with their friends, never mind their enemies. Canada is a small country in this brave new world.

But trade is vital to its future and the values it sets for itself. The massive downsizing of the past few years, which has thrown many onto the unemployment heap, is only one aspect of fundamental change in the economy. More is being done with fewer workers, and a practical result of that will be fewer unions. But at the same time workers who may never have felt the need for union protection may begin looking for it. That will put a strain on union finances and under the pressure labour will be forced to retrench and blur the jurisdiction lines. The IWA-Canada in Ontario may be a bit out in front on this question, but there will be plenty of others ready to go the same route. All of which makes the IWA an interesting organization to watch in the next few years.


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