Oshawa Autoworkers and the CAW



D. W. Livingstone and Reuben Roth

Centre for the Study of Education and Work

Department of Sociology and Equity Studies

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

at the University of Toronto



This paper appeared in Convergence, XXXI, 3: 12-23. (1998).



Workplaces can be communities, communities can be rich sites of collective learning, and organized workplaces are potential sites of transformative learning for progressive social change. This article considers one of the largest Canadian industrial union locals, CAW Local 222 at General Motors in Oshawa, Ontario, as a community of organized workers. We examine the CAW's general approach to social unionism and critical education programs, the community character of Local 222 and its culture of resistance. On the basis of in-depth interviews with Local 222 members, we illustrate their learning experiences in current education programs and in their informal relations with each other. These interviews display fairly extensive worker engagement in socially critical learning activities. We suggest that the combination of well-organized working class communities and extensive political education initiatives, such as have recently occurred at CAW Local 222, represent one of the best hopes for nurturing a democratic social movement that could sustain efforts to achieve progressive change in this country.



We all belong to communities ranging from those ascribed by attributes such as skin colour to voluntary groups of interest we can leave tomorrow (see Williams 1976). The most politically significant, modern communities have been social movements constituted by people who share common territory and economic life, as well as a common language and culture, and a collective desire to transform their existing social conditions. The most notable of these are movements to create new nation-states. In our view, the organized labour movement contains communities within advanced capitalist states which have the greatest current potential to mobilize their members through critical education programs and to transform existing social conditions in a progressive direction.

The labour union is a social organization founded with the emergence of industrial capitalism by people who shared a concern to improve working conditions and wages. It became the mandate of labour unions to challenge established conditions in pursuit of greater economic justice for members. Many union locals constitute communities in the sense that they are social organizations of people in immediate contact based on shared territory, economic life and language, as well as a common working class culture (see Newman, 1993; Martin, 1995).

In Canada and the U.S., unions have always had a public image problem. Membership has remained a minority of the workforce. The employer-dominated mass media have largely ignored unions' community building activities, focusing instead on strikes and other events of resistance. Progressive intellectuals have often been the strongest critics of labour leaders (see Mills, 1948; Gaspasin and Yates, 1997).

Arguably, however, no other social organization offers as much transformative potential in advanced industrial societies. Labour unions are among the most democratically-structured organizations. Leaders are regularly elected and subject to recall by their membership, and frequent meetings of the general membership provide real opportunities for interested workers to present alternative motions to the entire body. Labour unions can appeal to the interests of the vast majority of people because they are intimately linked with the work activities that are still necessary to our subsistence and central to our identities. Labour unions generate sufficient resources from members' dues to construct and sustain organizational vehicles for popular social change, including their own educational programs.

The potential of labour unions to change society should not be idealized. As we shall see, even the members of the largest, best organized union locals face powerful opposing influences. But this transformative potential should never be dismissed while exploitative relations of capitalist production persist and while most workers and their families remain vulnerable to consequent job loss, work intensification, and community and environmental degradation.


The unions with the greatest transformative potential are probably those which constitute the largest immediate communities and have elected leaders who are strongly committed to economic and social justice. A leading example is the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) which has some of the largest industrial union locals in Canada and a leadership which has long espoused social unionism and has increasingly encouraged members to engage in broader social movements (Yates, 1993). As CAW President Buzz Hargrove puts it:

Social unionism stresses the broad well-being of all working people, not just the narrow economic interest of our own members. It positions the union movement not as a narrow "special interest," but as an economic and political weapon that can be wielded on behalf of all workers, and all the downtrodden (CAW Canada Education Department, 1996).

In 1985, nearly fifty years after the establishment of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union in Canada, the CAW separated from their U.S. parent union. The seeds of this rupture were planted during the 1984 General Motors auto negotiations, when the American UAW executive pressed Canadian union negotiators to bargain away substantial concessions in order to match U.S. auto contracts (White, 1987). According to Yates (1993), the historic separation of the American UAW and the CAW can be attributed to the democratic organizational structure of the Canadian Region of the UAW, as well as a more class-based, collective identity among its members. In contrast to the UAW, which provides few of these intermediary democratic structures, the CAW's elected assembly, the 'CAW Council', is a fundamental internal mechanism which endows a voice and a vote to rank-and-file delegates. This body, which debates and decides the direction of the national leadership, played a pivotal role in the UAW-CAW split.

Here are the ingredients for a transformative organization working to build resistance to capitalist exploitation of people and the environment. In particular, CAW leaders have demonstrated a strong commitment to continuing education by rebuilding and expanding the education centre at Port Elgin, Ontario and providing a growing array of national and local educational programs. Many of these programs are explicitly intended to build a community of workers concerned with challenging economic and social injustice. As Sam Gindin (1995), Assistant to the CAW President, says:

Building that cadre of activists and activists-to-be is achieved by expanding educational opportunities, by establishing the widest range of forums and conferences, and above all, by maintaining the union's constant involvement in campaigns and struggles. Activism creates activists. For the CAW in the nineties, additional activists were coming from the PEL (Paid Educational Leave) program and the leadership schools for women and people of colour, from the new unions that had merged with the CAW, and from the attempts to launch a broader attack against the financial institutions that had, essentially, taken control over Canada's social programs and services.

It is pivotal for the development of a social movement community that its members learn about the systemic character of economic and social injustice, beyond ones own personal experience but also linked to it. There has been a general failure in advanced industrial societies to recognize and value the continuing learning, especially informal learning, among working class and other exploited or oppressed people. Among academic intellectuals this mentality is now most clearly expressed in the "cultural capital thesis" which effectively equates knowledge with the forms and contents of bourgeois culture, and suggests that working class people's knowledge is deficient and their learning only provoked through "necessity" (e.g. Bourdieu, 1984). The few researchers who have bothered to look and listen have found extensive educational activities and informal learning among working class people (Spencer 1977; Welton, 1987). The following case study is part of a larger comparative project that uses a life history approach and in-depth interviews to document the richness and diversity of working-class learning practices in both households and paid workplaces (Livingstone et al, forthcoming).

CAW Local 222: A Community of Workers

The General Motors auto complex in Oshawa, Ontario contains one of the largest groupings of industrial workers in the country. CAW Local 222 is centred at this complex. Our premise is that Local 222 is a community of workers engaged centrally, although far from exclusively, in learning and concerted action around economic justice issues.

Oshawa's General Motors complex incorporates two car assembly plants, a truck plant and a number of fabrication plants. Local 222 represents approximately 24,000 affiliated workers and retirees who live in and around Oshawa. The community that is Local 222 shares an internal economy. On any given shift, the plants throb to the rhythm of workers buying, selling and bartering a wide variety of goods and services, including homemade sausages, white margarine ('imported' from Quebec), soft drinks, coffee, cigarettes, t-shirts, baseball caps and computer programs. There is also an active exchange of labour and expertise in such areas as home and auto repair and computer or music lessons.

This community has a shared vernacular language and culture conveyed in the plant everyday in addition to regular monthly general membership, retirees' and family auxiliary meetings, and publications, such as Local 222's monthly newsletter, The Oshaworker, a 48-page magazine which is distributed to almost 25,000 members and retirees. The speech of the Local 222 member is dotted with distinctive phrases: 'ass-time' for downtime on the job; 'gloveball' is a popular local sport; 'lost time' is not a science fiction concept but is money received while on sanctioned union business. In this community 'the White House' is not Bill Clinton's residence but the National office of former CAW President Bob White and 'brothers' and 'sisters' are fellow members and not related kin. In terms of oppositional class-consciousness, a GM foreman is referred to as a 'white shirt', 'getting out the kneepads' alludes to those who grovel in the face of management and a 'baglicker' refers to a management sycophant.

Local 222 is also an active, often fractious political community. Two election-oriented caucuses, 'The Autoworkers' and 'The Democrats', have persisted in some form since the 1940s. Caucus influence pervades the union's daily life, from leveraging the outcome of a grievance to the selection of a union service representative. Despite a long history of inter-caucus fractiousness, the persistence of Local 222's caucuses has generally ensured a fairly high level of internal democracy.

Of course, there are other, less progressive influences on the General Motors workforce. Continuing the paternalist tradition of founder Colonel Sam McLaughlin, who sold the McLaughlin Carriage Co. of Oshawa to GM in 1918, General Motors still organizes a variety of community activities from sports leagues to musical groups (Manley, 1986). The competition between the union leadership and GM management for workers' communal allegiance encourages a divided class identity among Oshawa autoworkers. However, GM management strategies, workplace reorganization and growing job insecurity have served to animate a more united culture of resistance.

A Culture of Worker Resistance

Recently, GM management has adopted 'lean manufacturing' techniques (see CAW Canada, 1993). One Local 222 member made the observation that:

G.M. is heading to leaner and meaner ... Now they're outsourcing everything. So when I'm gonna be 50 years old, do you think I'm gonna be on the line? What's out there for me to do? Nothing. I'll have 25 years in there and I won't have a job because they're pushing all these half-decent jobs out.

Clearly, Local 222 workers keenly sense their increasing employment insecurity. But they also feel that their union is their first line of defence against these threats, and that the local is too big and united on job security issues to be treated lightly by GM management. These feelings were communicated to management during the announcement of GM's record-breaking 1995 worldwide profits of $6.9 billion U.S. (Keenan, 1996). GM unintentionally fed employee anger when they distributed celebratory coffee mugs to their unionized assembly workers. The triumphant tone of the mugs, imprinted with the inscription, "On Track...In the Black," backfired among GM's workforce who calculated the 'true' cost of the gift. As one Local 222 respondent described the near-universal reaction from workers:

That's a $25,000 cup! If you figure it out, that's what it is. Well, you take the 6.2 [sic] billion and you split it into the people who get the cup, that's how much it is ... don't insult my intelligence ... The reaction was ... everybody was pissed ... everybody ... smashed them [mugs]...just outside of the parking lot.

While smashing a coffee mug may not be a revolutionary act, it is at least expressive of a generalized feeling of having been "ripped off". This incident symbolizes a culture of resistance within this working-class community comparable to the cultural forms and sentiments that ethnographers have found in other male-dominated working class communities (see Dunk, 1991; Seccombe and Livingstone, 1996).

These sentiments contributed to the strong support for the Fall 1996 GM Canada strike by Local 222 members when the principal issues were job outsourcing and mandatory overtime (Whelan, 1996). The feeling of being "ripped off" contributed to the plant occupation by 125 Local 222 members in direct reaction to GM's threat to remove crucial dies used to manufacture auto parts from Oshawa's North Fabrication plant (see Traill, 1997). As soon as word of the plant occupation spread, Local 222 workers from across Oshawa flocked to the plant gates. Many jumped the plant gate to join the occupation, an act which is expressive of a unified community culture and economic understanding.

Organized Learning Experiences at Local 222

The UAW was an early leader in providing labour education programs in Canada (see Yates 1993; Friesen, 1994; Spencer, 1994). But since the inception of the CAW in 1985, these programs have been both deepened and widened substantially. Over the past decade, employment insecurity related to the introduction of 'lean production' manufacturing techniques (Roberts et al., 1997) has further stimulated interest in nonformal education programs among autoworkers.

At Local 222, the most diversified educational program is called EDGE (Education, Development, GM-CAW, Employability). This joint management-labour program allows Oshawa workers the opportunity to take virtually any nonformal course at area community colleges, school boards and universities, with tuition and books paid for by General Motors. Participation in this program grew rapidly after its inception in 1993 (Burn, 1997).

For production workers there is scant chance of advancement on the line and therefore little advantage in demonstrating work-related knowledge. But, among one's peers within the workplace or union, the multiple opportunities to deepen and display one's knowledge underline the social fact that this is a 'learning community'. Computer-based learning is especially popular. As an EDGE participant notes:

I find anything on the computer right now, the way it's going with society, computers, you have to learn them anyways. I'm just doing it for my own well-being.... As long as GM's going to offer me courses in computers, I'll take as many as they'll offer.


While the EDGE program permits a wide array of subject choices at local educational institutions, the CAW's internal education programs (CAW Canada web page, 1997) generally follow one of two paths. First, local union education committees design and deliver 'tool-based' weekend or evening courses, covering committeeperson (or steward) training, grievance procedures, collective bargaining, workers' compensation and the like. Second, there are programs which seek to develop a social union cadre, including: Workplace Change and Competitiveness, Unions and Politics, Human Rights, Empowering Workers of Colour, Womens' Activism, and the Paid Educational Leave (PEL) program.

The CAW's PEL program is a four-week, adult education course first negotiated in 1977 by the UAW's Canadian Region. PEL is a residential program at the CAW's Family Education Centre, 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, 1995). PEL's goal is to build leadership within the ranks and to cultivate activists with a commitment both to the union and to social transformation. The CAW Family Education program also brings social union principles to the member's family and community (Roth, 1997).

Anti-racist education and critiques of the excesses of capitalism are prime features of PEL and other CAW programs (Sugiman, 1994). A worker of British origin in the predominantly white and male 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." WCLS interview O7ARR1.A96

Motives for learning run the gamut among members of Local 222. While many certainly pursue courses which address their current job insecurity and the search for "something to fall back on," others seeking election to a union office feel that union-sponsored courses provide a necessary qualification. Our respondents also mentioned a variety of broader social interests, including greater political awareness.

But, as adult educators know, organized courses are only the tip of the iceberg of adult learning (Tough, 1979). Like most adults, industrial workers do most of their learning informally in their everyday activities. It is the informal learning that workers do within their own workplace communities that provides the most basic knowledge ingredients and then draws them to critical education programs and involvement in broader social struggles.

Informal Learning in Local 222

A recent Ontario survey found that industrial workers spend just as much time in work-related and general interest informal learning activities as corporate executives and professionals (Livingstone, Hart and Davie, 1997). The CAW Education Department (CAW Canada Web Page, 1996) clearly recognizes the importance of informal learning:

Working people learn from their everyday experiences, from their struggles for dignity and equality, and from their democratic participation in the life of the union at all levels: from local committees to Intra-Corporation Councils, to special conferences to the meetings of the union's parliament, the CAW Council. The role of the education department is to reinforce this informal education and to build on it.

Local 222 workers commented on how they use other people's lived experience as a source of informal, transferable knowledge. One respondent refers to the rich experience of a union official as a 'library':

Like it's hard to believe, there's a lot of time spent ... It's almost like a library if you need something, you have to go to a library, you seek it out, without taking a course. And that's what life is generally like if you're trying to do anything, I guess, because you have to seek out, who knows.

There is a vast array of informal learning among Local 222 union activists. For example:

I take anything I learn in the labour movement as being educational ... period. Newspapers, past courses I've dug up for article research for as far as writing something in The Oshaworker, other people's collective agreements to see what we need for our locals. I mean, all of that's kind of informal, I guess, learning.

With a zeal and commitment some scholars suggest can be found only in the ranks of career professionals and executives (Senge, 1990; Reich, 1991), workers' collective involvement can take them into intensive informal learning activities:

[W]e can go sit down and have a beer, but we could be discussing union stuff and learning.... [W]e were watch a hockey game once, some buddies we brought over, [but] we never talked hockey. We talked union issues and labour problems ... right from eight to one in the morning. I'm listening; I'm learning, some of this, all coming into my mind. The whole time I did learn.... [A]fter a union hall meeting, often we go out and talk about stuff and it's work-related.

PEL's transformative potential for continuing informal learning 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:

I don't look at the paper in the same, same way that I used to ... when they were talking about media...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. 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.


Concluding Remarks

A close look at the community of workers at CAW Local 222 reveals a wide array of community-building projects, many initiated by rank and file members, others by internal political caucuses, and still others by a paternalist employer (see Livingstone et al, forthcoming). In addition to general union activities, the rich array of organized educational programs available to Local 222 members provides great opportunities for members to link their extensive informal learning with courses and programs on virtually any subject of interest. There is a very substantial amount of working-class learning capacity here, being applied in many diverse ways.

Our evidence suggests that Oshawa autoworkers' growing involvement in organized union courses and participation in political education programs such as PEL, along with workers' continuing informal learning, are helping to build a grassroots, working-class, social movement community. As another Local 222 PEL graduate told us:

[T]he way it [PEL] really contributes would be [reflected in] the idea of humanity that I try to show to the people that I work with. Since Scarborough [Ontario's GM van plant, part of CAW Local 303] closed [in 1993] we have a lot of [visible] minority cultures [in Oshawa] ... I try to openly show them some kind of a welcome. That's another thing from PEL too, I tended to [believe] '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 the Scarborough van plant demonstration because it was a labour strife issue and I felt ... I wanted to be there. I sort of have this sympathy ... I just sort of feel for these [laid off] 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.

This rank-and-file sentiment is not just another expression of traditional trade union consciousness but rather the beginning of a much broader identity with other exploited and oppressed groups.

Local 222 is one of the largest, most concentrated and well-organized working class communities in Canada. At this union local, and more generally in the CAW, there is extensive engagement in political education. Political education programs like PEL have now produced hundreds of social movement activists within the Oshawa auto plants. As the Fall 1996 strike and plant occupation demonstrated, Local 222 represents a fertile site for critical social learning and the further development of a working-class based community that includes "the hope of more profound change in the nature of society" (Gindin, 1995).




* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education in St. John's, Newfoundland, June, 1997. We are grateful to members of CAW Local 222, anonymous reviewers and Deborah Wise Harris for comments on earlier drafts.

D.W. Livingstone is a professor of sociology at OISE/UT. His publications include: Recast Dreams (Garamond 1996) and The Education-Jobs Gap (Westview Press 1998). His email address is

Reuben Roth is a former autoworker and community-union activist in Oshawa, as well as co-ordinator of the research network for New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL). His email address is:

The co-authors may be contacted via The Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, 12th Floor, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto Ontario Canada M5S 1V6






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