Review of Review of Labour of Love by Buzz Hargrove - Red and Black Notes

Review of Labour of Love by Buzz Hargrove with Wayne Skene, McFarland, Walter & Ross. Buzz Hargrove is one of the best-known trade unionists in Canada, and was at the time head of the Canadian Auto Workers.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 5, 2009

Buzz Hargrove is one of the best-known trade unionists in Canada. As the head of the 215,000- strong Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) he is often presented by the media as the unrepentant face of trade unionism today. Indeed on the dust jacket of Labour of Love Hargrove is described as "Canada's unofficial leader of the opposition." It is disappointing then that Hargrove's account of his own history and that of the union, as well as his expectations for the future, shows such a lack of direction.

The book contains three main themes:

His own story, from his poverty-stricken origins in rural New Brunswick, to his current position as CAW President.

His advocacy of "social unionism" and his belief that it is reflected in the CAW

The next step for the Canadian labour movement, should the NDP not be salvageable.

Hargrove was born in Bath, New Brunswick in 1944. After working at a series of jobs which took him across the country, he started a job at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. Hargrove began work at Chrysler in 1964, the year before the auto pact was signed. The pact meant thousands of new jobs for Canadian workers, and as a result within a year of his hiring, Hargrove found himself a senior member in the plant and was asked to run for the position of shop steward for the United Auto Workers (UAW). Based on his observation of worker exploitation and his personal history, Hargrove came to identify the interests of working people with those of the union. He later claims that "Working people can never expect to achieve political influence unless a union, or a political party closely aligned with labour goes to bat for them. (182). The problem with this conception is that it tends to identify the workers' movement with that section of the working class organized into trade unions and worse still, the class consciousness of working people is then located within the leadership of those organizations. Hargrove was to work at Chrysler for ten years, before being hired by the Canadian wing of the UAW. In 1978 he became Bob White's assistant after White became the Canadian UAW director, and in 1992 he was elected President of the Canadian Auto Workers.

In his history of the CAW The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of A Union, Sam Gindin argues that "social unionism" has always been the policy of the UAW and CAW. According to Hargrove, social unionism is a philosophy which holds that there is more to trade unionism than just bread and butter issues. Social unionism is a world-view which forces union members to "think about our responsibility to the poor, to ponder the inequitable situation of women workers, to consider the plight of workers of colour, and to show respect for the communities in which we lived." (68) Hargrove cites UAW leader Walter Reuther as the architect of social unionism. Liberal union leaders like Reuther did speak out against racism and march in civil rights marches, but they did little to challenge the racism within their own unions. The emergence of such revolutionary union organization as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the 1960's was largely due to the UAW 's unwillingness to deal with racism within the union (see Detroit: I Do Mind Dying). Stranger still is Hargrove's nomination of former Canadian UAW director, Dennis McDermott as the Canadian epitome of this doctrine. Anyone familiar with the history of Canadian unionism will have trouble placing McDermott as a social unionist who "gave the young and impatient in the union their heads and challenged them - then stood back and watched the sparks fly." (90) During his time as CLC President McDermott denounced Sudbury mineworkers and also the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) for their "stupid" confrontations and for "ideological ego-trips and permanent, perpetual obstruction." The latter was particularly difficult to swallow for union militants as CUPW leaders were jailed by the Federal government for refusing to instruct their members to comply with strikebreaking back- to-work legislation. Following his retirement from the CLC, McDermott was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Ireland by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It is significant that when current CLC leader Bob White, another former UAW/CAW leader, announced his retirement last year he was quick to point out he would not be accepting any ambassadorships. Finally to argue that McDermott was responsible for bringing the CAW (then UAW) into the New Democratic Party (NDP) in order to bolster the forces of the left in the party after the expulsion of the Waffle is simply ludicrous, given that McDermott and the Canadian UAW, along with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) were the major force in driving the Waffle out of the party. If this is the legacy Hargrove wishes to embrace, he is entitled to do so, but many will rightly question just how progressive this legacy is.

But so-called social unionism is only one aspect of the unions' business. Trade unions also have a specific job to do in the workplace. Hargrove notes that "Unions probably prevent more strikes than they precipitate . . . The fact is that unions are an essential vehicle for lessening the frustration that many workers feel." (81) The union then plays a dual role on the shop floor. On the one hand it seeks to represent the interests of the worker through the collective bargaining process. On the other hand, as the workers' representative, it must make sure that the workers keep up their end of the bargain by enforcing the contract. This trade off was understood by workers and unions in the 1930's and 40's when the current labour legislation was first developed. In describing his years at Chrysler Hargrove mentions that in 1966 Canada lost more time to strikes than at any time since 1946, and most were wildcats. (95). Hargrove admits that workers were angry at working conditions, at the boss and their own unions. If you ask the media who causes strikes, the answer is always "the unions." Usually prefaced with the word "greedy." But workers don't cause strikes. Bosses cause strikes. Most workers cannot afford to go on strike and by the time they have recovered the money they lost during the strike, the contract is over and the process starts all over again. Moreover, in recent years more and more strikes are being lost and often workers are forced to settled for less than they had originally been offered. Strikes are a part of working life because they are a way to try and assert some control, to try and humanize an inhuman condition. The fact that many strikes in the 1960's were wildcats indicated that many workers saw the union as unable or unwilling to help in this humanizing process. Has the policy changed, have the unions become more militant? Posing such a question brings us to an evaluation of the CAW's current strategy and an assessment of social unionism.

Given the turmoil on the social democratic left and the CAW's social weight in the union movement, Hargrove's book might be taken as a major intervention into the debate around the soul of social democracy. The days when social democracy claimed to be fundamentally about the peaceful transformation of capitalist society are long distant. Ever since social democracy's wholesale embrace of Keynesianism economic theories it has argued its case in terms of its ability to make the capitalist machine run more efficiently, albeit with a few more crumbs for the workers. Yet in recent years, both in Canada and internationally even that modest agenda has been abandoned in favour of one that more closely resembles traditional free market recipes. With the "success" of Tony Blair's New Labour and armed with the knowledge that nothing succeeds like success, Canada's social democrats too have hastened to speak in the language of the "new reality."

The debacle of the 1990-95 Ontario NDP government, opened up a serious rift between the NDP and the trade union bureaucracy, and in the 1995 election many unions chose to withhold aid, or at least downplay their support for the party. Currently the NDP hovers around 11% in the polls and few outside of some wildly optimistic party loyalists believe the party will improve on its 1995 showing. Hargrove then is caught in a bind. On the one hand he desperately wants to see Harris defeated, rightly describing his government as a disaster for working people; however, he has not forgiven the NDP (nor, for that matter, has the NDP asked for forgiveness!). No attempt is made to even conceal the contempt and loathing felt for the arrogant and intellectual Bob Rae in Labour of Love. Torn, Hargrove's alternative then has been to argue for strategic voting: In other words, while the paramount task is to defeat the Harris regime, this may mean in practice, the labour movement throwing their resources behind candidates other than the NDP if the NDP cannot win the riding. In effect they will be throwing their support behind the corporate Liberal party. Unfortunately the discussion around this policy was framed largely in terms of support for strategic voting or the traditional support of the NDP. Those who tried to argue a third policy were given little room for debate. After a long and heated debate at the CAW council in Port Elgin in December of 98, Hargrove's policy was adopted. Despite the fact that many CAW activists believe that most locals will pay only lip service this policy, the net effect will be to drag the CAW rightward and undermine any credibility the union has as a militant organization.

In light of this course of action the question may be rightly asked that if the unofficial "leader" of Canada's opposition is de facto calling for votes to a party whose Federal counterparts, not only support but are spearheading, the corporate agenda, the MAI, NAFTA and a host of other anti-working class initiatives, what must those who are not in opposition be like? Compared to the Federal Liberals Tory Premier Mike Harris is strictly minor league. As a final thought, if Hargrove and the CAW's are as committed to social unionism as they claim to be, why are they, along with Bob White, fully supporting a notoriously right-wing business unionist from the United Steelworkers of America for the next CLC President? The UAW was a right of centre union with a left of centre reputation. Recent developments indicate the same is true of the CAW.

Post Script : Ken Georgetti was acclaimed as the new CLC President during a convention in Toronto.

D. E.

Originally published in Red & Black Notes #8, Spring 1999, This article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.