Workers Vanguard No. 998
16 March 2012
Fight Union Busting Through United International Class Struggle!
Canada: Caterpillar Bosses Relocate Plant to Right to Work Indiana
The following article is reprinted from Spartacist Canada No. 172 (Spring 2012), newspaper of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste, Canadian section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
Caterpillar’s move to lock out the 465 members of Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 27 at its London, Ontario, Electro-Motive plant on New Year’s Day marked a further escalation in the capitalists’ war on labour. The company, notorious for union-busting in the U.S. Midwest in the 1990s, demanded that the CAW swallow a pay cut of nearly 55 percent—from $35 to $16.50 an hour—along with the elimination of the pension plan. CAT is meanwhile rolling in profits, some $4.9 billion last year alone.
Rejecting these outrageous demands, the CAW set up round-the-clock pickets and called on the labour movement to hot cargo (boycott) any locomotives sent out of the plant. Flying pickets from CAW Locals 27 and 88, which organizes workers at the nearby CAMI auto plant in Ingersoll, managed to block one locomotive, keeping it under guard on a rail siding for nearly a week. On January 21, 10,000 workers descended on London for a mass protest, testament to the widespread anger at the base of the unions.
But Caterpillar dealt its final blow two weeks later by announcing the permanent closure of the factory. Production is to be shifted to a retooled, non-union plant in Muncie, Indiana, where workers will be paid $12.50 to $14.50 an hour. The announcement came two days after the Indiana state legislature adopted an anti-union law that bans the closed shop.
Caterpillar’s steamrolling of the CAW is a big defeat for the labour movement that will reverberate far beyond the London area. Some 450,000 manufacturing jobs have been destroyed in Canada since 2006. Southwestern Ontario, long the country’s industrial heartland, increasingly resembles the adjacent U.S. Rust Belt with its abandoned, hollowed-out factories. Unemployment in cities like London and Windsor is around 10 percent. Many workers who still have jobs have been forced to take huge cuts in pay and benefits. This race to the bottom was kicked off by the CAW leadership’s surrender of $19 to $22 an hour in givebacks to General Motors and Chrysler three years ago as part of the auto company bailouts engineered by the U.S. and Canadian governments.
CAT’s union-busting is one of a spate of lockouts by corporations seeking to wrest ever bigger concessions from the unions, or to eliminate them altogether. Members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1005 in Hamilton were locked out for nearly a year, finally surrendering last October to U.S. Steel’s demand to gut the pension plan. The same day the Electro-Motive lockout began, Rio Tinto Alcan locked out 800 USW workers at an aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec, demanding the right to vastly increase the subcontracting of jobs at half the normal pay rate.
In the U.S., 1,300 workers at American Crystal Sugar, the country’s largest sugar beet producer, have been locked-out since August. A three-month lockout of 1,050 USW unionists at Cooper Tire in Ohio ended in late February when workers voted to accept a contract that includes major givebacks. Victory to the Rio Tinto Alcan and American Crystal workers! Defend the unions!
There are crucial lessons to be drawn from the Caterpillar defeat. Central among them is the understanding that there can be no “partnership” between labour and the capitalists, whose sole aim is to line their pockets through savage exploitation of the workers. The nationalism and class collaboration promoted by the union bureaucracy and its allies in the social-democratic NDP [New Democratic Party] have only poisoned and derailed labour’s struggle. They foster deadly illusions that Canadian capitalists are, or can be, the workers’ allies, while scapegoating workers elsewhere, in this case in the U.S., for job losses at home. The assaults of the U.S. and Canadian capitalists can only be fought through united international class struggle!
Like much of North American industry, locomotive production has long been thoroughly integrated across the Canada-U.S. border. Another Caterpillar-owned locomotive facility in suburban Chicago is organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW), as are nearly 10,000 other CAT workers in various U.S. cities. But rather than appeal to American workers for a common fight against a common enemy, the CAW bureaucrats claimed that Canadian-nationalist protectionism is the answer and called on the Tory government in Ottawa to tighten restrictions on foreign ownership.
In fact, the London Electro-Motive factory has always been foreign owned, first by GM, then by a hedge fund and since 2010 by Caterpillar. Employment in the London plant greatly expanded two decades ago when GM closed much of its Illinois locomotive facility—which once employed 13,000 skilled workers—in the wake of the 1988 U.S.-Canada free-trade deal. Back then, the cost of labour in Canada was much lower than in the U.S., mainly due to a weak Canadian dollar and cheaper health care costs. The CAW misleaders sought to use this to their advantage, pleading for GM and other U.S. companies to expand their facilities north of the border.
The bureaucratically-engineered split of the CAW from the UAW in 1984-85 was based on just such pernicious nationalism. As we wrote at the time:
“Once the most powerful union in North America, the UAW has been criminally weakened and undermined by the misleaders on both sides of the border. Decimated by plant closures and massive layoffs, the ranks of the union have had their pockets picked by these labor traitors in givebacks of billions of dollars and entire programs won in past struggles. Now the bureaucrats divide the union along the artificial border between Canada and the U.S....”
—“Bureaucrats Split UAW,”
SC No. 63, April 1985
Playing on such divisions, the capitalists have successfully whipsawed the workers against each other along national lines, driving down wages and working conditions everywhere. Today, with the Canadian dollar at par and American unions even weaker than those in this country after decades of bureaucratic sellouts, companies like CAT and GM are moving investment back to the U.S., which is seen as a bastion of low pay and paltry benefits. When the workers are divided, only the bosses win.
The nationalism of the CAW leaders was in full evidence at the January 21 rally, which featured hundreds of Canadian flags held alongside CAW union flags; organizers were handing out both as the workers arrived. NDP placards demanded “Canadian jobs first,” and interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel and various CAW and other union bureaucrats pushed the same theme from the speakers platform. A delegation of United Electrical unionists at a General Electric locomotive plant made the trip from Pennsylvania, but there was no visible presence at all from the UAW, even though London is only about two hours drive from Detroit. The UAW tops didn’t so much as post a token “solidarity” message for CAW Local 27 on their union website.
Also welcomed to the platform was London mayor Joe Fontana, who recently mobilized the cops to evict Occupy London protesters. Fontana was formerly labour minister in the federal Liberal government of Paul Martin. It was the sweeping attacks on social programs by the Chrétien/Martin Liberals in the 1990s and early 2000s that paved the way for today’s slash-and-burn Tory regime. For their part, the New Democrats enforce capitalist rule against the workers whenever they get the chance, including today in Manitoba and Nova Scotia where they run provincial governments.
Despite the dominant nationalism, there was openness to an internationalist class perspective among the workers in London. Supporters of the Trotskyist League were able to sell more than 350 copies of our Marxist press, chiefly an issue of Spartacist Canada (No. 171, Winter 2011/2012) headlined “We Need a New Ruling Class—The Workers!” As a comrade reported: “It was fairly easy to puncture the nationalism on a superficial level, by pointing out that workers in the U.S. were suffering the same attacks as in Canada, often more severe given the weakness of the unions there, and that the only way to take on the capitalist offensive was through joint class struggle across the border. Such arguments often sorted out who would buy the paper, though the contradiction is captured by the fact that a lot of the same workers also held Canadian flags.”
As well as opening its new facility in Muncie, CAT is moving to set up a locomotive plant in Brazil and has a long-standing agreement with Montreal-based Bombardier to build locomotives at a plant in Mexico. The labour tops also direct their ire against workers in such underdeveloped countries, accusing them of “stealing jobs.” Thus on the eve of the Caterpillar lockout, CAW president Ken Lewenza railed to a reporter from the London Free Press (27 December 2011), “They want to kick the sh-- out of our members to fill their pockets…. I guess today is Muncie and next week will be Mexico.”
When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being negotiated in 1991, the Grupo Espartaquista de México, Spartacist League/U.S. and Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste of Canada—sections of the International Communist League—issued a joint statement calling to “Stop U.S. ‘Free Trade’ Rape of Mexico.” We explained that U.S. imperialism wanted to “turn Mexico into a giant maquiladora, or free trade zone—‘free’ of unions, and ‘free’ for capital” (SC No. 85, Fall 1991 [WV No. 531, 5 July 1991]).
In contrast, the labour bureaucracy’s national-chauvinist tirades against NAFTA served to set U.S. and Canadian workers against their Mexican class brothers and sisters, as well as each other. Over the past two decades, NAFTA has meant increased profits and power for the U.S. rulers and their Canadian junior partners through the superexploitation of Mexican workers, while also bringing about the economic ruination of Mexican peasants.
Rebuild the Unions
Through Class Struggle!
The labour bureaucrats have for the most part abandoned the class-struggle methods that built the North American industrial unions in the 1930s and ’40s. Instead they push reliance on capitalist governments, sapping the fighting strength of the unions and demoralizing the workers. Indiana is a case in point. The state was the site of many pitched labour battles that made it a stronghold of the UAW, Steelworkers and other unions. But it has seen a steep decline in union membership in recent decades. Even before the new anti-labour law, barely ten percent of the workforce was unionized, and workers there as elsewhere in the Rust Belt have seen a sharp drop in wages and benefits. Barely paying lip service to the need to organize the unorganized, the prostrate union officialdom has only further whetted the appetites of those trying to bust the unions.
Alongside the call to hot cargo Electro-Motive locomotives, a plant occupation backed up by mass pickets could have shown a road to victory in London. Holding CAT’s facilities to ransom through such militant action could have forced a settlement on the union’s terms, and would certainly have galvanized broader labour struggle. The CAW has organized such occupations in the past, notably at a GM plant in Oshawa during a 1996 strike. This time, however, the only large-scale union protest was the January 21 rally, an exercise in blowing off steam in a park eight kilometres from the plant.
The unions must be rebuilt as combative instruments of the working class. That requires a fight for a new leadership that breaks with national chauvinism in all its forms and upholds the program and the methods of class struggle. While the Canadian labour tops promote the pro-capitalist NDP or even the Liberals, in the U.S. they tie workers to the imperialist order via support to the capitalist Democratic Party. Multiracial revolutionary workers parties must be forged on both sides of the border committed to the struggle to overthrow the class of exploiters. Only a workers government where those who labour rule can put an end to the irrational capitalist profit system that consigns so many to poverty and degradation, and rebuild society in the interests of the vast majority.