The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union


291 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55028-498-3
DDC 331.88'1292'097109





Reviewed by Phillip J. Wood

Phillip J. Wood is an associate professor of political studies at
Queen’s University.


Conventional wisdom tells us that, in an age in which the international
movement of capital and jobs has become increasingly frenzied, efforts
at the national and community levels to limit the damage associated with
capitalist development are doomed to failure. Nations and communities,
according to this view, must reconcile themselves to their new status as
“capitalist platforms,” places where capital and jobs might land, if
the conditions (high productivity, low wages and taxes, and so on) can
be made right.

One of the most important lessons of Gindin’s work is that this logic
can be resisted. The breakaway of the Canadian section of the UAW in
1985 was predicated in large measure on its disenchantment with the
international union leadership’s capitulation in the face of the
concessions onslaught, and with the longer-term decline of what was
formerly one of North America’s most progressive labor organizations.
Far from undermining progressive international unionism, the goal of the
new Canadian organization was to create a stronger and more democratic
movement in order to be able to create the national and international
initiatives that were increasingly necessary as the New Right agenda
took hold in the 1980s. Though independence by itself will not solve all
the problems that are associated with this agenda, there have been some
successes in resisting concessions, mobilizing new members and expanding
the range of areas in which the union plays a role. In all these ways,
independence has made it easier for the union to adapt its structure and
strategies to fit Canadian conditions.

Gindin’s book is critical of the way the UAW developed in recent
decades. But it is not anti-American. As a union historian, the author
is sensitive not only to the historical factors that have maintained a
distinctive Canadian movement culture, but also to the path-breaking
role of American auto workers in the 1930s and 1940s in creating a model
that could be later followed and adapted by their Canadian counterparts.
Recent events within the AFL-CIO may suggest that this historical
learning process can still be effective, but that Canadian initiatives
may play a larger role in it.

The Canadian Auto Workers is a very readable and lively account of the
history of the CAW, and can be strongly recommended both for the general
reader and for students of Canadian industrial relations.


Gindin, Sam., “The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,