We live in a time where our rights are on the job have been carved away, bit-by-bit, whether it’s hapless governments or multinationals who benefit from neo-liberal policies. For this reason, participatory mobilization alongside collective bargaining has never been more important. The following video helps illustrate this point.
Precarious work in its many forms is open to myriad abuses and our experiences with labour intersects with ableism, racism, sexism, colonization, transphobia and homophobia. We need labour laws that continually evolve so as to reflect an inclusive, exemplary society. Dr. Stephanie Ross is right to point out that if current governments refuse to enforce existing labour laws, then they become empty rhetoric with no application.
But surely, this sort of labour abuse couldn’t happen when you’re unionized, right? The ongoing erosion of collective bargaining rights at the hands of the existing federal government has demonstrated that unionized or not, Canada is open for business.
In my hometown of London, Ontario this scenario has come to fruition. It was announced Friday that after a month long lock-out, the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant, a subsidiary of US-based multinational Caterpillar Inc., is closing its doors and moving its operations to Muncie, Indiana, in a state that has just passed a series of anti-union right-to-work laws. Like London, Ontario, this Indiana town has an unemployment rate that hovers around 10%.
A largely unionized workforce, plant employees in London were offered a new contract that would have seen wages slashed by 50%, from $34/hour to $16.50/hour. Employees rejected this amoral offer because quite frankly, it reflects a refusal to negotiate on the part of the employers. EMD came to the table not in bad faith, but no faith. A 50% wage cut isn’t an offer so much as an ominous foreboding, indicative of a new set of rules in which collective bargaining and negotiation founded on mutual respect are abandoned.
In the words of Toronto Star journalist Martin Regg Cohn: “…multinational giant Caterpillar Inc., didn’t so much humiliate 460 skilled workers as ignore them. It started and ended this negotiation with a carefully choreographed plan to pack up, shut down and leave town.” (You can read Cohn’s article here).
Beyond the skilled workers in the manufacturing sector who are left to battle for an ever-shrinking piece of the employment pie, there is the issue of intellectual property. Caterpillar, Inc. sojourned in London and was able to gain valuable technological know-how and a labour force that increased productivity. Ancillary human resources, in the words of Cohn, are “an expendable asset to be stripped away, bargained down or locked out.”
Anti-union members of the media and general public will try to argue that in these economically dire times, everyone has to tighten their belt. Arguments of this nature are not only insensitive, they’re factually incorrect. From 1980-2005, the median earnings for full-time works increased by $53. Caterpillar Inc. boasted 2011 profits of $58 Billion. We should be furious, but we should also see that there is no “logic of capitalism,” nor is there a ‘trickle-down” that seeks to eventually reward labour at highly-skilled, undeniably successfully factories like EMD.
So maybe this isn’t a question of belt-tightening, but a redistribution of wealth. And mobilization to ensure equal access to services and opportunities. And demanding that politicians actually use their power as elected officials for progressive means rather than re-election strategies. Our electoral system is broken profoundly, but MPs, MPPs and city councilors still have obligations to their citizens. We gave them power and we can take it away. In the meantime, we can form viable communities at a grassroots level—on the job and outside of it—that challenge the status quo by redefining our relationships to governments and each other. The most radical, revolutionary acts take place in neighbourhoods, not parliaments.
And this brings me to my final point. I care about working conditions because I care about people. We spend too much of our lives at work to not love what we do and feel safe and respected while performing our labour. Alongside loving what we do, we desperately need to re-think the value we assign to labour. Specifically, the labour performed by a factory worker is of equal value to that performed by a professor or sex worker. Labour rights are human rights.
If that’s our starting point, then great things are possible.
Besides picking up a copy of Shameless‘ latest Labour Issue (which features more from York University’s Dr. Stephanie Ross in the “Youth and Unions” article), the following list provides additional resources and readings.
On January 21st, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Ontario Federation of Labour organized a National Day of Action in London, Ontario. The video below provides images from that day and context surrounding government inaction at the federal and provincial levels.
One Worker’s take on the stakes, London Free Press
Hard-hit U.S. town still waiting for Cat jobs to appear, London Free Press
Watershed moment for unions, London Free Press