TORONTO - Two of Canada's biggest private-sector labour unions are formally exploring the possibility of creating a new, merged organization by the middle of next year in order to better protect their members from the demands being placed on them.
The Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, which have a total of more than 320,000 members, said Tuesday they have been holding preliminary discussions for weeks.
CAW president Ken Lewenza said the move comes as a response to the "incredibly hostile economic environment" its members face and will give the unions a better stance against a "confident employer base" and the majority Conservative government.
"We have to think outside the box and this is one way of doing so," Lewenza said in an interview after the announcement.
"It's really about saying to employers and governments alike that we're going to strengthen the movement, we're not going to stand pat, we're not going to continue to see membership decline at the expense of our existing members."
Lewenza said the Canadian Labour Congress — a national umbrella group based in Ottawa — has held conversations about how to strengthen the positions of its 50 affiliated unions.
"There's been strategic discussions and CAW and CEP decided to take that step further and go beyond discussions and see if we can actually make this Canadian union work."
He said the two unions have the most in common among members of the CLC as both were born out of, and left, international unions, both have good reputations at bargaining tables and politically.
"When you go to an employer and indicate to them that you've expanded and strengthened your union through growing the union and you have access to 320,000 members to support one another ... it's a very strong statement, and it's a very strong position to be in."
The unions said they've been galvanized by events like a lockout of employees at a locomotive manufacturing plant in southwestern Ontario. The CAW said management of the Caterpillar-owned Electro-Motive plant in London, Ont., want employees to agree to have their pay cut in half.
The CAW was also pressured by the federal government last summer while negotiating for its members at Air Canada (TSX:AC.A). The airline and union did reach a negotiated settlement in June, but only after Labour Minister Lisa Raitt began the steps required to introduce back-to-work legislation.
Dave Coles, president of the CEP, said the goal is to "create a new, Canadian union."
"We are examining every aspect of our work as trade unions, from organizing to bargaining to political activism. We are working to create a stronger union movement and a better future for workers," Coles said.
The Canadian Auto Workers has been the country's largest private-sector labour union, representing employees in a wide variety of industries from manufacturing to mining to transportation.
The CAW has seen its influence and membership diminished by pressures on Canada's manufacturing sector, particularly in the auto industry where it represents employees at General Motors, Chrysler and Ford (NYSE:F) among others.
The CEP is also active in numerous industries that are under economic pressure, including forestry and media.
The unions didn't disclose their current membership counts in Tuesday's announcement. A recent statement on the CAW website says it represents 200,000 people across Canada. The CEP's website says it has 130,000 members.