Robert White, Canadian Director of the United Automobile Workers Union, ventured some thoughts on the role of unions in last year’s Larry Sefton Memorial Lecture given at Woodsworth College in Toronto. White’s speech ranged over a number of issues, inc1uding the rights of francophones in Manitoba, the UAW’s political support of the New Democratic Party, the downing of a Korean jetliner, the American “invasion” of Grenada, and the dialogue between the “superpowers.”
As to the prob1ems faced by workers today, White stated that “the 1abour movement and workers in many areas are still under attack in this country.” He believes that the government’s wage controls in 1976 and its current monetarist policies work to the detriment of working people and their unions. The adversary system of collective bargaining, argued White, “is not going to go away because, in most cases, the interests of the worker at some point conflict with the interests of the employer.” Unemployment and technological change are two major challenges currently confronting workers, said White, because both allow for exploitation by the employer. White admitted that in some cases, labour-management relations had improved as management learned from their past mistakes. However, he continued,
Nobody should think that the labour movement in this society has been accepted by the management community because in many areas it has not. There are a lot of people who attempt to take advantage of that. I didn’t think that we’d ever see a situation like we see in this country. We really have a program going into place which is designed to retard the labour movement’s progress and to do away with progressive labour legislation. It’s all done in the name of competitiveness.
Mr. White’s speech is a strong endorsement of the traditional, hardheaded stance of what many label “progressive” labour unions. It demonstrates little awareness of the need to adopt a more cooperative and open attitude, especially in view of immense difficulties now plaguing every sector of the economy. It is c1ear from White’s speech that he is unprepared to take the truly imaginative and courageous steps necessary to travel the route to a more healthy society.