Two important unions in Australia have taken strong stands against the aggressive pact to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The deal is referred to as AUKUS because it is between Australia, the UK, and the US – three of the so-called “Five Eyes”.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) released a statement on September 21, the International Day of Peace: “No to Nuclear Submarines – Jobs and Health, not Nukes”. The MUA noted pointedly that “at a time when Morrison [Australian Prime Minister] should have been pursuing vaccination supplies and providing maximum support to our health system and millions of people in lockdown, he has been pursuing secret military deals. The deal will continue to escalate unnecessary conflict with China.”
The MUA called for the billions wasted on submarines to instead be directed to building renewable energy, pay increases for health workers and investments in the health system, investing in education and firefighting, and support for job seekers. The MUA statement concludes with a strong statement of international solidarity:
“Workers have no interest in war with China or any other country. Every effort should be made to pursue peaceful relations. The MUA stands in solidarity with workers in all countries in opposing war and wasteful environmentally harmful military spending.”
The Maritime Union of Australia represents some 16,000 waterside and port workers, seafarers and divers. In 2019 the MUA called a work stoppage for workers to attend September 20th Global Climate Strike rallies.
The Electrical Trades Union, representing over 60,000 Australian electrical workers, also condemned the AUKUS deal as a “dangerous delusion”. In addition, the ETU forcefully pointed out the ways that the deal undermined Australian control of engineering and manufacturing capacity:
“Nuclear submarines will require significant offshore maintenance, undermining Australia’s sovereign capability. Surely the recent experience with COVID demonstrated the danger of relying on international supply chains for the core needs of a self-respecting nation.”
ETU National Assistant Secretary Michael Wright said the decision represented a betrayal on two fronts:
“This decision represents a betrayal of responsibility to Australia’s non-nuclear policy and a betrayal of two generations of highly-skilled, secure, well-paying Australian shipbuilding jobs.”
“It is dangerous and delusional to rely on nuclear submarines for our defence. We are fearful this will also cost Australia much needed engineering, manufacturing, and construction jobs.”
The MUA and the ETU should be applauded, and emulated, for opposing the efforts of their own government to enmesh Australia in the war-mongering foreign policy of the United States. Workers have no interest in being used as cannon fodder in wars of aggression or regime change. Allying with our governments in imperial adventures is a threat to peace, but it also weakens our fight against the corporations and governments that we face here in Canada. The example of international solidarity set by the MUA and ETU is a better road for the labour movement than tailing our government’s slavish obedience of US commands and chasing Senate appointments.
Who Are the Five Eyes?
Who are the Five Eyes? Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden described the clandestine intelligence alliance of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as a “supra-national intelligence organisation that does not answer to the known laws of its own countries” Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that the Five Eyes have been spying on one another’s citizens and sharing the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic regulations on surveillance of citizens. In the case of AUKUS, even Canada and New Zealand were excluded from the machinations by the senior partners of the very Anglo-imperialist alliance.
Canadian unions should follow the example of our Australian counterparts and fight for a policy of international peace and co-operation, and oppose Canadian support for American saber-rattling.
On Saturday, May 9, 2020 a large cavalcade wended its way through the city of Oshawa, past the major city hospital (Lakeridge Health) and Hillsdale Terraces, a long-term care home where Covid-19 has infected 42 residents (of whom 14 died), and 13 staff members. The cavalcade of 65+ vehicles ended up at the sprawling General Motors Assembly Complex, now mostly empty since GM abandoned vehicle production last December.
Support Health Care Workers – Manufacture More PPE
The Cavalcade was organized by Green Jobs Oshawa to demand government action to meet the desperate need for PPE for front line workers by ordering vastly increased production at the GM Oshawa complex, especially of N95 masks. Green Jobs Oshawa led a determined campaign for three weeks that led to a major breakthrough on April 24. On that day the Canadian government announced that GM would manufacture masks in Oshawa. However, GM is only recalling 50 to 60 workers, and will only be making surgical masks, not the critically important N95 masks.
The Cavalcade at Hillsdale Terraces. video by Jesse Michael Cullen
This is the speech delivered by Green Jobs Oshawa representative Tony Leah with the plant behind him, and people standing by their vehicles, or sitting in them and honking, in the employee parking lot.
I want to thank everyone for being here, this is such an important event. This is a great show of support from workers, from the Oshawa community.
We are here to support our front line workers. Those workers don’t need applause; they don’t need medals. What do they need?
They need proper personal protective equipment! They need N95 masks!
And those masks can and must be manufactured here – in the massive, mostly empty GM Assembly Complex behind me.
Let’s review the facts.
There is a shortage of N95 masks:
“Federal government tracking shows that of the 155.4 million N95 masks Ottawa has ordered, 5.3 million have arrived. And a “significant portion” remain in testing, the government’s website says. Globe and Mail, April 30, 2020”. That is a shortage of over 150 million N95 masks.
In a recent survey of doctors by the CMA – 71 % said the supply of PPE was worse or unchanged from one month before. CTV News April 28, 2020”
The results of the shortage are devastating.
The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) – CUPE has revealed:
Today more than 3,000 Ontario health care workers are infected with COVID-19. Think about that – 3,000 of our front line health care workers have been infected. Five have died.
Those on the health care front lines now account for nearly 16 per cent of the province’s COVID cases. That is an infection rate four times that of China. Our governments are not protecting them.
On April 24 we had the announcement by the Canadian Government that GM will use 50-60 workers to make surgical masks in Oshawa. No N95 masks are to be manufactured. This work is not beginning until May 11.
WHY SO LITTLE? WHY SO LATE?
The Ontario government declared an emergency on March 17 ( the day of the 1st death in Ontario).
The Canadian government issued a “call to action” on March 20 – calling for companies to manufacture needed equipment.
But there have been no orders to corporations, no national planning, no co-ordination. If our governments can mandate workers and remove their collective bargaining rights – they can mandate corporations to meet public needs.
Dismayed by the lack of action, on April 5 Green Jobs Oshawa sent an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. It included this sentence:
“We are seeing the consequences of not having manufacturing capacity in Canada when the government of the US threatens to prevent delivery of N95 masks manufactured there.”
When the April 24 announcement came – it still did not include N95 masks.
WHY SO LATE?
From March 20 (the “call to action”) to April 24 is 5 weeks.
From April 24 to May 11 is another 2.5 weeks. That is 7.5 weeks just to set up mask manufacturing by 50 workers.
In contrast – China built two complete hospitals, with over 1,000 beds each, from the ground up, in less than 2 weeks. They were completed February 6.
Is our government taking this crisis seriously enough?
WHY SO LITTLE?
GM is manufacturing 3 million masks per month in their Warren, Michigan plant with 140 workers – both surgical masks and N95 masks.
GM’s plans for Oshawa – barely more than 1/3 the number of workers, 1/3 the number of masks – and NO N95 masks!
50-60 workers – when there are 5,000 assembly and supplier workers whose jobs were taken away by GM when they ended vehicle production here.
Mask production will occupy 30,000 square feet out of 10 million square feet (3/10 of 1%).
If GM can manufacture N95 masks in Warren – they can manufacture them in Oshawa! They MUST manufacture them in Oshawa!
We need to take this crisis seriously.
During WWII – the Canadian government ordered industries to convert to necessary war production – including the GM Oshawa plant.
Canada lost 42,000 lives in WWII – about 20 deaths per day for the 2,068 days Canada was at war until VE Day.
Canada has so far had 4,700 deaths from Covid-19 in 61 days – That is 75 deaths per day. For the past two weeks, there have been 150 deaths per day.
Today, the number of Covid-19 deaths in Canada exceeded the death toll in China, a country with 40 times the population.
Are our political leaders taking this crisis seriously enough? They are not doing enough to protect Canadians. They are not doing enough to protect our front line workers.
We appreciate the support for this campaign that we have received from the Durham Region Labour Council, the Leap, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, the Ontario Federation of Labour, Niki Ashton, Jennifer French, the Council of Canadians, Councillor John Neal, who is with us again today, and many others in the community, and across the province and the country.
The Unifor Local 222 Executive Board and the Local 222 Retired Workers’ Chapter Executive passed motions to:
“Endorse the Green Jobs Oshawa cavalcade that is supporting front line health care workers and pressuring GM to produce far more masks, especially the N95 masks, in Oshawa …”
We cannot rest until we have enough PPE being manufactured in this country – for this crisis, and for the next one.
Manufacture N95 masks in Oshawa!
Make essential medical production in Oshawa permanent!
Make it a Crown Corporation to ensure we have a secure supply of critically important products for the future!
China reacted swiftly to the threat of a new coronavirus,
quickly notified the World Health Organization, and took the necessary steps to
contain and eliminate the virus within China. The Chinese government was
praised by the World Health Organization for their effective measures,
transparency and cooperation. Because of China’s actions, the rest of the world
had time to prepare – and wasted it.
of the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of
China reported on the current situation and the public
health measures being taken. There are now 7711 confirmed
and 12167 suspected cases throughout the country. Of the
confirmed cases, 1370 are severe and 170 people have died. 124 people have
recovered and been discharged from hospital.
Committee welcomed the leadership and political
commitment of the very highest levels
of Chinese government, their commitment to transparency, and
the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak. China quickly identified
the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could
diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has
resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools.
very strong measures the country has taken include daily contact with WHO
and comprehensive multi-sectoral approaches to prevent further
spread. It has also taken public health measures in other cities and
provinces; is conducting studies on the severity and
transmissibility of the virus, and sharing data and biological material. The
country has also agreed to work with other countries who need their
support. The measures China has taken are good not only for that
country but also for the rest of the world.
The WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International
Concern at this meeting.
December 26, 2019 – 4 unusual cases of pneumonia were noticed
by Dr. Jixian Zhang.
December 27, 2019 – Dr. Zhang reported the cases to the
December 31, 2019 – The World Health Organization was
January 7, 2020 – The virus is identified.
January 12, 2020 – The genetic sequence of the virus is
identified and shared.
January 13, 2020 – Test kits are available.
January 23, 2020 – 259 new cases for a total of 830 in China
– Wuhan City is shut down.
January 24, 2020 – 15 other cities shut down, new cases
January 30, 2020 – WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of
Western capitalist countries like the US, Spain and Italy
show a stark contrast with China. They had the warning, and failed to
adequately prepare. Once the virus hit their countries, they did not react
effectively. They did not have the capacity to test in the numbers required.
They did not provide the necessary resources to health care professionals on
the front lines. They had inadequate ICU beds, and their hospitals became
As of today, the US has reported by far the largest number
of Covid-19 cases of any country in the world – 141,781. The number is still
accelerating. The total number of new cases reported in the US from Wednesday,
March 25 to Sunday, March 29 is 83,918 – more than the total number of cases in
China has had 3,300 fatalities from the Covid-19 pandemic.
That is now dwarfed by the number of fatalities in Italy (10,779) and Spain
(6,803). The US will pass China’s fatality numbers in a few days. The UK
currently has 1,228 deaths – and yesterday at the daily press conference on
Covid-19 at Downing Street, the national medical director, Prof Stephen Powis
we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.”
The disparity is even more shocking if we look at the
numbers on a per capita basis.
China was able to bring the pandemic under control and limit
the number of cases to 57 per million of population. Their fatality rate is 2
per million of population. This chart shows the comparable numbers for some
Western countries. The numbers will be much larger before long, since the
pandemic is still spreading rapidly in these countries.
Numbers as of March 29, 2020 at 7:45 pm from Worldometer.
Not only did the government of the People’s Republic of
China act decisively and effectively to deal with the outbreak of Covid-19 in
their country, they also swiftly identified and sequenced the virus and shared
that information with the world through the World Health Organization. Once the
virus was contained, the Chinese government went further in offering support
and aid to other countries dealing with the pandemic. China has sent two teams of
medical experts to Italy to share their Covid-19 treatment experience.
China has provided medical equipment to many other countries, including a shipment
that arrived in Canada March 27.
Linda McQuaig spoke recently on The Taylor Report, CIUT 89.5 fm, about her new book, The Sport & Prey of Capitalists. Linda’s book is an intriguing and informative exploration of the history of public ownership in Canada, and demolishes the myth that private ownership is always best.
My book is basically the story of privatization … The doctrine that the private sector always does things better – it’s always asserted by the business community with great confidence, but never with any evidence. In fact, there’s no evidence that they always do things better … overall, the evidence is it’s very costly when we turn to them, when we privatize things and hand things over to them. It ends up costing us a fortune … My favorite example is the 407.
Here is what Linda said about GM’s closure of the Oshawa plant: “Rather than shut down this historic plant that was the centre of the automotive industry in Canada, let’s have government take it over and let’s use it to create green production vehicles … which we desperately need as part of a Green New Deal.”
General Motors has profited for many years by operating in countries like Colombia where wages are low, where safety standards non-existant, and where governments are anti-union and anti-worker. Many workers at the GM Colmotores plant in Bogota, Columbia have suffered permanent injuries due to the unsafe conditions. GM routinely fires injured workers, and prevents them from getting compensation.
Over eight years ago, the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores (ASOTRECOL) was formed to fight for the rights of these injured workers. Since August 2, 2011 they have maintained a tent encampment in front of the US Embassy in Bogota. They have carried out hunger strikes, sometimes sewing their mouths shut. In the process they have gathered international support, and won some victories. However, there are still many injured workers who have not received justice, and the protest continues.
I made a motion at the Unifor Local 222 membership meeting on September 5 for our Local to send a message of solidarity to the injured workers in Colombia, donate $500 to help them in their struggle, and also send a letter to General Motors demanding that they provide justice. The motion passed. Here are the two letters sent by Local 222 President Colin James based on the membership action. Above is a picture of the appreciative workers in Colombia.
Green Jobs Oshawa distributed this leaflet at the Unifor Constitutional Convention on Wednesday, August 21. It calls for government action to establish electric vehicle production in Oshawa, under public ownership.
Links to download PDF copies of the leaflet in English and French are at the end of this post.
These resolutions challenge the Unifor delegates to: 1) support a Workers’ Green New Deal, 2) fight for equal wages, pensions and benefits in legislation and bargaining, and 3) rejoin the CLC.
These resolutions were all raised from the floor and passed by the membership at Local meetings. They were NOT put forward by the Local leadership. In fact, the Local 222 leadership did not put forward any resolutions for the Convention.
If you are a Unifor member, please urge your delegates to support these resolutions.
Workers’ Green New Deal
Equal Wages, Benefits and Pensions
Reaffiliate to the CLC
These resolutions are R-2, R-5, and R-6. All of the resolutions and constitutional amendments can be found in the Resolutions Booklet.
Did Jerry Dias make a deal to save the Oshawa plant, or did he give in and accept GM’s determination to end vehicle production in Oshawa?
Just before Christmas last year, GM announced their intention to close Oshawa, meaning the loss of 5,000 direct jobs involved in the assembly of cars and trucks, with a much larger impact on the community of Oshawa – an overall loss of 20,000 jobs.
5,000 jobs, not 2600
GM claimed that 2,600 jobs were affected when they announced the closure, and the media has used that figure ever since. But GM knew that they were taking jobs away from 5,000 workers whose jobs are directly part of the assembly of vehicles in Oshawa. It has been GM’s deliberate policy over the years to outsource as much of the work as possible to third-party supplier companies – to force wages and benefits down. Now GM will claim no responsibility for those workers when they leave town. Many of those outsourced jobs are right inside the Oshawa plant – building services trades, cleaners, workers who sequence and deliver parts, security, the tire room. Others are nearby – including workers who make foam and manufacture seats, and other parts suppliers. At one time all of those jobs were done by workers who were employed directly by GM, and had the same wages and benefits as other GM assembly workers. Now they make less than second tier assembly workers, have inferior benefits, and most have no pensions. And almost all of them are members of Unifor – but has Jerry done anything for them?
From “Save the Plant” to “Keep a Footprint”
Unifor President Jerry Dias vowed to fight to keep the plant open. He hired an expensive public relations company, whose strategic brilliance included a “Tree of Hope”, and an ad on the Super Bowl broadcast, rather than relying on workers’ actions. After several months, the “fight” became reduced to talks with GM to maintain a “footprint” and save “as many jobs as possible”.
Finally, on May 8, the deal was announced – only 300 jobs would be saved – That is only 6% of the 5,000 jobs left in Oshawa. And 300 is just 1.5% of the 20,000 jobs that were in Oshawa not too long ago. Those 300 jobs will be reserved for direct employees of GM. Senior GM workers will be offered retirement or severance incentives. Workers hired by GM since 2006 fare worse – they only get credit for time worked since 2016 to qualify for incentive packages. For the 2,500 workers at supplier companies the deal provides zero jobs, zero incentive packages, zero severance beyond the bare minimum provided by law. Yet, they are Unifor members too. They are workers too.
Here are some of my impressions of the deal and how it was announced.
The Jerry and Travis Show – the members are the last to know
Jerry Dias did not meet with the workers affected by the plant closure to let them know what was in his deal with GM. Instead, he took part in a joint press conference with GM of Canada President Travis Hester on May 8 in downtown Toronto. The backdrop featured the logos of GM and Unifor as though the organizations were partners, and the whole set-up was clearly designed to try to rescue GM’s damaged public image. Jerry was on a first-name basis with Hester, while the workers suffered the indignity of learning about their fate by watching the press conference.
Holding the press conference far away from the workers, who would know how hollow the ‘victory’ was, served a very damaging purpose – it left the public with the false impression that the plant has been saved.
The Good Business Model
During the Toronto press conference, Jerry praised GM for promising to keep 300 jobs in Oshawa, and said “I’m content that we have established what I believe to be a business plan for the long term”. The workers in Oshawa who are losing their jobs are a lot less content.
Membership Meetings – Where’s Jerry?
When meetings were held with the members the next day, on May 9, Jerry Dias did not even bother to show up. That is really adding insult to injury. The post on the right shows the reaction of one Oshawa worker.
The 300 Jobs – Now you see them, now you don’t
It wasn’t until the meetings on May 9 that we got more details about the 300 jobs. The jobs will be in the Oshawa Stamping Plant, a small part of the GM complex, and GM’s only commitment is to have the jobs in place by the end of the 2020 calendar year. Our leadership expressed faith “that most of them would start … in the second half of the year”. Since vehicle production will be done in December, 2019, this means that people who apply for the 300 stamping jobs could be on layoff for 6 months or more before they start. I asked at the meeting if there was any guarantee that the jobs would last past the expiry of our contract – September 21, 2020. The short answer was “No”, there are no guarantees, of course. When the contract expires, everything has to be renegotiated. If GM announces next year that they have changed their mind, or that “conditions have changed”, there could be no jobs at all.
Why should we trust GM Now?
The deal that has been reached depends on GM’s good will – which means it is worth nothing. GM has promised 300 jobs – but they have until the end of 2020 to deliver them. And that is after the expiry of Unifor’s collective agreement. Why should we take GM’s word now, when we have already seen what their promises in 2016 were worth? This deal provides very little for the 2,500 GM workers. It provides nothing for the 2,500 workers at supplier companies. Most importantly this deal provides nothing for the community – no jobs for the future, and the loss of important manufacturing capacity for Oshawa, Ontario and Canada. GM is already taking inventory of the equipment they are going to take out and relocate or sell.
Demand Public Ownership and a Green Transition
The only realistic way to prevent the dismantling of the Oshawa complex, and the bulldozing of the plant buildings to make space for condos and big box stores, would be for governments to step in and save the manufacturing capacity, and repurpose the plant for electric vehicles, public transit, and renewable energy products. We desperately need that bold action by government anyway to meet the current climate crisis. What better place to start than in Oshawa? If we leave it up to GM, they will put their profits first, and the public interest last. We can’t accept that capitalist cold-hearted logic.
The aerial view shows that GM’s plans will at best keep jobs in a small corner of the Oshawa manufacturing complex – the Stamping Plant outlined in red. All of the automation, robots, technology and equipment used for the assembly of cars and trucks is in the buildings outlined in black – and they will all be empty. We need to force governments to act now, or it will be too late. Can this be done? As veteran union activist Sid Ryan posted recently on Facebook:
One of those alternatives was to push these governments to consider public ownership (nationalise) the Oshawa facility and to repurpose it. After all, the federal and Ontario governments had no problem pumping billions of dollars into GM during the 2008/09 financial disaster brought about by pure greed on Wall St. Why was it ok to hand over taxpayers money to wealthy corporations to enhance their profits in 2008/09 but not do so today to save workers jobs by nationalizing the plant? Furthermore, the federal government had no problem investing in repurposing the Oshawa plants during WWII to churn out military vehicles. Why not now invest in the plant and its workers to design and build electric vehicles, buses and rapid transit systems as just one option?
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has called for the replacement of the entire Canada Post vehicle fleet with electric vehicles assembled in Canada. That could be the ideal start for a publicly owned manufacturing centre in Oshawa, and the kickstart to a greatly needed Green New Deal.
Last Friday, February 1, 2019, workers at the GM plant in São José dos Campos, Brazil took a militant step forward in their fight against GM’s threats and demands for concessions. Their union, Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos (Metal Workers’ Union), held a meeting to discuss GM’s demands, but it was no ordinary meeting. They held the meeting RIGHT AT THE PLANT GATES, complete with a sound truck. Production was shut down while workers took part in this mass meeting – and it delayed the start of production for 90 minutes. The workers heard that GM is threatening to close plants in Brazil unless they get 28 major concessions, including a wage freeze, unrestricted outsourcing and the end of job protection for injured workers. In the end, the workers voted to soundly repudiate GM’s blackmail, and vowed to continue the struggle.
Video of Friday’s Mass Meeting
Call for United Action, International Solidarity
Following the plant-gate mass assembly, a meeting was held by union representatives of Brasil Metalúrgico. Brasil Metalúrgico (Brazil Metalworking) is a common front representing all metalworking unions and federations in Brazil, to discuss joint actions in defense of jobs and rights for workers throughout the automotive sector. The union’s commitment to international solidarity is evident in the fact that four representatives from the Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos (Metal Workers’ Union) had traveled to Detroit for the rally held on January 18 by Autoworkers Caravan and the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America, calling for seizing GM’s plants and converting them to useful production, as part of the call for a Green New Deal. That exciting rally at the Detroit International Auto Show also included Canadian GM workers and retirees from Unifor Local 222. The Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos is calling for international solidarity against GM and for joint actions by autoworkers and their unions in Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the US.
CSP-Conlutas Central Sindical e Popular
The Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos is affiliated to the CSP-Conlutas (CSP stands for Central Sindical e Popular – Union and Popular Central; Conlutas means with struggles). It is an organization founded in 2010 that unites unions and other popular movements comprising 140 unions and 2 million workers
The Central was born by adding youth and anti-oppression organizations that were prepared to unite under the banner of a common program for the protection of the interests of the working class against capitalist exploitation and oppression. The new entity includes the Anel (National Assembly of Free Students), the Women in Struggle Movement, the Quilombo Race and Class Movement, among others.
This is an innovative experience in organizing our class in Brazil. Unite, in a single national entity, the trade union movements, popular, youth and the fight against the oppression of women, blacks, homosexuals and other segments.
CSP-Conlutas guides its actions in defense of the immediate demands and historical interests of the working class, aiming at the end of all forms of exploitation and oppression. Our struggle has the goal of achieving the conditions and building a socialist society, governed by the workers themselves.
The principles of CSP-Conlutas include autonomy and independence from governments, building unity as a strategic value in the struggle of the workers, direct action, collective mobilization of our class, and active internationalism.
Is Unifor’s Leadership Ignoring the Need for International Solidarity?
The time is right for an international struggle of autoworkers against the greedy corporations that try to keep us divided and weak. Just in the past few weeks we have seen:
Militant actions by auto workers in Brazil.
A strike by tens of thousands of auto workers in Mexico.
The rally in Detroit January 18 that challenged the absolute right of corporations to wreak destruction on workers and communities.
On November 21, 2018 there was a general strike against the South Korean government demanding reform of labour laws, and a curb to the power of industrial conglomerates (known as chaebols in Korea). It was joined by more than 125,000 members of the Korean Metal Workers Union at 109 KMWU workplaces.
And yet, even though the struggle of auto workers seems to be ramping up from Mexico to Korea, we have heard nothing about it from the Unifor leadership. We need to be building unity with auto workers in Mexico, but the Unifor leadership is calling for a boycott of vehicles built in Mexico – which only damages that unity. We need to be taking militant action like the strikers in Matamoros, Mexico and Korea. We need to be showing the power of workers in the factory, like our sisters and brothers in Brazil.
We should be organizing coordinated actions and mutual support with autoworkers around the world. Instead, Jerry Dias and his inner circle are investing their time, and our money, on an expensive PR firm to design and air Super Bowl ads. We need to stop being spectators, and start being the main show. Workers have power if we dare to exercise it. Let’s start by supporting the workers in Brazil in their struggle wherever we can – in our Local Unions and Labour Councils, and calling on our National Union to do the same.
General Motors has announced it will end production at five North American plants, just a decade after the company received billions of dollars in U.S. and Canadian taxpayer money and won sweeping concessions from auto unions as part of the bailout.
All told, about 6,700 hourly and salaried employees stand to lose their jobs as the lines stop at Oshawa Assembly in Ontario, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly in Michigan, and Lordstown Assembly in Ohio. Meanwhile the company is posting billions in profits.
Neither the United Auto Workers nor Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, which represents auto workers in Oshawa, has called for job actions, leaving many union activists feeling frustrated and dispirited.
Nonetheless, workers in GM’s Oshawa Assembly Plant took the initiative themselves to shut down production in a sit-down strike this week. Auto workers in Detroit will be protesting GM at the January 18 North American International Auto Show.
Tony Leah is a longtime union activist who has put in 38 years at the Oshawa plant. He chairs the Political Action Committee of Unifor Local 222 and coordinates the union education program in the plant, organizing trainings with members every week on shop floor topics like how to stop harassment and big-picture issues like trade deals.
Labor Notes’ Chris Brooks spoke with Leah on January 10 about the sit-down and why it’s essential that workers use their power on the job—not just a public relations campaign—to bring GM to the negotiating table.
Labor Notes: When did you hear about the company’s decision to end production in Oshawa, and what was the response from your co-workers?
Tony Leah: On Sunday, November 25, in the evening, is when word got out. I believe that the union had received some notification from GM that afternoon, so that started circulating pretty widely.
Monday morning, people were angry. We had been told there would be an announcement from GM, but everyone knew by then that they were planning to close the plant by the end of 2019.
Management told workers we would be gathered together for meetings by 10 a.m. for the announcement, but we all walked out of the plant before that.
The plant was shut down and that evening we had a meeting with the union leadership about what they had heard from GM and what our response was going to be.
What has been Unifor’s response?
There has been a woeful lack of involvement of members in determining strategy and direction. The leadership has not asked members to discuss ideas. It is asking people to show up for small rallies around town waving banners, putting up lawn signs, and so on.
The local union leadership has gone so far as to actively discourage involvement or questions by sabotaging union meetings—for example, directing union reps not to show up, and having them direct members to a banner event instead of the local membership meeting on January 4, resulting in there being no quorum and having the meeting cancelled.
From the national union, while [Unifor President] Jerry Dias has used militant rhetoric, the actual campaign has mainly relied on a public relations company. The campaign is designed to run ads on radio, television, and social media.
They are saying GM is harming workers in the community, which is true—and public support is important. But it’s not sufficient to change GM’s decision. A battle like this requires far more than public sympathy. We have to have a direct impact on their bottom lines and impact their profits. Unfortunately, that has not been a central part of the union’s strategy.
In my opinion, the greatest weaknesses so far are, one, not seeing workers’ ability to stop production as key, and two, ignoring the need for solidarity from the rest of the labor movement in Canada, and solidarity with auto workers in the U.S. and other countries.
Jerry Dias pulled Unifor out of the Canadian Labour Congress a year ago to allow him to pursue raids against other affiliates, which has had a big negative impact on our ability to build a broader fightback. The membership of Local 222 opposed the disaffiliation.
The union is run in a top-down way, so they come up with the strategy and just expect everyone else to implement it. There is no forum for us to discuss how to push our advantage on the production line. The positive actions have been mostly driven by spontaneous actions of the workers.
How were the sit-down actions organized? These were worker-led actions, not initiated by the national union, right?
Everything boiled over this week because we were told that Unifor was meeting with GM in Detroit to discuss keeping Oshawa open. We were told there would be a response from GM that would be announced at a press conference on Tuesday, January 8.
At the time that the press conference was on, around 4:20 p.m. that day, most people were gathered somewhere in the plant to watch it. The announcement was that GM was still going to end production in Oshawa.
So the truck-production shift, which works afternoons, sat down. The whole plant went down as a result, so about 700 people stopped work. People gathered together. Management tried to get people to go back to work. When that failed, management told everyone to leave, and then that failed.
The union had to respond, but the plant leadership was in Windsor at the time and it took them five hours to get to the plant. Eventually the plant chair arrived and gave his speech and led everyone out of the plant. They got no production from that shift.
The action happened because people had built up hope in the union’s meetings with the company and nothing came out of it.
The next day there were sporadic actions, but no overall shutdown or occupation. Lots of people were angry and stopping work and shutting things down in truck and car production. That anger is still there, and the desire to resist is still there.
The national leadership has called for a January 11 rally in Windsor to protest the closing. That’s a head scratcher. We feel like the battle is here.
Can you give me an example of the union’s failed PR strategy?
The best example is the “Tree of Hope.” The union called a press conference in mid-December and said we are going to launch our public campaign against the GM plant closing.
The press conference was in Memorial Park, where the union unveiled this big 20- to 30-foot Christmas tree. They had places where people could leave messages on a banner to show community support. They had Christmas ornaments that say “Save GM Oshawa” that people could order and put on their own trees and then share out on social media.
When you have a campaign designed by a P.R. firm, you get this kind of media stuff and not anything that actually impacts profit generation at the point of production. You don’t get strikes, you get a “Tree of Hope.”
Our members are showing they want to be more aggressive dealing with GM. We showed that on the first day, when we walked out and shut down three shifts. The union told us to go back and show GM what a good job we can do producing for them.
Oftentimes union members don’t want to be too critical of the union, especially when we are under attack. But it is imperative that we question this strategy and push for militant actions.
It seems like the union is totally disconnected from the anger that workers and community members have about GM’s decision, especially given the past history of union concessions and taxpayer bailout.
That’s exactly right. We’ve given up so much over the years. For 10 years, we had 500 people that were classified as “Supplemental Workforce Employees, or SWEs” and were second-tier workers. They performed the same jobs as everyone else, but for far less – first 70%, later 60% of regular pay.
The SWEs were considered to be somewhat like perpetual probationary employees, or contract workers. They did not have a seniority date, which is a fundamental right under any collective agreement. As non-seniority employees they did not have any layoff and recall rights, no pensions, no supplemental unemployment benefits, far fewer health care and other benefits.
GM started using that category of worker in 2007 and got the union to agree to it. Initially, these positions were only supposed to be hired for short periods when there were major plant changes, but GM extended them to all the time.
Finally in 2016 it was negotiated that they were going to be hired as seniority employees. But although some of them had worked for GM since 2007, they were all assigned a seniority date of September 26, 2016. They got no credit for the years they worked as GM employees. That means that if the plant closes this year, they will be considered to only have three years’ service and will not be eligible for any plant closure compensation under the current contract.
These are people doing the exact same job. Our production rate is $35.42 (Canadian) an hour. But second-tier workers are currently making $20.92 to $23.91 an hour. It takes 11 years to reach equal pay. Two people doing the same job right next to each other and one is making $35 an hour and the other makes $21. The union’s justification was that this was what was needed to keep these jobs here, but as we see, it has had no impact on keeping the jobs here. It just added to GM’s profits.
What’s it like working at GM at Oshawa?
It’s changed a lot over the years. When I was first hired, the company was in expansion mode. There were 75 apprentices in my apprenticeship class and 400 total in the plant. In the mid-1980s we had 3,000 skilled-trades and 14,000 production workers in Oshawa.
We’ve gone through a long series of layoffs and the elimination of vehicles we produce. It’s been really difficult. Today, we have about 320 skilled-trades and 1,800 production workers. We have flex lines—car production is on one shift and truck production on two other shifts.
A lot of that workforce reduction is due to elimination of plants and operations, and reduction in vehicle assembly shifts and volume. But a significant part is due to outsourcing of work to third-party companies
Even in our facility, we have eight or 10 other companies that are doing work associated with the plant that used to be GM jobs. Cleaning, building services, sequencing, security, and other operations are now done by workers who work inside the Oshawa plant, but who do not work directly for GM. Even the tire room has been outsourced.
Thus, even though there are only 2,100 GM workers who are represented by Unifor, there are another 1,000 or more who work inside the plant for other employers—most of whom are also members of Unifor Local 222.
That is just within the plant itself. It doesn’t include outside suppliers. All told there are over 5,000 direct jobs that will be lost if this plant closes.
This is all happening at a time when GM’s profits are soaring.
GM’s profits have been incredible since 2010. Just over the last couple of years, GM’s North American profits have been $12 billion (U.S.) annually.
So they are making out like bandits. They took government money, wrote off their debts, implemented two tier systems, and all of that is going to their profits. But there is no commitment to anyone else.
Why are we allowing our entire economy to run on the basis of what is best for corporations and not for our communities? That is the larger question we should be asking, rather than publicly begging GM to keep this one plant here.
If GM walks away from Oshawa, then we should seize the operation and convert production to socially necessary and beneficial work. That’s the kind of issue being raised in Detroit by Autoworkers Caravan and the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America. They’re calling for making Detroit the engine of a Green New Deal.
Those of us that have that outlook are hoping to raise these points at the Detroit auto show on January 18. This action has been endorsed by Local 222’s Political Action Committee and our local’s Retiree Committee. We are chartering a bus to bring workers to that action in Detroit.
Unifor has also followed the UAW in making explicitly nationalistic appeals to these companies, pushing for what is best for Americans or Canadians, as opposed to what is best for workers.
Fundamentally, our issues as workers are common. All workers that are dealing with GM should have solidarity with one another.
I don’t see that coming from our national union’s leadership, unfortunately. They frame everything as GM betraying Canada and we need to save Canada. They aren’t trying to build common efforts for workers in the United States or to build international solidarity with workers in Mexico.
Our national union has ties to the Liberal Party of Canada, which involved Jerry Dias as part of its NAFTA renegotiation team.
This isn’t your first plant occupation. Can you talk about what happened in 1996 and how that informs what you think would be an effective strategy today?
That was the year we went on strike. GM tried to take dies [specialized tools used to cut and shape particular parts] out of our plant while we were on strike so they could maintain production.
There were parts that were produced in Oshawa that were needed for plants in the United States. Due to the strike, production in the States would shut down. So GM tried to get an injunction and seize these dies to maintain production and break the strike. In response, we occupied the plant.
We learned that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with legalities, but with what is an effective strategy given the circumstances. The history of our union is that we have to occupy plants to make gains, whether that occupation is legal or illegal.
In our current situation, we have more bargaining leverage with GM while they have production scheduled for our plant. Currently we are making old-model pickup trucks while the Fort Wayne Assembly Plant is being retooled for the new model. GM wants to maintain market share in the meantime. So truck production continues here.
GM makes huge profits on these trucks—estimates are $15,000 per truck. The trucks we are scheduled to build here before they shut the plant will generate $1 billion in profit for GM.
That gives us bargaining leverage and power over this corporation. They don’t care about a Tree of Hope. They want these trucks and this profit.
We shouldn’t hand it over to them. If they want those trucks, then they have to give us something in return. We have to use our power on the job, which is far more important than ads on television. And it needs to happen before they get all the production they want.
Under current circumstances, sitting down on the job is more powerful than walkouts and even traditional strikes.
Once we’ve taken the plant over, we can begin to lead a national conversation about who is going to run it in the future. It would be powerful to involve the community and government in a discussion about what we can do with this production capacity once it is put in our hands for our benefit, rather than GM’s.
This interview first appeared in Labor Notes, January 11, 2019.