Worker lockouts a bad omen for labour in Canada

By Deborah O’Connor

On New Year’s Day, while most of us were relaxing and contemplating our resolutions for 2012, some twelve hundred Canadian workers were learning their employers had locked them out of their jobs, drawing a hard line in the sand to demonstrate their intractable contract positions. In the wake of the brand new Conservative government’s quick action last June to introduce back-to-work legislation to force Canada Post workers back on the job, along with threats to do the same to striking Air Canada workers, many Canadian trade unionists and their allies are feeling some anxiety about labour relations in the coming year and beyond.  

In the first lockout, at Rio Tinto Alcan in Alma, Quebec, about 780 workers were affected at the aluminum smelter, which announced it intended to cut production by only a third and use its managers to keep the plant functioning. The big issues in this lockout are wages, seniority and the sub-contracting of plant work to non-employees. The workers’ union, the powerful United Steel Workers, is already suspicious that the company is breaking Quebec’s anti-scab law, flying replacement workers in by helicopter to augment their production capabilities. Rio Tinto is a large and highly profitable corporation owned by interests in the United Kingdom and Australia, and purchased the Alma facility from a Canadian owner in a deal that required the federal government’s approval.

On the same day in London, Ontario, Electro Motive, a company bought in 2010 by American giant Caterpillar Inc., locked the doors on 465 workers after they refused to take a fifty percent pay and benefits cut. The operation has a rank smell lingering over it, with its original owner taking millions in incentives from the federal government in 2008, then selling out to a foreign buyer with their blessing two years later. Caterpillar has a reputation for being a tough employer when it comes to union negotiations, much like Rio Tinto Alcan. Both are used to getting their own way and can afford to wait out job actions until tired and broke workers capitulate. In the case of Electro Motive, the Canadian Auto Workers have speculated the purchase was made with every intention of gaining the technology offered there and moving it all to their newly built plant in Muncie, Indiana, where they can generate extra revenue with the American Buy First initiative. That plant has no union either, another bonus for Caterpillar.

The federal government has taken the position now that they won’t be intervening in the London lockout, saying that it’s a dispute between a private company and the union. CAW president Ken Lewenza noted “The federal government certainly had no problem interfering in bargaining between Air Canada and the CAW last year”. He is calling for an investigation into the details of the sale of the company to Caterpillar, citing financial irregularities and noting that the federal government has a mandated responsibility to ensure deals that sell off Canadian companies to foreign firms are in the best interests of Canada.

While our own country, like so many others, seeks to cocoon itself from the effects of global economic contraction, if not collapse in the coming years, the last thing we need is labour unrest. Both sides have to work together to avoid disruption to production, and while labour has to be reasonable in its expectations, so does management. Companies that think the election of a majority conservative government gives them carte blanche to run amok with union contracts and sensibilities will have a hard lesson to learn as labour and its allies organize to fight back against greedy and irresponsible incursions. The heads of both the Canadian Labour Congress and the Ontario Federation of Labour are already making plans for their organizations to stand up for working people, and with a new awareness rising from the Occupy Movement, support for the cause may be surprisingly broad and powerful. If we can all take a deep breath and co-operate and compromise, harsh actions and reprisals can be left at the door while labour and management work together to get what everyone wants, stability and a productive work environment. That’s the kind of labour action we could all use, no matter which side of the line we inhabit.