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 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 Canadian Auto Workers (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."
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
In this dispute, strategy is an especially big issue. One factor in the discussions of strategy 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 of a 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 bill passed the Republican-majority House of Representatives 54-44 on Wednesday and is expected to easily pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels.
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."
John Whitty (left) worked at the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant for 33 years. His son Chris (right), who is a maintenance electrician at EMD 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
Sarah Smith, who has worked at EMD for the past six years, also points to the reported difficulties that Progress Rail is having with its 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.
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
This lockout is raising some larger questions; issues like whether the railway sector in Canada should be owned by the government and employ Canadian workers. Herman Rosenfeld, a retired autoworker 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. They could join the fight. The La Grange plant manufactures parts used in assembly at the London and Muncie plants, making La Grange 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 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."
Mick Sweetman is rabble.ca's news intern.
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