The Summer of the Strike

Across Canada, resistance to the employers’ agenda is visible in a growing number of labour-management disputes. Most, but not all, are strikes against concessions demanded by bosses trying to take advantage of the global economic crisis.

An exception was the two-day strike by 340 Via rail engineers that stopped passenger train service across Canada, July 24-26. The dispute is now going to binding arbitration by agreement of the parties. Some 2,000 unionized ticket agents, maintenance and on-train service workers, laid off by Via during the strike, are back at work. About 12,000 people ride the trains daily. The striking engineers, represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, were reportedly close to an agreement on wages, but they want two consecutive days off per week, training in federal rules and changes in equipment technology. For two and half years management dragged its feet at the bargaining table, until the workers decided to pull the plug. If the arbitrator splits the outstanding differences, it will be a union win.

But it was the fight against concessions that spurred about 3,600 employees of Vale Inco, most of them at the company’s flagship Sudbury nickel mines, to walk off the job on July 13. According to United Steelworkers director Wayne Fraser, the union is opposed to several concessions Vale Inco wants, including elimination of bonuses to workers when the price of nickel is high, plus the imposition of an inferior pension plan for newly hired workers (with defined contributions, instead of defined benefits). It is a battle over future profits for the Brazilian iron-ore giant Vale do Rio Doce, which bought Inco in 2006 for $19.4 billion. Nickel soared above $24 (U.S.) a pound in mid-2007, fell to $5 (U.S.) pound in late 2008, but is rising again, reaching $6.68 on July 13. The USWA’s Fraser said that around $7 a pound, the company is “going to make huge money.”

A number of other strikes are battles over concessions too. The biggest one involved 30,000 City of Toronto inside and outside workers, which ended on July 31 as described above.

A similar war raged for 101 days in Windsor, in the south-west corner of Ontario, just across from Detroit, ending on July 24. Windsor city bosses tried to cut real wages and benefits, but CUPE Locals 82 and 543 retained retiree benefits for the 1,800 current employees, won a 6.3 per cent raise over four years, and improved job security, while conceding reduced post-retirement benefits to new hires who reach age 65.

At a Zellers warehouse in Toronto, 325 workers represented by the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) rejected a company demand for a wage cut of $8 an hour, along with benefit concessions. The distribution center’s material handlers went on strike July 17. Zellers is owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

CAW Local 567 members at Cision Canada in Ottawa are resisting company demands for major concessions. The 25 workers at the media transcription service went on strike on May 5. Harry Ghadban, CAW Ottawa area director, said the company is demanding the elimination of the cost of living adjustment (COLA) clause, elimination of the bonus clause and rollbacks in severance language, sick leave as well as shift language. Ghadban said the workers are determined to win a fair and equitable agreement.

On June 14, Cadillac Fairview, a cross-country office and shopping center giant, locked out 61 engineers, building operators, skilled trades and maintenance workers in two bargaining units at the Toronto Dominion Center, represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP). After more than a year of bargaining, the workers were locked out because they refused to accept massive concessionary demands from Cadillac Fairview. Those include that members reapply for their jobs and accept a new six-month probationary period (putting older, injured and vocally pro-union workers at risk), plus the elimination of skilled trade job classifications. CEP Local 2003 members continue to picket the TD Center, which has hired “a third party service provider” (scabs) to do the work.

Meanwhile, a 93 per cent strike mandate, and a vigorous public campaign, achieved a victory for 7,000 Liquor Control Board of Ontario workers represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) in mid-July. LCBO management proposed to take away job security (by ‘temporarily’ laying off full-time workers during slow periods) and to continue to ‘casualize’ jobs by creating a two-tier system of part-time workers with no benefits. Not only did the bosses back down in the face of a strong strike mandate and an effective “Our Communities Need Good Jobs” campaign, but promised to create more full-time positions at the 610 LCBO outlets across Ontario, give benefits to part-timers, and provide the same 3 per cent annual wage increase won by Ontario Public Service workers last year.

Lack of struggle often produces the opposite results. Some 450 Globe and Mail newspaper employees, including editorial, circulation and sales staff, members of CEP Local 87-M, ratified a concessionary deal that averted a strike on July 2. The new contract imposes a two-year wage freeze, followed by increases of 2, 2.5 and 2.5 per cent through to June 2014. New employees will have to join a defined contribution retirement plan instead of the existing defined benefit pension plan. The union did stop the lengthening of the work week, restrictions on outside activities, and the weakening of job security language.

So the pattern in the Summer of the Strike is mixed, but it tends to show that it pays to fight back.

Auto workers at GM and Chrysler took it on the chin in 2008 and 2009, and Ford workers are now being asked for more concessions.

Hopefully, Ford workers will take their cue from fighting railway workers, civic workers, miners and others, and tell the auto bosses exactly where they can put their demands.

All workers resisting concessions are struggling for the greater good. They need and deserve every form of solidarity, including support rallies, marches and sympathy strikes. -Barry Weisleder

Forum on "France: The New Anti-Capitalist Party"

– Toronto Socialist Action Public Forum Presents –
France: The New Anti-Capitalist Party
A new and growing revolutionary socialist party, with thousands of members, is playing an important role in the context of spreading protests and plant occupations against layoffs and factory closures. What are the prospects for the workers’ movement in France?

speaker:
Richard Wagman, member of the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste in Paris, which incorporates the former Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, French section of the Fourth International, will speak about the current political situation. Q & A, and discussion period will follow the presentation.

Thursday, August 6 7 p.m.
OISE, 252 Bloor St. West, Room 2-212
(at the St. George Subway Station)

Everyone is welcome. $3 donation is requested.
For more information, visit the SA web site at:
www.socialistaction-canada.blogspot.com or call 416-535-8779

Ford workers must say NO!

The never-ending drive for concessions by the big auto bosses is right back in the face of car workers at the Ford Motor Company of Canada.

Canadian Auto Workers’ president Ken Lewenza is deep in discussions with Joe Hinrichs, vice-president of global manufacturing and labour affairs for Ford. The automobile giant employs about 7,000 workers at plants in Oakville, St. Thomas and Windsor, Ontario.

Ford wants labour concessions comparable but not necessarily identical to those given by the union affecting some 20,000 GM and Chrysler workers in Canada. These will include, though not be limited to a freeze on wages and pensions, an extension of the two-tier wage structure, contracting out of some in-plant work, cuts to vacation time and reduced benefits until 2012.

GM and Chrysler demanded concessions as a convenient condition to receive almost $15 billion in loans from the federal and Ontario governments amid the industry’s worst sales slump in decades. Ford asked for up to $2 billion in a line of credit last December, but later withdrew the request. Still, it demands the roll-backs to ‘remain competitive’.

When the next deal is done, Ford auto workers will be asked by the CAW tops to ratify it. Anyone paying attention can see that this has nothing to do with ‘economic recovery’, and has everything to do with lowering workers’ living and work standards, and raising profit margins, for the anticipated post-depression period.

This pattern is now evident in numerous disputes, from strikes involving railway car builders in Hamilton to civic employees in Windsor and Toronto to newspaper workers in Montreal. Windsor municipal workers have been on picket lines for 10 weeks at the time of this writing. Toronto’s 24,000 inside workers and 6,200 outside workers, including garbage collectors, walked off the job on June 22. The strike was provoked by city bosses who insist on clawing back long standing sick leave benefits and seniority rights, and on providing a lower pay raise than the city gave several other groups of municipal workers.

Yet another battle taking shape is at the Globe and Mail newspaper where union members voted 97 per cent in favour of a strike. The Globe workers could be out as early as June 30 because management is seeking to reduce the wages of 30 per cent of the staff, and to cut up to 50 per cent in pension benefits for future retirees.

While officials at the Canadian Labour Congress and its major affiliates limply campaign to ‘fix E.I.’, ‘protect penions’ and ‘put people before banks’, a more proactive struggle to reject backward steps and to make Capital pay for its crisis is sorely needed.

If Ford workers, who are in a stronger position than many on the economic battle front, say No to the latest round of concession demands it would be a powerful indictment of the policies of the CAW leadership and might have an electrifying effect on the entire workers’ movement. It could be a positive turning point – which is why socialists and militant unionists will be campaigning for a clear and resounding No vote at Ford. -Barry Weisleder

NDP breakthrough in Nova Scotia

Since the Atlantic coast province of Nova Scotia joined Canadian Confederation in 1867 only the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties have held the reigns of government there. That changed on election night June 9 when the labour-based New Democratic Party emerged with 31 of 52 seats on the strength of 45.3 per cent of the votes cast.

Voters reduced the PC’s to 10 seats. The Liberals, with 11 seats, form the official Opposition. The turnout was at a record low of 58.8 per cent.

The first-ever NDP Premier in Atlantic Canada, Darrel Dexter, a lawyer and former journalist, pledged to balance the budget, despite the global economic crisis. He also promised action on rising gas prices, health-care wait times and emergency room closings.

Under Dexter, the party won 15 seats in 2003, and 20 seats in 2006. Prior to 1998, the NDP was mired in a distant third place.

The self-serving lesson NDP officials want everyone to draw from the breakthrough in Nova Scotia (population 940,000 in 2005) is that conservative, ‘good government’ promises and dogged electoral perseverance bring victory.

The truth is that working people in Nova Scotia, and across Canada, are looking for something better. Otherwise, they would have replaced Rodney MacDonald’s Tories with Stephen McNeil’s Liberals, as they have done so often in the past.

Keep in mind that the conservative policies of the British Columbia NDP helped to re-elect the right wing B.C. Liberal government of Gordon Campbell in mid-May.

The Nova Scotia election result challenges the claim that voters are turning to the right everywhere.

But the question remains: what will the NSNDP do with this victory? If it makes Capital pay for the crisis created by big business and the banks, the NDP will win the admiration and support of the working class and poor. If, like the treacherous Bob Rae-led NDP government in Ontario 1990-1995, it places the burden of ‘recovery’ on the shoulders of workers, women, youth and the unemployed, it will leave little behind other than wrecked public services and a very bad taste.

Another important lesson from the Ontario Rae-days is that labour and the social movements should not give the Dexter team a honeymoon of any duration. Now is the time to press Nova Scotia’s first NDP government to tax the rich and move quickly to provide jobs, housing and decent incomes for all who need them. -Barry Weisleder

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