Canadian autoworkers face fight against threatened plant closings

By Carl Bronski
22 June 2016

In statements made to the Detroit Free Press earlier this week, Unifor President Jerry Dias made it clear the union plans to impose another round of concessionary contracts this summer on autoworkers at Canadian plants owned by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The labour agreements covering 23,500 GM, Ford and FCA workers expire in mid-September.

At the union’s Auto Council held three weeks ago, 120 officials from Unifor’s national office and auto locals had already signalled that they would place “job security” as the leading priority in the upcoming talks. With no new products assigned and the future of facilities at Ford Windsor, General Motors Oshawa and Brampton Fiat-Chrysler currently unsecured, about one-third of the unionized auto assembly jobs in Canada are threatened. Thousands more workers at supplier plants are also in peril.

“Job security” is the union’s coded language for preparing the membership for more givebacks on wages, benefits and working conditions. Dias declared in his interview with the Free Press that he had “no intention of negotiating economic suicide”. The union will attempt “to bargain some increases in economics,” he claimed, but “it doesn’t matter what your wages are, or your benefits, if you don’t have a plant or a product”.

At a press conference Tuesday Unifor officials outlined their plans to persuade GM to prevent the closure of the Flex and Consolidated facilities at the giant Oshawa GM plant outside of Toronto, which would wipe out 2,600 jobs. Announcing the launching of a “GM Oshawa Matters” campaign, Greg Moffatt, Unifor/GM master bargaining committee chairperson, made it clear this would have nothing to do with mobilising autoworkers throughout Canada and North America to fight GM.

GM Oshawa plant

On the contrary, Moffatt spewed out the same nationalist poison that has divided and weakened autoworkers around the world, while imposing concession after concession in the name of attracting the transnational corporations to invest in Canada. After ranting against GM for shifting production from Canadian plants to the US, Mexico and China, Moffatt pathetically complained that GM was not being fair after all the concessions Unifor and its predecessor, the Canadian Auto Workers, had handed the company.

“To be quite frank, our product, our quality, our productivity, our cost per vehicle is as good as anybody in the world, our taxpayers in the province and in Canada bailed General Motors out, our retirees took huge hits,” Moffatt said. “We haven’t had a raise in nine years, I find it quite frankly insulting General Motors is doing this to the City of Oshawa, we don’t deserve it... let me tell you something right now, we’re not going to stand for it.”

The union officials announced that the union will circulate a petition and present it to the House of Commons to “hold GM accountable to the community when it was supported by the 2009 auto [bailout]”.

The threat to close the plants is an indictment of the entire strategy of the trade union bureaucracy. The unions have imposed a two-tier system in the plants reducing newly hired workers to vastly inferior wages and benefits over a 10-year “grow-in” period. In one contract alone—the 2009 deals renegotiated by the union after it had just signed concession agreements in 2008—givebacks slashed total labour costs by more than $19 per hour.

Of late, Dias has taken to bragging to the auto bosses about the “opportunities” presented to them through the retirement of thousands of veteran workers to be replaced by low-wage new hires.

The threat of plant closings and mass layoffs was also used by the Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States to weather a near rebellion by US workers and impose contracts that contained labour cost increases below the rate of inflation. Hostile to a struggle to unite US, Canadian and Mexican workers, Unifor is essentially engaged in a competitive struggle with the UAW to impose ever-deeper concessions in the name of “saving” jobs.

Analyses of Detroit Three profits in Canada show that they continue to make money hand over fist. All three companies reported record sales for 2015. Profits increased by 79 percent to almost $2.5 billion, with the pre-tax profit margin the highest recorded since 2000. Despite slower economic growth, profits for 2016 are still projected to come in at over $2 billion.

GM workers have noted that, unlike previous periods where new model projects are planned, no feasibility studies have been undertaken by the company raising the spectre of wholesale plant closures. The Oshawa complex, in operation since 1907 and once one of the largest assembly facilities in the world, faces the prospect that production on the Consolidated Line will cease in 2017 with the possibility of closure of all remaining work by 2019.

In a statement on Tuesday, GM’s Carlisle signalled that rationalization plans are on the table, not only for GM but also at Fiat-Chrysler and Ford. “The manufacturing headwinds that we have all been navigating in North America are well-understood—including assembly over-capacity, shifting market demand, trade patterns and economic competitiveness”.

Workers at FCA's Brampton plant

When asked by reporters if workers will be willing to strike, Moffat said, “you got that figured out”. Of course, the strong willingness of Oshawa workers to strike is in inverse proportion to the record of the union bureaucracy when faced with previous plant closures. Unifor did not lift a finger when 1,000 jobs were transferred out of Oshawa last year and shifted to a Lansing, Michigan facility.

Unifor’s refusal to fight those Oshawa job cuts should come as no surprise to the thousands of members who have lost their jobs as a result of plant closures and downsizing. In a watershed dispute in 2012, the CAW blocked strike action against the closure of the Caterpillar plant in London, Ontario, and urged workers there to accept severance packages.

In 2010, the last GM plant closed in Windsor, Ontario. When the announcement of the closure was made in 2008, then-union head Buzz Hargrove blustered about strike action to an angry membership whilst quietly moving into discussions with the company for an “orderly shutdown”. Workers were quickly demobilized and the plant closed without incident.

When auto parts plants throughout southern Ontario were closed in the wake of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, CAW officials played an active role in disbanding several plant occupations launched by militant workers. Indeed, it was Jerry Dias that was dispatched to spearhead the suppression of those struggles.

GM workers in Oshawa will remember the antics of the CAW leadership in 2008 at the soon to be moth-balled truck plant. As workers marched through the city seething with outrage, CAW President Buzz Hargrove counselled against action on the shop floor, instead diverting the anger of the membership into a short-lived photo-op “blockade” of GM headquarters.

Union officials continue to lobby the Ontario and federal governments to provide grants to the auto companies. Earlier this month, the Ontario Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne handed over $85 million (CDN) to Fiat-Chrysler for its booming mini-van operation in Windsor (despite the company welching on paying back $1.5 billion in 2009 bailout relief).

In 2009, the Ontario and federal governments ponied up $13.9 billion in bailout funds to boost the stock values of the Detroit Three. Although shareholders over the ensuing years have reaped rich dividends, an Ontario Auditor-Generals report in 2014 noted that “it was impossible for us to gain a complete picture of the assistance provided, the difference the assistance made to the viability of the companies, and the amounts recovered and lost.”

Autoworkers can place no faith in Unifor to save jobs, let alone defend ever-diminishing wages, benefits and working conditions. A fight to defend jobs and living standards requires the formation of rank-and-file factory committees to unite autoworkers, not only across auto plants in Canada, but also in the US, Mexico and internationally in a common struggle against the corporations and the unions, which function as junior partners of the auto bosses. We encourage readers of the World Socialist Web Site and the Autoworker Newsletter in the plants to step up their efforts to build resistance and to share information and their comments with us for dissemination among autoworkers throughout North America.

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