Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Caterpillar Won Because Nobody Fought Hard Enough

It doesn't have to be this way. We built this country, this economy and this world. We don't have to mourn the loss of more jobs, this time sent to a union-busting "right to work" state, Indiana, for half the wages. It isn't inevitable that our wages, pensions, benefits - or social programs for that matter - are cut. Caterpillar didn't have to happen. It was a choice.

First and foremost it was a choice by Caterpillar. Let's be plain and honest here: Caterpillar bought the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant for one purpose only: to asset strip it. In this case, the most valuable assets were the intellectual property (IP) owned by EMD. IP is big news and big business these days. Apple is suing the makers of Android phones and the makers of Android phones are suing Apple in pretty much every jurisdiction on the planet. Why? IP. Google paid a whopping $12.5 billion to buy Motorola, a failing phone company, last year. Why? To get access to its IP so it wouldn't get sued, most likely by Apple.

Does anyone really believe that Caterpillar wanted anything other than that? Would a company that really wanted to keep a business rolling go into bargaining - only a year after purchasing the company – demanding a 50% wage cut, plus major concessions on pensions and benefits, refuse to budge on those outrageous demands, then lock-out the workers and, finally, shut the plant down permanently just five weeks later? They had the chutzpah to hold a 'job fair' in Indiana the same weekend that they shut down the plant, 36 hours after the governor of Indiana passed so-called "right-to-work" legislation making it harder to unionize in that state. I'm not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch but sometimes people plan to do evil long before they do it - and this was one of those times.

And it's not like it's the only time they have planned and executed evil. Caterpillar – one of the most profitable companies in the USA – brought in $4.9 billion in profit last year on sales of $60.1 billion. That was an 83 percent increase in profits from the year before. How did they make these bales of cash? I'll give you one hint:

On January 27, 2009, Caterpillar laid off 20,000 employees, which is some kind of record. The ostensible reason was to gird for the global recession. But in the short time since, Cat’s revenues have doubled, profits have quadrupled and its stock price has soared by 270 per cent. The recession has provided cover for countless firms squeezing more revenue from fewer and lower-paid workers.

Nor does Caterpillar's despicable behaviour end there. Back in 1991 they shut down a Brampton plant rather than pay decent union wages. A couple of years later they went after workers in Decatur, Illinois squeezing deep concessions after a lengthy battle. Nor is it only in the area of union busting that Caterpillar displays its nastiness. This is, after all, a company that has made huge profits selling bulldozers to the state of Israel that are used to destroy Palestinian houses.

[Caterpillar] supply equipment, like the D9 armoured bulldozer, which is used by the Israeli army to destroy Palestinian homes. The corporation refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the thousands of homes demolished in the West Bank and Gaza using Caterpillar equipment. The price of opposing bullies can be high: in March 2003, U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier, as she attempted to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian family's home.
There can be no doubt that Caterpillar are terrible. But they have been aided and abetted by government at every turn and every level. This too was a choice. They could have fought for these jobs, demanded that Caterpillar not shut the plant down or seized their assets. They didn't and they won't. The Tories base in the resource rich west, which has benefited from the Chinese boom with rapid economic expansion. And the Tories love union busting, free market greed above all else. Insofar as they fight for anything beyond their own enrichment (or free helicopter flights in the case of Peter McKay) it is this.

It will hopefully come back to haunt Stephen Harper that only four years ago, in March 2008, he made a tour of the EMD plant to demonstrate how Tory tax cuts - in this case amounting to a $5 million windfall for Caterpillar – were creating jobs. But if there is a cost it won't be in lost sleep and don't expect any mea culpas from the Tories. Their response was to make the politically correct statement about feeling the pain of all those workers - and then blaming the provincial Liberals. The Liberals blamed the Tories. Whew. Now that we know neither of them are to blame. Nor should anyone be under any illusion that an NDP government would be much different. After all, the plant closure in 1991 in Brampton came under the tenure of the Ontario NDP at the height of its popularity. What did they do? Nada.

Knowing that there will be no help from any of the political parties will be important for workers in the present climate of public and private sector austerity that has seen big battles in recent times. There was last year's battle at Stelco against U.S. Steel and the recent lockout of Rio Tinto Alcan workers in Quebec. Workers at Stelco fought a rearguard battle in Hamilton last year to defend pensions - and will face 200 layoffs in April. The Tories last year forced the postal workers back to work with a worse contract than the one they struck against, then moved to legislate back Air Canada flight attendants, calling their jobs an essential service. This comes on top of big concessions squeezed from auto workers after the 2008 economic meltdown that drove Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy protection. Everywhere, employers are using the crisis - caused by employers - to make workers pay. And governments everywhere are helping them.

My guess is that everyone who is reading this will agree with everything I've said thus far. In fact, my guess is that I'm preaching to the converted. What is more controversial is what can be done. Because even though corporations and government are in synch when it comes to ruining our lives it still isn't inevitable.

In this battle workers only have unions to defend them. But the trouble is, the unions aren't doing very much at all. Certainly, some union locals are waging brave battles - the workers at Stelco braved picket lines for months. But lost have been the traditions that built the industrial unions in the first place - militant tactics, including sit-ins and picket lines that did more than hand out information to those that crossed them. The sort of passivity and reliance on polite bargaining in hotel rooms that has typified the union movement on this continent for so long worked (sometimes) in the 1950s and 1960s when the post-war boom kept the economy expanding and able to provide wage raises and benefits to workers. For a while we were shielded in Canada by our low dollar which made up for higher wages and better work conditions. But the dollar rose and China came on the scene, eliminating those competitive advantages. Suddenly our belief that Canadian unions were more progressive or more militant - which was the justification for the CAW's split from the UAW back in the 1980s - was shown to be a delusion. 

The salad days are gone and, sad to say, somebody forgot to tell the union leadership. Or rather, what they told them was that you can't win and the best that you can do is negotiate how clean is the straight razor that they use to slit your throat. It means that all the fights are given up before they're even begun. That's why the big solidarity rally on January 21 at EMD was moved 5 miles away from the picket line. If you can't win - why get everyone all riled up at the plant gate? What's more important is to appear respectable so that the employer will come back to the table and not give them the excuse to refuse to bargain. And, from the point of view of CAW President Ken Lewenza, the problem is not that EMD shut the plant and laid off the workers - it's that they didn't negotiate the closure with the union.

[Lewenza] said that during bargaining in December, he told the company’s negotiators: “If it’s in your business plan to close us, don’t punish us, let’s work out a closure agreement. They said: ‘We have no intention of closing the facility.’ ”
CAW once prided itself on being, unlike the UAW, the union that doesn't negotiate concessions. Not only did they accept concessions during the 2008 crisis, now here he is saying that they were ready, without a fight to accept the closure of a profitable plant. What this reveals more than anything is that workers have a twofold battle. Not only must they fight the employer, more often than not they must also fight their union leadership who are interested in negotiating "in good faith" not in kicking greedy boss ass. 

But the lesson that ought to be clear by now is that the bosses will keep on taking and taking and taking until they've squeezed every drop of blood from working people. The only thing that they are interested in is profits and until workers start to hit them in their profits - and hard - they will ignore all the niceties: the conciliation reports, the negotiating meetings, the grievances, even the rallies by thousands of supporters that are held miles from the site of the conflict. In Egypt they didn't negotiate the end of the dictatorship - they fought for it. And workers in Egypt's privatized industries haven't won the re-nationalization of their companies by mediated settlement - they went on strike and then won in court...and have had to strike to get the court decisions implemented. In China auto workers won big raises in recent years, not by waiting for employers to grant it to them but by staging a series of wildcat strikes in conditions where independent unions are illegal along with strikes. The lesson we ought to draw from Caterpillar and EMD is this: unless we fight like our lives depended upon it, they will take our lives away from us. That doesn't mean our side will win all the time but at least we'll know that if we lost we gave them everything we had.

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