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Labour movement shows solidarity at The People vs. US Steel rally in Hamilton

by Michael Romandel

USW 1005 workers challenge corporate power and foreign ownership at The People vs. US Steel rally.
USW 1005 workers challenge corporate power and foreign ownership at The People vs. US Steel rally.

 

On January 29, 2011, thousands in solidarity with the 900 locked out steelworkers from Hamilton’s US Steel plant and the 9000 pensioners who still belong to the plant’s union local converged at The People vs. US Steel rally and march in downtown Hamilton.  Trade unionists and supporters bused into Hamilton that day from all across the region, with some coming from as far as Quebec.  United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1005, representing the US Steel workers, had been organizing toward this event since they were locked out on November 7, 2010, with the local holding several public events and building support in the Hamilton community and the labour movement in general in the lead-up to this rally. 

Since the beginning of the lockout, the workers at 1005 have not backed down and have instead stood up courageously against the attacks of US Steel on the pension plans of the 900 current employees and the indexing of pensions to inflation for their 9000 retirees.  US Steel has attempted to divide the young workers currently in the plant from the old workers as well as the 9000 pensioners, though the workers have held firm.  The younger workers realize that their pensions are on the line as well, as US Steel is demanding that they accept defined contribution pensions rather than the current defined benefit plans, which would absolve the company of ensuring thatthere’s enough money in the plan to pay all current and future benefits if they were to go out of business.  In addition, the workers were able to win a major concession from the federal unemployment agency of $403 a week in employment insurance for 40 weeks, helping the locked-out workers to make ends meet and to stay in solidarity with their retired brothers and sisters.  This is very unusual, as locked out workers are generally ineligible for any kind of employment insurance, and shows the immediate material benefits that workers can accrue from building militant and well-organized union locals that orient towards building the working class movement as a whole. 

The rally on January 29th showed that workers across the province have also realized that the fight of the US Steel workers in Hamilton over the defined benefit pension plan and the indexing of pensions to inflation is one that affects all working class people regardless of age. While corporate interests and their lackeys in government and the media are trying to make young workers accept a new normal in which a financially secure retirement is a thing of the past, the workers at USW 1005 and those in attendance at The People vs. US Steel rally have shown that the workers of Ontario will not accept this new normal lying down.  In particular, USW 1005 has mobilized brilliantly in the past couple of years with weekly rank-and-file meetings as well as public outreach leaflets, and have shown much bravery and fortitude during the current lockout.

The People vs. US Steel rally could potentially be the staging ground for an all-round working class fight back against cuts to jobs, wages, benefits and pensions across the province, in which workers are able to make direct links between their struggles and fight in solidarity against these attacks.  Rolf Gerstenberger, President of USW 1005 and also Vice-President of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada (the electoral wing of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) (CPC-ML)), even spoke at the rally about organizing unions and supporters for a 2011 May Day protest in Ottawa against the general attack on the working class in the current period and the Harper government’s role in this attack.  What this statement and the organizing of The People vs. US Steel rally made very clear is that Gerstenberger and USW 1005 are trying to utilize their struggle over pensions and job losses at the Hamilton steel plant as a point from which to galvanize the labour movement against the corporate attacks of this period and to bring this movement into the political sphere so that actual political change can occur.  They have obviously been very successful on the first part of this thus far, but whether they can build a broader movement for political change remains to be seen.

  While many of the slogans put forth at the rally by Gerstenberger of USW 1005 and the CPC-ML, Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour and Andrea Horwath of the New Democratic Party appealed to attendees as ‘Canadians’ who would not accept the negligent actions of the American-owned US Steel and promoted some form of economic nationalism in government policy, other political positions were also voiced by rally participants.  Some USW workers in attendance from a different local had alternative ideas of how the labour movement can fight back than those utilized at this traditional march-in-a-circle rally, saying to members of the Toronto Young New Democrats who were in attendance that they wanted to occupy their plant but were prevented from doing this by their union leadership.  In addition, there was a noticeable contingent of anarchists at the rally with red and black flags (the traditional colours of anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists) who chanted “Capitalism’s getting sour/Now’s the time for workers' power”, which caught on among some of the youth in attendance.  Additionally, the leaflet from the Toronto Young New Democrats pointed to the need for international working class solidarity with the steelworkers in the United States and the general problem of corporate ownership, in opposition to the economic nationalist focus on foreign ownership championed by several of the speakers.  What these examples show is that many in the labour movement are striving for a more direct challenge to corporate rule in Canada than the current labor leadership has been providing.

While the rally was recorded as being the largest one in Hamilton since the Ontario Days of Action rally against the Harris Tories in 1996, which is promising for the future of the labour movement’s fight back in Ontario in the coming period, the differences in political opinion and labor movement strategy between the most militant rally participants and the official rally leaders shows that there are still significant divisions in the labour movement in terms of the strategy for fighting back.  Similar divisions between rank-and-file militants and the labour leadership also played a major role in limiting the effectiveness of the Ontario Days of Action protests in 1996, with a planned rally in Sudbury even being cancelled by the vote of the USW leadership in the labour council due to fears that that it would be too militant and that the movement would get beyond their control.  Additionally, the leadership of the USW and other pink-paper unions (those unions that were on the right wing of the movement and continued to support the NDP despite it recent attack on workers during the Rae Days) criticized the strategy of one-day semi-illegal city-wide strikes as being too militant, and instead called for traditional legal marches in a circle. This contradiction between official labour leadership and rank-and-file militants will be one that will undoubtedly have a major impact on the oncoming round of working class struggles in Ontario and the rest of Canada, with the very character and overall effectiveness of the movement hinging on how this contradiction plays out in the years ahead.   


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Topics: Labour
1192 words

Comments

Workers Without Borders

Local anarchists were also able to reach out to allies in Pittsburgh, home of US Steel, and they organized a flying squad to picket the US Steel Tower. Unfortunately we were faced by a wall of silence from 1005 and so the impact of the action was limited. But there are those in the labour movement who are organizing things our own way and trying to get substantive progress. I'll attatch a link with a short write-up and pictures: http://nefac.net/node/2539

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