Letter from the US: Canadian auto strike and occupation show the way

Issue 

Letter from the US. By Barry Sheppard

Canadian auto strike and occupation show the way

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) forced General Motors to accept a favourable contract on October 22 after a three-week strike during which workers took over a plant in Oshawa, Ontario.

"Like a scene from Flint in 1937", said CAW Committee member Bruce Allen from the GM plant in St Catherines. He was referring to the great sit-down strike and plant occupation in Flint, Michigan, that forced the auto companies to accept the unionisation of their workers into the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

The spontaneous occupation was triggered by a GM decision to enter the factory and remove dies that belonged to Toyota. The Oshawa plant made parts for Toyota and GM in Canada and the US. Toyota wanted the dies so its production wouldn't be hurt by the Canadian GM strike, which idled over 23,000 US GM workers at plants dependent upon parts made in Canada.

"It was quite a sight", Allen reported, "160 strikers inside, some on the plant's roof waving the CAW flag, while hundreds more ringed the plant on the outside to defend the occupiers.

"The call went out [on October 15] and CAW strikers from St Catherines and Windsor hit the road for Oshawa" to join the takeover the next day. Allen said the occupying workers welded some plant doors shut and dismantled the dies "in such a way that only those who dismantled them would be able to reassemble them".

GM was insisting on its rights to sell off more plants and buy more parts from non-union outside firms — "outsourcing". It had signalled the CAW and UAW that it was ready for long strikes and had broken off talks with the CAW when the occupation occurred.

The Wall Street Journal reported that "GM's strong third quarter earnings report ... inflamed tensions in Canada as workers demanded a share of the No. 1 auto maker's profits. Tensions escalated ... to the point where, at the South Oshawa parts plant [the North Oshawa plant was occupied], GM felt compelled to bring maintenance workers in by helicopter because strikers were barring normal access."

The occupation soon brought GM back to the negotiating table where it agreed to leave the dies in the plant if the trades workers agreed to reassemble them, which they did. The CAW workers then left the plant on the proviso that they would re-occupy it if there was no contract settlement by October 22. GM quickly settled.

The CAW wasn't able to force GM to give up its plans to sell two plants. But the New York Times reports that "the automaker guaranteed that the buyer would keep the worker pensions and health care benefits at the same levels, and would maintain wages at GM levels for three years [the life of the new agreement]." Before the strike, GM had strongly opposed this provision.

GM also agreed to offer the workers $42,000 to retire, or up to $80,000 to leave the company if they were not eligible for retirement, and was forced to agree to limits on its outsourcing, with some exceptions, such as when a vendor offers a new technology.

The CAW has taken a different approach than its former parent, the UAW, by fighting to retain jobs by reducing work time. In an earlier agreement at Chrysler, the CAW won two extra weeks of paid time off for every worker. Chrysler will have to hire an estimated 200 new workers to replace vacationing employees. A worker with only two years' seniority now gets seven weeks off per year, increasing to 10 weeks for those with 20 years on the job. UAW workers in the US get far less vacation time.

The CAW also won a lump sum bonus, 2% annual wage increases, plus raises to cover inflation. GM also agreed to stop requiring workers to work more than eight hours a day at assembly plants in Oshawa, where forced overtime had been an issue, and to pay same-sex partners benefits for health care and bereavement, something that Chrysler successfully resisted in its September agreement with the CAW.

The CAW broke away from the UAW over a decade ago when the UAW leadership bought in the "team" concept which subordinates the interests of workers to those of companies in the name of increasing their competitive edge on the world market.

The contrast between the CAW and the UAW has been highlighted by the Canadian strike and occupation, and the contracts the UAW recently negotiated with Ford and Chrysler and its ongoing negotiations with GM.

In its agreements with Ford and Chrysler, the UAW leadership won substantial economic gains for remaining workers, traded off for a supposed guarantee that these companies would retain 95% of the present work force and an agreement that Ford and Chrysler could pay UAW workers in any parts plants they open a wage equal to the "prevailing wage" of non-union parts plants in the area (about half that currently paid to UAW members).

The UAW's acceptance of a permanent two tier wage system in the same company comes on top of its acceptance of two-tier wages for new hires (a worker receives 70% of full pay to start and works up to full pay only after three years). Given the high turnover in the auto work force, this means that a large section of the workers are getting less than full pay. It also means that Ford is now able to open parts plants with UAW contracts that would further divide and weaken the union. Or, it could threaten to open such plants to hold down the prices of its current non-union vendors.

The provision makes it much more difficult to organise the non-union parts plants. Why join a union that has already said it agrees to your present low, non-union wages, and wants your dues to boot?

The CAW has never agreed to any kind of two tier set-up.

As for the supposed 95% job guarantee, industry officials have confirmed that there are provisions to "escape" from the minimum employment level in cases of productivity gains; changes in technology; and industry-related declines due to a recession, a drop in the company's market share and even a change in a company's mix of cars and trucks" — just about any reason Ford would want to cut back on the work force!

The UAW leadership had intended to get a similar agreement with GM, but even worse, it hinted, since GM had "special needs" that would require the UAW to be more flexible. But UAW-GM negotiations were put on hold when the CAW struck. After the Canadian agreement, they were re-started, this time in a new context created by the CAW's militant tactics and victory.

UAW President Yokich set an agreement deadline of 11:59 pm on October 27. The Wall Street Journal reported that "several union officials were surprised by Mr Yokich's decision ... but observed that he wants to show UAW members that he won't accept just any agreement with GM, particularly since his Canadian counterpart withstood a long strike on the outsourcing issue."

The deadline came and went, and there was no strike. "UAW officials", reported the New York Times, have said privately that they are reluctant to stage a national walk-out so close to the Presidential election ... UAW leaders felt that a national strike at GM could remind voters of the labor unrest of the 1970s and hurt Democratic candidates."

But GM workers in the US know about the Canadian strike and agreement. Yokich is between a rock and a hard place.>41559MS>n255D>