Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fences up, security guards in place

The fences are up and the security guards are in place. The Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ontario shows every sign of hunkering down for an ugly strike or a nasty lock-out. EMD makes diesel-electric locomotives and has made them in London since 1950.

Until 2005, the plant was part of the Electro-Motive Diesel division of General Motors. It was then that GM sold the entire company to an equity investment group for $201 million. They actually did a good job running the operation and flipped the company to Progress Rail, a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc., for $810 million just last year.

Caterpillar has a well-earned reputation as a powerful, and successful, union buster. Progress Rail is essentially a non-union company. The unionized EMD workers have been asked to accept a cut of more than 50 percent in wages, slashed benefits and put their pensions on the table.

Many see this not as an offer but as a gauntlet being thrown at the feet of the skilled workforce. The workers have responded by giving the CAW a strike mandate with a 404 to nine vote held Friday.

The question is will the company demand that the workers, returning after Christmas break, accept a cut in pay of 50 percent? If this happens, a strike is sure to ensue. Or will the company simply lock out the staff?

Many of the affected are skilled workers. They can leave London for work in the oil-rich western provinces. The older workers, facing retirement in a few short years, will be left with concerns for their pensions. And the City of London, already reeling from the recent recession and the loss of jobs, will lose another 2000 jobs if the plant closes, if one counts the jobs in the community that are only there to support the plant.

With an unemployment rate hitting almost 10 percent, this Southwestern Ontario city cannot afford to have this plant sit empty. Will the city rally behind their friends and neighbours, the EMD workers, or will the workers stand alone while Caterpillar strips them of their income?

Some have written that Cat is also trying to strip the workers of their dignity. I don't know that I agree. But dignity has certainly been lost here, and it is Caterpillar's. Sad.

I've posted two stories on this to the Digital Journal. These can be found here and here. Click the links.

The local paper, The London Free Press, also has some excellent reports. The ones by Jonathan Sher are especially good.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper once used as the backdrop for a photo-op. The PM toured the plant and briefly chatted with some of the 900 employees then employed there. The number is now down to about 700.

Harper used his stop at EMD to make an announcement on his government's efforts to make Canadian manufacturers competitive in a global marketplace. The London Free Press reports Harper proclaimed, "Ontario is the heart, it is still the engine of the Canadian economy. There's no reason the Ontario economy can't be as strong as the economy in any other part of this country." To spur growth, a $1-billion tax break for Canadian industry was announced.

If the Electro-Motive story plays out as poorly as many believe, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be looking for a new photo-op back-drop in London. A deserted factory, devoid of workers, will not convey the right message --- but it would be an accurate one.

The Electro-Motive Diesel plant is down for the holidays. Will it re-open on schedule?


Lowell said...

What a sad post! I'm wishing for you a Happy New Year, but this is not a positive sign...

Rockinon said...

Thank you for the kind thoughts. I am not affected directly by the labor dispute at EMD but I am affected in the same way that we are all affected. What is going down at EMD has occurred time and time again around the country and the continent. Some have called it the race to the bottom. Some believe in trickle down economics, but I believe in simply keeping the money in circulation. Give the EMD workers a living wage and they can buy homes, and cars, they can employ professors by sending their kids off to college. I think 700 well paid EMD workers are better for the community than one American-owned company making out, forgive me, like a bandit.