A Case Study in How NAFTA Undermines Strikes

Gerard DiTrolio and Doug Nesbitt October 19, 2017

Workers from Unifor Local 88 on strike at the CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, ON on September 28. (Unifor)

This post first appeared at Labor Notes.

As nego­tia­tors from Cana­da, the U.S., and Mex­i­co car­ry out secre­tive talks aimed at fix­ing NAF­TA, a strike at an Ontario auto plant shows how dif­fi­cult it can be to chal­lenge the pow­er amassed by cor­po­ra­tions thanks to the trade deal.

The 2,800 mem­bers of Uni­for Local 88 walked off the job Sep­tem­ber 17 at the CAMI assem­bly plant in Inger­soll seek­ing con­tract lan­guage to secure their jobs.

They returned a month lat­er with­out it. Their con­tract is sim­i­lar to the one reached at all the oth­er Big Three plants in Ontario in fall 2016.

CAMI still pro­duces the pop­u­lar Chevro­let Equinox SUV, but in July Gen­er­al Motors, the plan­t’s own­er, moved the Ter­rain SUV to Mex­i­co, cost­ing 600 jobs in Inger­soll. This was despite the fact that in 2015, GM invest­ed $560 mil­lion at CAMI to build a new weld shop, a move work­ers thought would pro­tect their jobs.

The Equinox is made in two plants in Mex­i­co, too. Local 88 want­ed con­trac­tu­al assur­ance that its plant would remain the vehi­cle’s lead producer.”

Uni­for Nation­al Pres­i­dent Jer­ry Dias said of his deci­sion to set­tle with­out job guar­an­tees, At the high­est lev­els of Gen­er­al Motors cor­po­rate in Detroit, they cold­ly refused.” With the strike cost­ing the com­pa­ny $5 mil­lion a day, GM threat­ened to shift all Equinox pro­duc­tion to Mex­i­co.

There seemed lit­tle alter­na­tive to set­tling for Local 88 bar­ring more rad­i­cal tac­tics, which were nev­er under dis­cus­sion by Uni­for leaders.

BUY-OUTS FOR LOST JOBS

The new pact includes more mon­ey for ear­ly retire­ment and for buy­outs for younger work­ers, and increas­es by $100 mil­lion the sev­er­ance and retire­ment costs GM would pay for a plant closing.

The four-year agree­ment will see a 4 per­cent wage increase plus $8,000 in lump sum pay­ments and a $6,000 sign­ing bonus.

Job secu­ri­ty will no doubt still be an issue come 2021. The future of the auto indus­try in Cana­da remains up in the air.

Cana­di­an employ­ment at the Big Three automak­ers has been cut by more than half since NAF­TA, from 52,000 in 1993 to just 23,000 last year. In the cur­rent rene­go­ti­a­tion of NAF­TA both Cana­da and Mex­i­co have reject­ed U.S. demands on con­tent require­ments that Cana­di­ans say could sink the indus­try in Canada.

GM post­ed $9.4 bil­lion in prof­its last year and the CAMI plant itself is huge­ly prof­itable, one of the most pro­duc­tive and effi­cient in North Amer­i­ca with numer­ous awards for quality.

It was the first strike at GM in Cana­da since 1996 and first legal strike at CAMI since 1992, with wild­cat strikes occur­ring in 1995, 1999, and 2014.

IN THE SHAD­OW OF NAFTA

It was not lost on CAMI work­ers, auto work­ers across Ontario, or the Inger­soll com­mu­ni­ty how the tim­ing of the strike lined up with the ongo­ing NAF­TA talks.

When you have a plant in Mex­i­co that pays their work­ers $2 an hour and they can’t even afford to buy the cars that they build, then you’ve got a real prob­lem,” Dias told Canada’s BNN. So, CAMI, this whole strike is the poster child for what’s wrong with NAFTA.”

Uni­for has called for a bet­ter deal for work­ers in Mex­i­co and the U.S., too. The union sup­port­ed the Cana­di­an gov­ern­men­t’s demand that right-to-work laws in the U.S. be scrapped, and a Uni­for del­e­ga­tion recent­ly vis­it­ed Mex­i­co to meet with labor activists, call­ing for par­i­ty of Mex­i­can wages and tru­ly inde­pen­dent unions.

Auto work­ers in Mex­i­co belong to a fed­er­a­tion close­ly aligned with the rul­ing par­ty. This fed­er­a­tion, the CTM, is a com­pa­ny union, doing noth­ing to force up wages but act­ing ruth­less­ly against attempts to form inde­pen­dent unions. In fact, many work­ers don’t even know whether their fac­to­ry is union­ized or not.

LOCAL SUP­PORT

Retired Local 88 pres­i­dent Cathy Austin was on the CAMI pick­et line for five weeks in 1992. She says that strike did not have sup­port from the com­mu­ni­ty like this one does; they have been over­whelmed by the support.”

An Octo­ber 5 ral­ly out­side of the plant drew more than 500 peo­ple. Even a con­tin­gent of Unit­ed Auto Work­ers mem­bers from Rochester, New York, vis­it­ed the lines.

And though the strike caused shut­downs of auto parts sup­pli­ers in the area, Local 88 Trustee Kim Crump said the clo­sures and lay­offs actu­al­ly increased com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, even among non-union parts workers.

[Ger­ard Di Tro­lio is a writer liv­ing in Toron­to who cov­ers labor and pol­i­tics. Doug Nes­bitt is an edi­tor at Rankand​file​.ca and a for­mer union organizer.]

Ger­ard Di Tro­lio is a writer liv­ing in Toron­to who cov­ers labor and pol­i­tics. Doug Nes­bitt is an edi­tor at Rankand​file​.ca and a for­mer union organizer.
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