It’s usually difficult to get more than a few hundred union activists to show up to a rally in support of a small workforce facing steep concessions. But on January 21, more than 15,000 people showed up to a rally in support of 420 workers locked out in London, Ontario, according to organizers. That struggle, combined with a mine lockout in Alma, Quebec that also began on New Year’s Day, is being billed by some embattled Canadian union officials as a pivotal moment for the country’s labor movement akin to the failed 1981 air traffic controllers union (PATCO) strike that kicked of an era of unionbusting in the United States.
On January 1, Electro-Motive Diesel and England- and Australia-based mining giant Rio Tinto both decided to lock out workers in what some union officials see as a coordinated attack. Rio Tinto, which locked out 780 workers represented by the United Steelworkers, wants the right to replace each union worker that retires with a contract employee making half a union-level wage and ineligible to join the union. The result would be that in one decade, unionized workers would likely be in the minority in the aluminum smelting facility in Alma, and that in two decades the union would not exist, according to USW organizer Joe Drexler.
U.S.-based Caterpillar, which owns the Electro-Motive Diesel locomotive plant through a subsidiary, locked out 420 members of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 27. Despite Caterpillar increasing its profits by 44 percent over the last year, the company is asking union workers to let it cut wages by by as $18.50 an hour (55 percent) in some cases. The company is also asking for the elimination of defined benefits pensions as well as reduction in overtime and vacation plans.
“It’s no coincidence in my view that two different companies decided to lock out the two biggest industrial unions in Canada — the Steelworkers and the CAW — on the same day. This looks like an orchestrated attack,” said Communication, Energy, and Paperworkers Union President Dave Coles, whose union is in the process of merging with the CAW. “When you have these kind of big gigantic struggles, you don’t know who is going to win, but by the time this is done, these employers are going to have goddamn bloody noses. We are not going to allow Canadian employers to kick the shit out of Canadian workers.”
Both unions and their supporters are demanding that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper get involved, since these are foreign-owned companies. “Get back to the table, Caterpillar,” London, Ontario’s Mayor Joe Fontana said at the rally. “Get your ass down here, Prime Minister Harper.”
Under the Investment Canada Act, takeovers of Canadians companies by foreign companies require those foreign companies to demonstrate a “net benefit” to Canada. In 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave approval to Rio Tinto for the takeover of the mining facility in Alma, Quebec, previously owned by Alcan. In 2010, Harper also approved the takeover of London, Ontario-based Electro-Motive Diesel by Caterpillar. Workers say it’s time for Harper to step in and help negotiate a fair settlement.
“Both Rio Tinto and Caterpillar are committing economic rape of Canadian workers and communities, with help from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who allowed foreign corporations to invade our country without any net benefit to Canada,” USW Canada National Director Ken Neumann says.
The Caterpillar lockout in particular is international in scope, because the company says that if workers don’t agree to cut their wages in half, it will move production to a facility in Muncie, Indiana, where workers are already making less than $16 an hour. The Muncie facility is already nonunion and the unions in Indiana faced with a loss of dues from the Indiana’s recently passed “Right to Work” law would most likely have a difficult time mustering the resources to organize the plant.
“It’s what we have been facing at the bargaining table quite a bit in the private sector in Canada. When we are at bargaining table, they compare what we make to lower wages in U.S. facilities,” says CAW Local 27 President Tim Carrie, whose union represents Caterpillar workers in London, Ontario. “President Obama talks a lot about creating goods jobs in America. I hope that his idea isn’t taking good-paying jobs from Canada and creating low paying jobs in the U.S. Otherwise, we are going to go to be in a race to the bottom.”
In both fights at Caterpillar in Ontario and Rio Tinto, workers are gearing up for a massive fight in their respectively small workplaces that could redefine labor relations not just in Canada, but worldwide.
“Rio Tinto has declared war not only on USW members but on our communities, on Quebec and on Canada,” said Quebec Director USW Daniel Roy. “We believe Rio Tinto will use its attacks in Alma to begin a major assault on workers and communities around the globe.”
“The lockout with Caterpillar is a watershed moment in Canada, it’s our equivalent of the PATCO strike,” Carrie says. “When PATCO happened [in 1981] we didn’t see an uprising of the labor movement, the silence was almost deafening. If we lose this fight at Caterpillar, other employers will recognize that the labor movement in Canada is weak.”
But Carrie is optimistic that with international and community support putting pressure on the Canadian government, victory at the Electro-Motive plant is possible.
“What Caterpillar has done has really galvanized the labor movement. I haven’t seen this level of community and labor support in a long time. … I think the Occupy movement had something to do with the level of community support we are getting in regards to education of public about what’s happening in class struggle and society,” he says. “This is an opportunity to fight back… It’s a watershed moment for the labor movement in Canada.”
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.