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What will it take to win the lockout at Electro-Motive Diesel?

by Mick Sweetman

Protest signs and work boots hang off a fence at the front gate of the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman
Protest signs and work boots hang off a fence at the front gate of the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman
 Locked out workers on the picket line share a laugh during a mass picket outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21  Photo: Mick Sweetman
Locked out workers on the picket line share a laugh during a mass picket outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
John Whitty (left) worked at the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant for 33 years. His son Chris (right) is now a maintenance electrician at EMD who has been locked out for over three weeks when workers rejected a proposed 50% wage cut. The Ontario Federation of Labour held a rally in Victoria Park in London, Ont. on Jan. 21  Photo: Mick Sweetman
John Whitty (left) worked at the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant for 33 years. His son Chris (right) is now a maintenance electrician at EMD who has been locked out for over three weeks when workers rejected a proposed 50% wage cut. The Ontario Federation of Labour held a rally in Victoria Park in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Three young women hold playful protest signs outside the front gate of Electro-Motive Diesel during a mass picket in London, Ont. on Jan. 21  Photo: Mick Sweetman
Three young women hold playful protest signs outside the front gate of Electro-Motive Diesel during a mass picket in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Ken Ogglesby (left) and Jim McManus (right) joined the picket line outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Both men worked at the plant when it was owned by General Motors for 15 and 25 years respectively. Photo: Mick Sweetman
Ken Ogglesby (left) and Jim McManus (right) joined the picket line outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Both men worked at the plant when it was owned by General Motors for 15 and 25 years respectively. Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers from across Ontario and the Midwest US joined the picket line outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers from across Ontario and the Midwest US joined the picket line outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
A group of activists from Occupy London marched the entire 8km from Victoria Park to the EMD picket line on Jan 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman
A group of activists from Occupy London marched the entire 8km from Victoria Park to the EMD picket line on Jan 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman
Sarah Smith, who has worked at the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. for over six years, stands on the picket line during a mass rally on Jan. 21  Photo: Mick Sweetman
Sarah Smith, who has worked at the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. for over six years, stands on the picket line during a mass rally on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers grill up hotdogs for 1,000 pickets outside the front gate of Electro-Motive Diesel in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers grill up hotdogs for 1,000 pickets outside the front gate of Electro-Motive Diesel in London, Ont. on Jan. 21 Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers disrupt traffic on the road outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman
Workers disrupt traffic on the road outside the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont. on Jan. 21. Photo: Mick Sweetman

 

LONDON, ONT. - It was a loud and boisterous scene outside the massive Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) factory on Jan. 21 as more than a thousand trade-unionists joined the picket line in solidarity with 465 workers, represented by Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 27, who have been locked out by the company for the past three weeks. With a punk rock band blasting music from a makeshift stage by the front gate, hundreds of workers disrupted traffic by crossing back and forth across the road regularly. A lone London police officer pleaded with them to keep things moving. It was the second show of support that day; earlier, an estimated 7,000 workers from across Ontario and the Midwest United States rallied at Victoria Park in downtown London.

“This example seems like one that calls for a different type of tactic. It's not enough to be stubborn. Caterpillar wasn't demanding some concessions that could be bargained over, they're making it clear that they want to break the union by cutting wages in half and they're ready to leave as their ultimate option.” said Sam Gindin, a former assistant to CAW presidents Bob White and Buzz Hargrove and author of The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union, “In terms of what this means for the union: it would be devastating. It's a bargaining year and they're getting into victory bargaining. General Motors won't ask for anything as big but it will certainly affect expectations and the mood.”

“This is like an avalanche,” said EMD maintenance electrician Jersey Ulrich. “It starts here but you never know where it's going to end. We are just the first snowball in the avalanche. Once our wages are cut in half, what's going to happen? Guys from Chicago support us because they know if they cut our wages in half they're the next ones.”

In this struggle, strategy is an especially big issue. One factor in the discussions of strategy for is the fact that EMD's parent company Progress Rail, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Caterpillar, opened a new locomotive assembly plant in Muncie, Indiana last year and rolled out the first engine made there on Oct. 28.

There are two possible reasons for the opening new plant in Muncie. First, the Buy American policies of the US Department of Transportation, and secondly, the introduction of right-to-work legislation in Indiana that would remove the unions' security clause which requires all workers at union shops to pay union dues. Opponents of that bill point to lower wages and benefits in the 22 states with similar legislation. The anti-union right-to-work bill passed the Indiana Senate 28-22 on Jan. 23, 2012 and must still pass the Republican-majority House of Representatives before becoming law.

Despite this threat to their livelihoods, the workers at the EMD plant in London seem unfazed by the prospect of the plant closing. They doubt that the highly skilled workforce needed for manufacturing of locomotives can be found at wages estimated for the Muncie plant - between $14 and $16 an hour.

“If they wanted to move the plant already it would be gone. They don't have the skilled (work)force, I don't think,” said Chris Whitty, a locked-out maintenance electrician. “You can't learn it overnight, it's not like an assembly line where you put the part in and push the palm buttons down. It's old-school manufacturing, you're assembling massive pieces of equipment with a highly skilled workforce.”

Sarah Smith, who has worked at EMD for the past six years, also points to the reported difficulties that Progress Rail is having with it's new plant in Muncie.

“They're paying such low wages down there that welders that are getting certified are taking their certificates, compliments of Electro-Motive, and going and getting a better paying job somewhere else. They're having a hard time. They were promising 650 jobs – my understanding right now is that they have 150 and are trying to get it to 250 by the end of the year.”

Progress Rail did not respond to questions about their assembly plant in Muncie.

Herman Rosenfeld, a retired auto worker and former educator with the CAW thinks the government should take control of the rail industry in Canada.

“You need to rebuild and re-regulate the rail sector. You need to have a nationalized component to it, not just a developmental approach. You want to move in the direction of having your manufacturing sector develop – not as a base of private capital accumulation but because we want to create different things for our needs. That's why I say nationalization as well, to have the state take over places that are no longer being used by capitalists and use it to produce things that are needed like locomotives - which are environmentally friendly.”

A key battleground in this class war will be EMD's flagship plant in La Grange, Illinois. The workers there are organized by the United Auto Workers, and have been without a union contract since September, 2011. The La Grange plant manufactures parts used in assembly at the London and Muncie plants, making it a choke point for production should the workers strike.

“We need to stand together for the sake of Canadians, but Americans as well,” said Smith. “Caterpillar has other companies owned in the states and they're standing together with us and saying Caterpillar has been doing this for too long. They've been cutting wages and treating us like crap and we've had enough. You stand up and we're going stand up too. They're actually working under a year extension right now and they're saying they want to be put out so they can stand up too and say we're not going to take it anymore either.”

“The only way I can imagine that happening is if the Canadians actually take the lead and do something dramatic to show that they're really fighting and shaking things up. When they do that you can imagine other workers being inspired,” said Gindin, who was involved in the CAW occupation of the Oshawa Houdaille bumper plant in 1980. “I can't imagine workers in the states saying 'Let's show solidarity with them because they're on strike.' I can imagine them saying 'Jesus, they've actually taken it over! They've done something we should have done. Let's support them!'”

With Occupy protests so recent some activists are pushing the idea of a takeover, but workers are reluctant when it comes to the Caterpillar plant.

“That can backfire on you. I think this is better. If we do that they'll get a court injunction so there's no protest,” said Jim McManus, who worked at GM Diesel for 25 years, when asked about the possibility of an occupation. According to McManus, there are finished locomotives are still sitting behind the plant that can’t be removed due to the picket line. “I heard there's nine in the back of the plant. CN told them no. CN (workers) won't cross the picket line so that's good.”

Gindin understands the hesitancy. “It's hard for workers to get their head into an occupation. It does actually require some leadership because they're not that confident that they can pull it off themselves. It does need the union itself to help people understand that their backs are really up against the wall and they have no choice and this is one of the few things that might work.”
 

This article was orignally published on rabble.ca


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Mick Sweetman (Mick Sweetman)
Toronto
Member since December 2009

About:

Mick Sweetman is a journalist in Toronto. His stories and photographs have been published in Alternet, the Calgary Strait, Canadian Dimension, Clamor, Industrial Worker, The Media Co-op, New Socialist, The Northeastern Anarchist, On the Prowl, Rabble.ca, Strike!, They Call it Struggle for a Reason, Vox Magazine, and Znet

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