"Whose economy? Our economy! Who decides? We decide!" This rally cry was just one of the dozens heard when 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Hamilton on Saturday, showing solidarity with 900 locked-out members of the United Steelworkers Local 1005. The workers were locked out on Nov. 7 for refusing to agree to pension cutbacks that would affect 9,000 pensioners.
Busloads of labour activists came from cities as far away as Montreal and Sudbury, some departing as early as 4:00 a.m., to join the fight against United States Steel, as well as Stephen Harper's government for failing to protect workers from what many called corporate greed.
United States Steel seized ownership of Stelco Inc. in Nov. 2007, agreeing to maintain jobs and production for at least three years. Instead, the company has halted production at the Hamilton plant twice since gaining control.
The rally began at Hamilton's City Hall, where speakers, including federal NDP leader Jack Layton and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, addressed the cold but upbeat crowd.
Newly elected Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina urged U.S. Steel to get back to the bargaining table and re-open the main gates on Wilcox Street, allowing workers to return to their jobs.
"I call on United States Steel to get rid of their paramilitary security on Wilcox Street. Get rid of the spotlights! Get rid of the barbed wire and the cameras," he said to the cheering crowd. "This is not Guantanamo Bay. This is Hamilton, Ontario!"
The crowd descended upon Main Street, union signs and banners in hand, urging bystanders to join the march, as they walked to songs like "I Won't Back Down" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." At least one mounted police officer gave demonstrators a thumbs-up sign as they flooded by him.
When asked why they were there, many demonstrators had similar answers: My grandfather was a steelworker. My father was a steelworker. I am a steelworker.
"My father and grandfather would be rolling over in their graves if they saw what this U.S company is doing to this proud tradition in Hamilton," said Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MPP Paul Miller, himself a retiree of USW Local 1005. "We're not going to stand by. We're not going to take it. We're going to fight them all the way to Parliament Hill," he continued.
USW Local 1005 is already planning its next step, taking the fight to Parliament Hill to let the federal government know that workers' rights in Hamilton and across the country are worth fighting for. The rally is expected to take place on May 1, 2011.
"Voices of workers need to be heard from the shop floor to the floor of the House of Commons," said Hamilton Mountain MP Chris Charlton.
Saturday's rally far exceeded organizers' modest estimates of 5000 demonstrators. Despite some mainstream media's failure to cover the event, most notably The Toronto Star, many in the crowd seemed optimistic that their voices would be heard.
"What we need is Stephen Harper to support the NDP laws that are designed to protect peoples' pensions because they belong to you," said Layton during his turn at the podium. "Let's stop the theft. Let's get back on track with jobs," he said.
Until then, Hamilton's age-old nickname, Steel Town, will continue to seem like a misnomer.
Jessica Rose is an editorial assistant at rabble.ca. She is a regular contributor to rabble's book lounge. She is also a very proud Hamiltonian.
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