Three reasons 120 striking Toronto workers are making global waves

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Image: United Steelworker

They may be small in number, but 120 striking Toronto workers are making global waves in the labour movement.

On September 6, 2013, the workers at a Crown Holdings canning plant in Weston, a north Toronto neighbourhood, went on strike. They have remained on the line for eight months, picketing through one of the harshest winters in memory and almost unanimously rejecting proposed collective agreements because they refused to be "starved out" in order to meet the demands of management.

Why is this strike significant? It's not the length of time that the workers have been off the job that is important. It's that this labour dispute goes to the root of the issues facing the labour movement today.

Here are three reasons why the Toronto workers are making global waves in the labour movement:

1. It's as much about youth unemployment as the fight against unpaid internships is

The labour dispute at the Toronto plant arose because Crown Holdings was trying enforce a 42 per cent wage cut for new hires, who would be paid $9 an hour. This request for low wages is coming from a company whose profits were over $200 million last year at a plant where the workers have won awards for the quality of their work.

Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Sid Ryan wrote recently in the Huffington Post that this only reinforces the idea that young people should have to work for less. "Two-tier agreements like the one Crown Holdings is pushing at the bargaining table are fundamentally unfair, undermining the right to equal pay and benefits for equal work and creating divisions in the workplace," he wrote.

While much of the discussion of labour youth underemployment has centred on the proliferation of internships, protecting manufacturing jobs play just as much of a role in helping young people find work.

In Toronto -- where just last September the youth unemployment rate was a high 18.1 per cent -- the opportunities manufacturing can provide for fair employment are fewer and farther between. That the workers at Crown have been on the picket line for eight months speaks to how important it is to protect those jobs that remain.

2. The labour dispute has led to international boycotts

While the connection between a canning company and luxury cruises may not be readily apparent, it is an important one. Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Arnold Donald sits on the Crown Holdings board of directors. Also, Carnival Cruise Lines sells many of the goods that the Toronto plant makes, which includes Cott Beverages and Molson Coors Products, on their trips.

United Steel Workers (USW), the union representing the workers, has been quick to make the connection between Crown Holdings and Carnival. In the fall they sent workers to distribute flyers on a three day cruise, and have also staged protests at Carnival ports in Florida as a way of alerting the public about what's happening in Toronto and putting pressure on Donald.

But now their campaign has kicked up another notch with the OFL joining USW in calling for a boycott of Carnival until the Crown Holdings dispute is resolved. A boycott of this scale -- called when Canadians were trying to escape one of the coldest winters on record -- takes guts and shows the lengths the union is willing to go for the Toronto workers.

3. The issues at Crown Holdings extends beyond the strike in Toronto

Crown Holdings is a massive multi-national corporation with plants around the world. The labour dispute in Toronto is not the only one that the company is embroiled in.

Four workers who organized a year-long union drive at a plant in Turkey were fired by the local Crown Holdings plant, according to Turkish union Birleşik Metal-İş.

As a result of both the disputes in Toronto and Turkey, the global labour movement has begun to set their sights on Crown Holdings. At a recent meeting, organized by IndustriALL, seven international unions, including USW, set out the steps for a global campaign against Crown Holdings. The unions, along with global union federations UNI Global Union and IUF, represent many Crown Holdings workers internationally.

"Our effort to not only link together various unions at Crown but also incorporate supply chain unions is meant to provide a more equal balance of power in dealing with the enormous power of this multinational corporation," said Jyrki Raina, General Secretary of IndustriALL, in a written statement.

In an interview with rabble in September, USW Canadian National Director Ken Neumann noted that his union has to act globally much like the corporations they go up against.

"We take on companies where we think they've dealt unjustly with us," he explained. "Because we have ability [to do so] we've fashioned our organization to take on some of these global giants that are currently some of the people that we face across the table."

Crown has become the campaign that most exemplifies this effort. It's not just about the 120 workers in Toronto -- it's about protecting everything that labour stands for around the world.

Image: United Steelworker

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