Monday, February 27, 2012

Love's Labours Lost

Written February 11, 2012 (before Caterpillar and CAW reached a severance settlement)
Published as "Love's Labours Lost" in The Leveller Vol.4, No.5

Thousands of protesters carrying home-made placards and union banners surrounded Indiana’s Capitol Building as the State Senate passed HB 1001 with a 28 to 22 vote, ushering in the first anti-union “right-to-work” law in a northern industrial “rust belt” state. Two days later, on February 3, the world largest heavy equipment manufacturer announced the closure of the Electo-Motive Diesel (EMD) factory in London, Ontario, laying off nearly 500 locked out workers and putting an additional 1500 London-area jobs at risk. At the same time, the residents of Muncie, Indiana learned that the EMD factory in town was on a hiring blitz, hiring at a third the London wage rate and with far fewer benefits.

This is how the month-long lockout of the London EMD workers ended. It began on New Year’s Day when the union refused with a 97 percent strike mandate to accept a 50 percent wage cut, elimination of pensions and cuts to benefits. Despite persistent rumours fuelled by the aggressive lockout, the EMD workers and the public had no concrete evidence that the plant was to be shutdown and operations moved to Muncie. Caterpillar, which had bought the plant in 2010, had posted record profits and revenues in 2011, in large part due to the booming tar sands and mining industry. The factory had also received a $5 million tax break as part of a larger billion-dollar tax break to industry announced on the EMD factory floor by Harper in the spring of 2008.

London, an economically diverse city of 400,000, like the surrounding area, has seen its once-thriving manufacturing sector decimated in recent years. The closure of EMD London follows on the heels of the Talbotville Ford Assembly and Chatham Navistar truck assembly closures in the past year, with over 2000 direct jobs lost and thousands more lost through layoffs at smaller parts plants and the crippling of consumer-spending so essential to local business. At over ten percent, Southwestern Ontario, from London to Windsor, has the highest unemployment in Canada west of the Maritimes.

Not surprisingly, the events in London have tapped into widespread anger in the region and beyond. Ten thousand protesters gathered in London’s Victoria Park on January 21 to listen to speeches by labour leaders Sid Ryan and Ken Lewenza and other social justice activists, denounce Caterpillar and demand answers and action from the provincial and federal governments. The action also saw the local Occupy movement attend in visibly large numbers and contiunuing to build upon an impressive relationship with the local labour movement, including Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) Local 27 representing the EMD workers.

The sense of anger had already materialized a day earlier, as labour activists in Kingston, Peterborough, Hamilton and Toronto picketed Caterpillar rental locations. The following week, on January 26, CAW organized a dozen similar pickets in seven provinces followed a day later by further secondary pickets in several more Ontario cities, including Ottawa. In a bolder act, dozens CAW Local 88 members from Ingersoll’s CAMI (Suzuki-GM) assembly plant, blockaded a new locomotive built at EMD London that had left the factory shortly before the lockout. The blockade lasted from January 25 to February 1.

Several London-area retailers, such as TSC, a regional farm equipment store, and larger companies like Mark’s Work Wearhouse, have pulled Cat products from their shelves. A London city councillor has moved a motion to boycott Caterpillar, a motion that will likely find support in a city council that voted unanimously to demand Caterpillar end the lockout and return to the negotiating table.

A growing political backlash against Harper’s corporate tax breaks has also gained traction in a city where three of the four MPs are Tories (the fourth is Irene Mathyssen of the NDP, who represents the working-class riding of London-Fanshawe, which includes the EMD plant). Two of London’s Tory MPs, Susan Truppe and Ed Holder, have been confronted at local functions by CAW Local 27 members and Occupy London activists. To date, these Tories have only offered hollow words of sympathy for the families who have been thrown into distress and in many cases, poverty. Harper’s name is dirt in a city where Joe Fontana, London’s Liberal mayor, shouted to the crowd of ten thousand on January 21 “get your ass down here, Prime Minister Harper.”

Despite the plant closure, the David versus Goliath story continues. Jobless EMD workers contineu to picket the plant and Ken Lewenza, president of CAW, has threatened to occupy the factory if adequate severance is not delivered by Caterpillar.

However, serious questions arise about how the fight against Caterpillar was conducted by organized labour. There is now evidence that CAW leaders, including president Ken Lewenza, had already called out Caterpillar for planning to close the plant before the lockout started. The locomotive blockade in Ingersoll by CAW Local 88 members also appears to have been wound down by CAW officials. Likewise, the January 21 protest in London, organized by CAW and the Ontario Federation of Labour, was originally planned to take place outside the Electro-Motive factory gates. Instead, the rally was moved eight kilometres downtown and was merely a series of speeches without even a march.

Ken Lewenza’s threat of an occupation has also unnerved many labour activists who called for an occupation prior to the plant closure announcement. Such calls were not unreasonable or unrealistic. The CAW is a union born of factory occupations, like the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37, and in 1991 occupied a Caterpillar plant in Brampton when the corporation announced its closure. While the struggle for severance is a necessary one, how the CAW intends to do so with no leverage,

Given Caterpillar’s long history of union-busting in the United States, its closure of the Brampton plant in 1991, the transformation of Indiana into an anti-union “right to work” state, a profoundly anti-union federal government, and its attack on CAW Local 27, one has to wonder why CAW officials couldn’t see the writing on the wall and react accordingly by occupying the factory. Holding the machinery hostage seems the only form of leverage the workers have against a corporation (and inactive government) hell-bent on smashing a union, dealing a painful blow to organized labour as a whole, and harming the health of an entire city and region in the process.

In the wake of Occupy’s transformation of political discourse and galvanizing of a loose anti-corporate, pro-democratic, pro-people politics, CAW might have correctly surmised that an occupation would gain widespread public support and inspire further militant actions like the secondary pickets at Cat rental sites and the Ingersoll blockade.

Instead, CAW’s strategy is to build a campaign around reforming the foreign investment regulations that have clearly failed Canadian communities. The direction is understandable and necessary. This has been borne out in labour disputes with other new foreign corporations, including the bitter year-long strike at the Vale-Inco mines in Sudbury and Port Colborne, the 12-month lockout of Hamilton steelworkers by US Steel, and the ongoing lockout at the Rio Tinto aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec. However, CAW appears to have no mobilizing strategy beyond focusing on political lobby efforts.

The episode has awakened large sections of the public, the labour movement, and the newsprint commentariat to home-grown questions of corporate and state power. It has widened the range of political discussion and debate in Canada, much like Occupy Wall Street brought these questions to the fore in American public political discourse.

Despite the serious problems within trade union officialdom, as exhibited by CAW’s unwillingness to engage in and efforts to wind-down popularly-supported forms of civil disobedience, there are signs of change.

The OFL, led by controversial firebrand Sid Ryan, has called for a mass demonstration at Queen’s Park on April 21 against the pending Drummond Commission Report. The Report will be recommending an extensive reorganization and reduction of Ontario government spending that will tackle the budget deficit not by reversing Ontario’s incredibly low corporate tax rates, but by attacking social programs through budget cuts, privatization, layoffs and a reorganization of the post-secondary education system that will offload more costs onto students and workers (through wage restraint and concession bargaining). As part of this mobilization, the OFL is calling for a “militant” movement of Ontarians, with bridges to be built between unions, Occupy, and other community activists. We have already seen the first signs of this strategy play out with the 21 simultaneous occupations of Tory MP offices by seniors and labour activists to protest Harper’s threats against Old Age Security.

While forms of civil disobedience and protest deemed unrealistic or “too radical” only a few years ago have been revived by the 2011, “The Year of the Protester”, events in London reveal how far this recovery has to go until there is a sufficiently large and cohesive social movement to counter the dual assault on the post-war settlement: of corporate power seeking to crush the remaining strength of private sector trade unionism in favour of low-wage, no-benefit labour, and federal, provincial and municipal governments repealing the social programs built by labour-led social movements and public opinion, while aiding corporate power through anti-labour legislation and suppressing opposition through egregious violations of civil liberties from the G20 protests to evicting numerous peaceable Occupy encampments.

If London indicates anything, it’s that the one-sided class war waged by corporations (foreign and domestic) and their friends in government is coming to a close. This has already happened in the United States with organized labour and Occupy taking action in unprecedented numbers and with a democratic righteousness that has spread from Wisconsin to California, from Indiana to New York City, and beyond. The law-defying acts of civil disobedience emerging from the initiatives of ordinary workers, Occupy and labour activists operating independently of the labour bureaucracy’s upper echelons, have the potential to reinvigorate the huge swathes of humanity being pushed into a corner by this ruthless phase of neoliberalism we’ve come to call austerity.