Anxious to thwart cross-border struggle

CAW rams through concessions at Ford Canada

By Keith Jones
3 November 2009

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) agreed to make massive contract concessions to Ford last Friday afternoon, then convened ratification meetings on Saturday and Sunday at which workers were told that the auto maker was threatening to pull out of Canada.

“Make no mistake,” said a brochure distributed by the CAW leadership, “Ford’s top executives were ready to start pulling out of Canada if we did not reach this agreement. … Moreover, they wouldn’t wait until 2011 to start the process.”

In the face of this blackmail, Ford Canada workers voted 83 percent in favor of reopening the concessionary contract that the CAW had negotiated with Ford just 18 months ago and to accept further concessions totaling at least $19 per hour per worker.

The CAW did not say how many of Ford’s 7,000 production, skilled trades, and office workers in Canada participated in the ratification vote.

The CAW had repeatedly declared its readiness to grant Ford concessions patterned after those it made to Chrysler and General Motors last spring. Nevertheless the timing of the concession deal and the haste with which the CAW rammed it through—workers at Ford’s two Windsor-area plants began voting on the agreement a scant 24 hours after the CAW and Ford had announced they had come to terms—clearly was in response to the burgeoning opposition to the concessionary contract the UAW had negotiated with Ford in the US.

Although the UAW only officially conceded on Monday that its deal with Ford had been overwhelmingly rejected by the rank-and-file, by the end of last week it was clear the agreement was going down to defeat.

Fearing the impact that the resistance of US Ford workers would have on workers in Canada, the CAW leadership hastened to conclude the terms of its latest surrender with the Detroit-based auto maker.

The “no” vote in the US would, the CAW recognized, encourage Ford workers in Canada to rebel against the CAW’s attempts to impose further concessions. And the rejection of sellout contracts by workers on both sides of the border would immediately raise the prospect of a common struggle by North American Ford workers against all wage- and benefit-cuts, layoffs and plant closures.

Such a joint struggle would constitute a mortal threat to the CAW bureaucracy. It has based its entire strategy on providing the Detroit Three with lower labor costs than those at their US plants, what CAW President Ken Lewenza has touted as the “Canadian advantage.”

Over the past year, as the auto makers and big business politicians in Canada and the US have come together to demand that auto workers pay for the capitalist crisis through massive job cuts and the surrendering of rights won in decades of struggle, Lewenza and the CAW have portrayed US auto workers, not the corporate bosses, as the “enemy.”

The CAW Ford brochure openly sought to pit Canadian workers against their US brothers and sisters, urging ratification on the grounds that “We must position ourselves to hang on to every job we possibly can in Canada.”

The CAW leadership also clearly saw the US Ford rejection vote as an opportunity to demonstrate to Ford that it is a more reliable “partner”—that is enforcer—of the company’s demands than the UAW.

The CAW-Ford agreement is an historic surrender.

It extends a wage and cost-of-living freeze (COLA) a further year to the summer of 2012, eliminates a week’s vacation per year and a $1700 annual bonus. A new health care premium has been imposed and numerous other benefits have been subjected to co-pays or eliminated outright. Break times have been reduced and changes made in work rules that will allow the company to cut jobs and increase production.

New hires will now take five years to reach wage parity, be forced to make a $1 per hour pension contribution, and receive reduced benefits in the event of layoff.

The CAW claims to have secured various investment and product placement guarantees, but the agreement gives the green light to the closure of Ford’s St. Thomas Assembly plant and the elimination of 1,500 jobs no later than the fall of 2011.

Traditionally, pattern-bargaining was a means of raising wages and benefits across the industry. Now, it is invoked by the CAW as an argument for draconian concessions. In justifying the CAW’s latest concessions to Ford—a company that never entered into bankruptcy or sought a government bailout—Lewenza argued that the Chrysler-GM “pattern” needed to be given Ford “out of fairness” and to bolster the company’s competitive position—that is its profitability and attractiveness to investors.

Supporters of the Socialist Equality Party distributed a statement to workers going into the Local 200 (Windsor area) ratification meeting. “Ford Canada workers,” it declared, “should reject the CAW-Ford agreement and join forces with their brothers and sisters in the US in a united struggle against all concessions and job cuts.

“Such a struggle will require an entirely new perspective based on the independent political and industrial mobilization of the working class.”

Workers entering the meeting expressed enthusiasm for the US rejection vote.

Scott said, “It’s a tough, tough situation. I’m not going to dispute that. I’ve watched the CAW lose power for over 25 years now. Now we have a law in Ontario where 48 hours is mandatory if the company chooses to post a scheduled shift on Saturday. We have thousands of people laid off and there are people working Saturday. How do you justify telling people who are laid off that their jobs are not necessary when other people are working overtime?”

On the question of the transformation of the companies into publicly owned utilities, Scott said, “I think that would be a great idea. Chrysler applied for a bailout, and on the same day there was an article about 50 executives getting $1.5 million bonuses. Where does it stop, I have no idea.”

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