The Canadian Auto Workers and Paid Education Leave: Social Unionism in Practice


Reuben Roth

for D'Arcy Martin

Special Topics in Adult Education: Labour Education

EDT 1131S

May 1997

Introduction: Paid Education Leave as a symbol of CAW aspirations

Despite one's own political orientation or union affiliation, it must generally be acknowledged that the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union has had a singular impact on recent labourAn outline of the progressive nature of the CAW is available in Sam Gindin's The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union (1995).and political history in Canada. Even a cursory glance at 'labour beat' news items over the past twelve months provides many illustrative examples, including the 1996 'Big Three' auto negotiations and the ensuing the 21-day General Motors strike, a central, critical role in the bailout agreement of Canadian Air Lines International and a major influence in the many regional Social Justice coalitions across Ontario which have been central in protesting Ontario government cutbacks. More recentlysee "Protesters miss PM, grab media bus: Unemployed Newfoundland fisheries workers seek Liberal pledge to continue aid program." The Globe and Mail [metro edition] May 10, 1997. A10., the CAW led a successful demonstration against the Liberal government's employment policies at the scheduled opening of the Hibernia oil rig in mid-election campaign. In the ensuing media interviews both Prime Minister Chretien and Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin angrily singled out CAW President Buzz Hargrove for his central role in organizing the protest. To what can the CAW attribute this exceptional level of 'notoriety' in Canadian political life? I suggest that a possible answer lies in the CAW's education programs, which are of an unrivalled political character in contemporary Canadian trade unionism and sharply critical of the prevailing inequities of Canadian society. CAW members' widespread access to its educational programs has helped to build a solid nucleus of support for the CAW's political action strategies.

In previous essays I have outlined the origins of the CAW's Paid Education Leave (PEL) program, its architects' goals and how it is perceived from the point of view of PEL participants. I have also acknowledged that PEL carries on in the best tradition of the Workers' Educational Association where "workers emphasized the need for social justice and attacked the limits of education in a class societyRadforth and Sangster, 77.." Using an historical materialist and class-conflict approach, I examine PEL's role as a unique labour education strategy within the broader framework of the CAW's social unionist strategy. I also briefly explore PEL as a "transformative learning experience" within the structure established by Finnish academic Ari Antikainen. I have included excerpts of interview transcripts drawn from thematically-guided oral history interviews conducted with former PEL participants and key CAW informants. This work was carried out as a component of my thesis (of which this is essay is a hopeful part). Furthermore, I draw from my own PEL experiences of 1980-81 and 1984-5.

According to YatesYates, 230., the historic 1985 separation between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the CAW can be attributed to the democratic organizational structure of the then-Canadian Region of the UAW, as well as a more class-based, collective identity among its members, and its anti-concessionary economic strategic direction. In contrast to the UAW which provides few intermediary structures, a democratically elected Canadian Council is a fundamental internal mechanism which endows a voice and vote to elected rank-and-file delegates -- and by extension to shop-floor workers. This body both debates and decides the direction of the national leadership, and played a pivotal role during the UAW-CAW split. Here are the components for a transformative organization which works to build resistance to structures of capital and, as Gindin states, a

mobilization [that] included the hope of more profound change in the nature of society with the workers themselves playing the leading role.Gindin, 268.

This acknowledgement is not merely the singular view of a progressive individual within the labour movement, but a reflection of the collective hopes of a disciplined organization with an understanding of greater society. Moreover it is a rejection of what V.I. Lenin labelled 'trade union economismsee V.I. Lenin, What is to Be Done? in V.I. Lenin Collected Works Volume 5 May 1901-February 1902. (Moscow: Progress Publishers) 5: 347-529 [esp. pp. 363, 375, 398].', that is:

the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation..Lenin, 375.

In contrast to the above view, the CAW has an explicitly stated goal of 'social unionism', which, according to the CAW Constitution, entails the recognition that:

Our collective bargaining strength is based on our internal organization and mobilisation, but it is also influenced by the more general climate around us: laws, policies, the economy, and social attitudes. Furthermore, our lives extend beyond collective bargaining and the workplace and we must concern ourselves with issues like housing, taxation, education, medical services, the environment, the international economy. Social unionism means unionism which is rooted in the workplace but understands the importance of participating in, and influencing, the general direction of society [my emphasis]Quote by William Knight, "Words to Live By" in The Oshaworker, 20..

Thus, the CAW has been clear that it possesses a set of goals which are explicitly political and lie outside the expected norms of Canadian society in the dominant social and political-economic framework. The PEL program of the CAW is a clear reflection of these unique and sharply political aspirations. In other words, Paid Education Leave is emblematic of the CAW. PEL embodies the hopes and dreams of the CAW leadership for a more egalitarian society where current power relations are inverted.

In an aside let me note that a quiet, internal critique from the CAW's standpoint is that other 'business-oriented' unions commonly confine themselves to training their elected representatives exclusively through 'tool' coursesI provide an explanation of 'tool' courses below. It should also be noted that unions such as The Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union have both adapted some key aspects of the C.A.W./PEL program and occasionally share the C.A.W.'s Port Elgin training facilities.. For example, a CAW National staff representative, possibly speaking more from his own point of view rather than that of the CAW, described the rival United Steelworkers of America's education program as "..more of a joint program, it's more to the liking of management.Telephone interview with C.A.W. education staff representative, August 1995." Despite this view, it might be acknowledged that instrumental courses cannot be compared to educational programs which attempt to nudge awake a critical consciousness. Therefore PEL is a marked contrast to even the CAW's own 'tool-oriented' programs.

PEL: an overview of the program

The CAW's internal education programssee CAW Canada Web Page, 1997.generally follow one of two paths: local education committees deliver 'tool-based' weekend or evening courses which encompass instrumental matters such as committeeperson training, grievance procedures, collective bargaining, arbitration, employment Insurance, workers' compensation, health and safety and provincial labour legislation. Then there are programs which seek to develop a social union core within the CAW, for example: workplace change and competitiveness, unions and politics, human rights, empowering workers of colour and womens' activism. The CAW Family Education program brings social union principles to the member's immediate family.

PEL is a four-week, adult education course which was first negotiated by the UAW's Canadian Region in 1977. It is a residential program which takes place at the CAW's training facility located in Port Elgin, Ontario. The PEL curriculum includes subject areas such as labour history, sociology, political science and economy as well as public speaking, communications and media literacy. Gindin writes that:

PEL aims at providing working people with an understanding of capitalism, their place in this system, the role of unions as independent working class organizations, the history of workers and their organizations.Gindin, 188.

Former PEL Director Ken Luckhardt outlines the basic purpose of the program:

..the overall objective is to give workers the confidence to participate in the union and in their society to try to implement progressive social change.Telephone interview with Ken Luckhardt, the Director of the P.E.L. program, August, 1995.

PEL's overseers have moved from a conviction that workers must get involved solely with parliamentary politicsThis was my own experience of P.E.L., when I first attended in the Fall and Winter of 1980-81., to a more widespread view that members "..become involved in the struggle for social change.."C.A.W. (1996a) 2. Broadly speaking, however, the CAW position on its education programs has been consistently as follows:

All of our programs and courses carry a very basic message: our union can, and should be, the vehicle for social change [my emphasis] and improvement in the lives of all workers.C.A.W. 1995. 1.

Note that the theme of "social change" is often repeated in CAW literature and PEL course curriculum. The goal of politicizing trade union activists and raising working class consciousness is not a subterfuge, but an implicitly stated, hoped-for outcome of their educational programs. A reflection of its importance is revealed in the careful way PEL is planned, executed and tracked with an almost religious zeal by its administrators. PEL's goal is to build leadership within the ranks and cultivate activists with both a commitment to the union and social transformation. As outlined by both its founders and present leadership, the nonformalLivingstone (1996) explains that 'formal' education denotes full-time school programs; nonformal education refers to part-time organized courses; informal learning refers to all other deliberate forms of self-directed or collective learning.CAW Paid Education Leave program is an integral component of the Canadian Auto Workers union's long-term strategy of assuming a role in building support among members for trade-union policies and politics. PEL is markedly different from tool courses, as its goal -- albeit in a modest fashion -- is an attempt to deepen consciousness and build leadership within the rank-and-file and consensus for the social and political stands the CAW has taken -- which are determined by their National and local leadership in conjunction with the aforementioned decision-making body, the CAW Canadian Council.

PEL differs from the norm in labour education in several respects. PEL's curriculum is not co-authored by corporations, as are some U.S. labour education programsChrysler U.S. and the U.A.W. have such an agreement, according to Dan Benedict, former P.E.L. Director., purportedly to equip employees with job-related 'skills'. Instead PEL's focus centres on the socioeconomic role of workers within Canadian society, equity, gender and social justice issues, public speaking and media literacy -- all in an effort to equip trade unionists for ideological battle both on and off the shop floor and to 'create' a cadre of activists. Indeed this is what marks Paid Education Leave as 'going against the grain' of labour education in North America -- to the casual observer, that is, one who assumes that the role of the trade union is merely to mitigate the employer-dominated 'labour market' in order to afford its members more buying power in 'the market' there is no obvious 'payback' in PEL. Thus PEL differs somewhat from many Canadian labour education programs in part because it does not explicitly or immediately link with the requirements of the elected committeeperson, the workplace or the union's 'instrumental' needs. But it is not an altruistic program either, the goal of PEL is aligned with the collective objective: to win support for the union's progressive policies among its members. Individual CAW members also benefit by being able to cite a credential on their campaign material during union elections. Increasingly, PEL and other CAW education courses are viewed as a minimum criterion in order to run for even the most humble elected office. The commitment on the part of the CAW National union to issues of social justice sees an eventual recouping of the investment in those who take up the invitation to Paid Education Leave. Instead of earning a traditional dividend, the union acquires a more politically sophisticated workforce which understands and supports the union's non-economic goals, for example, fighting racism, building union leadership from within the rank-and-file and supporting social programs which help to preserve a form of societal equity.

PEL as a "transformative" experience

In recent studies, the Finish sociologist Ari Antikainen relates what he terms "significant learning experiences." That is, those events which redirect one's life course. Antikainen writes that:

[A] life-story may include distinct turning points of educational and learning biographies. These turning points "significant learning experiences". We defined these experiences in relation to life-course and identity as follows: significant learning experiences are those which appeared to guide the interviewee's life-course, or to have changed or strengthened his or her identity [my emphasis].Antikainen, 1996.

From my own standpoint PEL was indeed such an experience. As an electrical assembly worker at DeHavilland Aircraft from 1980-82, I was among those chosen by my union (having indicated an interest) to attend PEL in its second year of existence. It was a seminal personal episode which helped me to understand power relations as I experienced them in everyday life. Moreover, after the disheartening ordeal of searching for employment during the recession of the early eighties, PEL provided a framework which explained class society to me in a life-altering manner. Antikainen writes that:

Significant learning experiences can mean empowerment especially if we use as indicators of empowerment the three factors proposed in our research plan: the expansion of a interviewee's world-view or cultural understanding; the strengthening of one's "voice" so that he or she has the courage to participate in dialogue or even break down the dominant discursive forms; and the broadening of the field of social identities or roles.Antikainen, 1996.

Even approaching PEL, as I did in 1980, with a rudimentary understanding of Marx, Lenin and socialism, the form of PEL as well as its content was a significant demonstration of how workers' consciousness might be deepened. For me, PEL was an indicator of how eduction might indeed play a key role in the transformation of society. PEL was my introduction to the Freirian concept of conscientizacao, that is, the concept of learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of realityFriere, ff. p.19.. On the necessary prerequisite for this, which is "the conviction of the necessity for struggleFriere, 54." Friere writes that:

..the oppressed ... must reach this conviction as Subjects, not as objects. They also must intervene critically in the situation which surrounds them and whose mark they bear ... a revolutionary leadership must..practice co-intentional education ... through common reflection and action..Friere, 54-56.

In "Popular Education and Working Class Consciousness: A Critical Examination of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour's Workers' Education for Skills Training Program," Lori Stinson-O'Gorman comments on the gulf that exists between consciousness-raising programs in the Third World versus those in North America:

While popular education has proven to be an effective means of struggle in the nations of the periphery, as of yet it has not been pursued in any meaningful way in North America..Stinson O'Gorman, 168.

Stinson-O'Gorman may have in fact overlooked PEL as popular education which mobilizes workers. With over 5,500 graduates across Canada since its inception in 1978, PEL has developed a substantial following within the CAW Moreover, many of its graduates have gone on to assume leadership positions within the union, becoming elected committeepersons, plant chairpersons and executive members. Additionally the CAW has taken a leading role within the Canadian labour movement over this period. It is doubtful that this can be attributed solely to PEL training, but the CAW does have a high stature within both the progressive and labour movements. Its share of respect and influence may be in part due to its active role and commitment in educating its membership.

That the Canadian Auto Workers undertakes this kind of education at all speaks to a 'problem' in public education. Obviously those responsible for the inception and curriculum programming of PEL feel the education that working class children undergo is lacking in some areas. One PEL discussion topic reads in part as follows:

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, schools in capitalist societies have been assigned a particular role: the maintenance and reproduction of capitalism and the values on which it depends.C.A.W. (1996) Prepatory Session, 4.

Clearly PEL seeks to question the role of the state public education system as described in Bowles and Gintis' neo-Marxian framework. The socializing role of schools in a capitalist society is fodder for discussion in PEL curriculum material which makes the claim:

We experienced a system that was designed to maintain, promote and advance those who begin from a position of privilege...your parents' socio-economic background, not your abilities or your educational qualifications, is the most important factor determining your 'success' in the educational system and in the job market...Our school system operates against the interest of the children of working people.from Ontario Federation of Labour, in CAW 1996a, 6.

While this is hardly news to educational activists and academics, it is a revelation to CAW members who have never been exposed to critical material or discussion of this kind. This is merely one illustration of PEL's attempts to counter the hegemonic character of public schools.

PEL: Building Bridges to Social Justice Communities

The CAW is a union which displays a sizable sensitivity to issues of anti-racism and anti-sexismSugiman, 1994.especially when one considers the largely male, white, industrial membership at its historical centre. The CAW's bridge-building to marginalized communities is a strong display of a commitment to activist education for sustaining and developing opposition to current social structures. Anti-racism education is a prime feature of PEL. A worker of British origin in the still predominantly white, male CAW local 222 workforce expressed his PEL experience this way:

[I]t's worn off a lot now but I came back into the plant with an immense socialist vigour -- especially against racism. The first two weeks at Port Elgin disturbed me quite a lot because of the huge "bash the Europeans," especially for the first week. -PEL interview PEL002.A96

The initial motivations for participating in PEL also vary greatly but 222 members' experience there generally contributes to building a critical learning community. As a PEL participant who was primarily interested in health and safety education recalls:

Back when I was [working] in [the] hazardous materials [department] I never understood how I could be seeing all these things going on with chemicals, and here's health and safety people doing nothing about it. Entire departments have cancer because of bull..bullshit and how could you people not notice? And I wanted to get the training, and a guy by the name of ___ ______, I was badgerin' him, everybody ... where could I get health and safety training? And he mentioned "Well, have you ever heard of PEL?"

-PEL interview PEL006.596

PEL's transformative potential is apparent when participants' observations of once-unquestioned daily experiences take on a newly-critical hue. For example, this local 222 worker discusses her understanding of newspapers as shaped by her PEL experience. Given the level of sophistication she displays, it would be difficult to deny the transformative potential of this CAW program.

I don't look at the paper in the same, same way that I used to ... when they were talking about media ... [l]ike The Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star and the differences between the writers and their columns and stuff and how they ... leave things out, you know they edit it to make it a certain way so you're not really told the true story. And it was kind of interesting 'cause ... some people read the paper like it's gospel, now you look at it and you go "no, that's not true," they're contradicting themselves from like last week or the week before, or one reporter's saying something different from the other one. -PEL interview PEL002.A96

Anecdotal evidence suggests that continuing participation in political education programs like PEL is helping to build a grassroots, working-class, social movement community within the CAW. As a CAW local 222 PEL graduate said:

[T]he only way it [PEL] really contributes ... would be the ..idea of humanity that I try to show to the people that I work with. Since Scarborough [Van Plant, part of CAW local 303] closed we have a lot of er, minority cultures ... I try to openly show them some kind of a welcome. ... [T]hat's another thing from PEL too, I tended to..'all trade unionists are the same,' so I ended up spending some time on the [GM-Suzuki] Ingersoll picketline, I talked with those ... people, and I dropped into Scarborough [van plant demonstration] because it was a labour strife issue and I felt I should -- I wanted to be there ... I sort of have this ..sympathy, I, it wouldn't be sympathy, I just sort of feel for these guys. They've been jerked around by a corporation that's making a lot of money and there's no reason for it. ... I can't see the underdog go like that.. -PEL interview PEL004.A96

In the course of explaining his experience in a PEL class, one respondent discussed the resistance he met while giving an in-class critique of how sports is a 'distraction' to working-people:

I've noticed that a lot of brain power going into ERAs, batting averages, how long a football field is in what league, who's got what and what he had ten years ago or at the same time I'll talk to someone about..anything else: politics, health and safety [...] they know nothing. Now there's an [...] old..proverb.."Everybody's got a cup. First you have to empty it before you can put good stuff inside it." [...] Here we..all these people they're completely filled up with sports and their brains don't seem to be able to hold..either don't hold the information, or they don't hold trust in any other kind of information. And that's sort of makes 'em great jocks.

-PEL interview PEL006.A96.

This worker's quote is a wonderful illustration of Judith Williamson's problem. Williamson writes about the difficulties of teaching the concept of ideology to a classroom of visual arts students who are so clearly formed by ideology. So why, according to this worker, do PEL participants not 'connect' their own shop-floor experiences with the in-classroom lessons of PEL? Why do they find solace in the pleasures of sport instead? For Williamson, the traditional sociological method, attempting to teach social analysis without reflecting on personal experience, is a futile undertaking. She writes about the moment of epiphany when she 'saw' ideology:

[F]or a while felt that I saw through everything I had trusted as 'true', I felt I didn't exist as the person I'd thought I was because I was a construct of social ideas, and I wandered around like a lost soul, in a see-thru' world. Then I finally grasped the nettle of trying to keep two things in the mind at once -- the sense of reality necessary for reasonably sane living.."Judith Williamson "How Does Girl Number Twenty Understand Ideology?" in Film Education No. 40, Autumn-Winter 1981-2.

Discounting the respondent's sarcastic "filling empty vessels" statement, Williamson's sounds like one possible explanation of the respondent's statement that workers "don't hold trust in any other kind of information." Sports has a clarity that political life does not and is thus deemed more trustworthy' than politics or economic life. If anything positive can be taken from the respondent's telling quote above, it is that workers have more understanding, scepticism and savvy than they are generally credited with. The respondent continued:

But as far as anything else that's going on why the banking system works the way it does..ripoffs on service charges, I've been an environmental activist for years, I know what, what difference it makes to close down the Third Marsh [local to Oshawa] and whole ecosystem up around here..none of that. Seems to me there's not enough room. Now that, got really heated inside the classrooms.

-PEL interview PEL006.A96

Perhaps workers simply do not want to hear about unpleasant features of public life over which they have little control. As noted by the respondent above, workers delve into virtually all varieties of distraction. Some suggest that "..television will be a later step for most unions."Martin, (1997a) 10. But others might respond that, as Neil Postman writes, we are a culture which is "amusing ourselves to death."Postman, 1985. Postman tells us that "forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such formsPostman, 6.." Therefore on television where "discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery,"Postman, 7. Postman contends that you "cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content."I do not mean to suggest that this excludes visual art produced by workers. Working against this is the proposal that labour education can accomplish the counter-hegemonic work that programs like PEL attempt to do. Feminist-sociologist Kathleen Rockhill writes that:

We don't let ourselves know in part because we are terrified to see, and then to name and live by what we see.Rockhill, 15.

In other words, as the respondent above states, workers either "don't hold trust in any other kind of information" or as Rockhill implies, workers are afraid to name the power that holds sway over them in the fear that they cannot change it. 'Knowing' capital is little comfort in the disheartening realization that you cannot erase capital.


A key conclusion of this paper is my assertion that the emergence of PEL as a unique form of labour education fills a void in public education which generally does not undertake the social issues that strike a chord in unionized workers. At the same time, I do not believe that PEL can construct the broad ideological shift in its members' consciousness that its developers originally hoped to achieve, although here I may be guilty of ascribing a more ambitious outcome to the program than its designers intended. I do not mean to imply that the CAW aims to undertake a wholesale shift in ideology in a mere four weeks, but nevertheless, the goals -- as stated by PEL's overseers -- are indeed ambitious.

If the Canadian trade union movement intends to thrive it must extend a hand to both the underemployed and unemployed classes which organized labour does not currently represent. This must be done for two reasons: first, in order to break workers free from the fear (that industrial unionized workers currently experience) of being replaced by the masses of unemployed workers. From the trade unionist's vantage point, these individuals represent a threat to established, long-term workers in the form of 'the reserve army of the unemployed'. The industrial labour movement must also make an effort to create a long-term association with the so-called 'four equity groups': women, visible minorities, aboriginals and the disabled.

Second, both the under-employed and unemployed must come to view the labour movement as something more than the self interest group it is (often correctly) perceived to be. In order to be a successful proponent of the so-called marginal members of society, the union movement must cast its glance beyond the traditional economic gains of its own members. However convincing CAW members, who are themselves feeling threatened by job loss, that this is a desirable goal is a task of monumental proportions.

It is conceivable that the positive lessons of a workers' education program with a progressive agenda of social justice, equity and labour history, like that of the CAW's PEL program, might be taken up by other labour organizations in the hopes that the workplace might be a key venue for an ideological, counter-hegemonic battle. I have not attempted to undertake that enormous question in this paper, instead I have examined one union's counter-hegemonic response to the ideological barrage faced daily by its members in the hopes that the lessons learned here may be emulated elsewhere.


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