The closure of the GM's Oshawa plant announced on Tuesday June 3rd is a slap in the face to auto workers everywhere. The ink is barely dry on the CAW's new contract for General Motors workers, a contract that contained many concessions that were supposed to keep this plant and others like it open. But General Motors has shown that they never had any intention of living up to their end of the bargain. They held plant closures over the heads of the bargaining committee to get concessions and when they finally got them, they announced they're closing the plants anyways. 2,600 jobs will be lost. GM and the other auto-giants have shown that they are incapable of running this industry without attacking workers. The government has given various interest-free loans and incentive packages to the companies to keep them operating, but they continue to lay off thousands of workers and close plants. Enough is enough! The auto industry should be immediately nationalized and placed under the control of the workers. We have already poured millions of public dollars into these companies; we don't owe them a dime.
For years the Canadian manufacturing industry and the auto industry in particular has been in a downward spiral. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared in Ontario and Quebec putting the labour movement into a panic. The Canadian Auto Workers have been hit particularly hard, loosing tens of thousands of members. Under such pressure, the leadership of the CAW has drifted hopelessly to the right. Buzz Hargrove, once seen as one of the most radical union leaders in the country has now been called one of the most accommodating.
The term panic bargaining has been popping up more and more. Hargrove sees that his back is against the wall and as far as he is concerned, his union is in survival mode. They've done everything they can to keep the plants open and have been widely criticized by labour activists for the lengths they've gone to. They've appealed to the government to change trade laws, even going so far as to give former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin a CAW jacket during an election campaign. This of course led to Buzz Hargrove's expulsion from the New Democratic Party and eventually to the CAW's disaffiliation from the party altogether.
The CAW took loss after loss, gave concession after concession in contract after contract all to try and keep the manufacturing base from shutting down. But it is becoming clear that this has all been in vain. The big corporations are using the slowdown in the manufacturing sector as a pretext to move factories out of the country. It doesn't matter how many concessions Hargrove gives up; the auto giants won't keep their plants open unless they can compete with sweatshops.
It is no surprise that the rank and file isn't prepared to take this lying down. To them, this is a life and death struggle. There is a growing trend in Ontario; when a company announces that they are shutting down operations, they also announce that they won't be honouring their severance agreements. The workers then move immediately to occupy their factory demanding proper severance pay. Generally this is followed by panic from both management and the labour bureaucracy and the company quickly backs down. This has been the scenario that has played out at factories in Scarborough, Hamilton, Mississauga and Kitchener. Each occupation is met with a wave of solidarity with workers in the area downing tools and rushing to the plant to show support. In Mississauga, the Masonite occupation nearly led to a city wide general strike.
These actions show that the rank and file have a very different idea of how to confront factory closures than their leaders. They are clearly prepared to fight to protect their jobs. They understand that the manufacturing base is the heart of the economy in Ontario and they are fighting not just to save their own jobs, but to save their whole communities.
With each occupation meeting success, the workers are remembering just what kind of power they have. The capitalists tremble at such a spectacle. They back down in mere hours. The working class, once organized and conscious of its power, is an unstoppable force. It is time to take the next logical step in the factory occupation movement; it is time not just to take a factory, but to hold it and the GM plant in Oshawa may just be the place to start.
The Union Betrayed
Buzz Hargrove and the rest of the CAW leadership were caught completely off-guard by the announcement of the plant closure in Oshawa. As far as the CAW President was concerned, he had just finished his last round of negotiations and was looking forward to sailing through a smooth year before retiring. But General Motors had other plans. The announcement from GM was swiftly met with an angry press conference by the CAW. Several auto workers' leaders lambasted GM for violating their collective agreement. The contract, signed less than three weeks ago, guaranteed production at the Oshawa plant until 2011 and promised new product lines after that. Several industry analysts called it the biggest slap in the face in the history of the CAW.
This is a decisive turning point for the Canadian Auto Workers. It seems even the leadership has realized they have no choice now but to stand up and fight. It's about time! Today, CAW activists blockaded GM headquarters in Oshawa. They're refusing to let managers in until they sit down and talk with union leaders. At the time of writing, the blockade is still up.
"We are going to fight this decision. This decision is unfair, it's unjust, it's unwarranted, it's illegal, it violates our collective agreement, and we're going to do everything in our power - and we have power." said Hargrove at Tuesday's press conference. He was then asked what the CAW was planning to do "watch us." he responded.
General Motors has chosen to violate their collective agreement. This contract contained hundreds of millions of dollars in "labour cost reductions" precisely in exchange for keeping these plants open. Even Buzz Hargrove said that there is no way their members would have ratified the deal if it didn't contain job security and new product lines. If the CAW leaders want to show they're serious about fighting these cuts they should declare this contract void and hit the picket lines. A total shut down of General Motors plants in Canada would send a powerful message.
More importantly, the CAW should drop their demands for trade restrictions and pick up the demand of nationalizing the auto industry. Every factory that is shut down should be occupied and production restarted under workers' control. This is the only way to defend these jobs. The auto giants have made billions and billions of dollars off of the backs of their employees; now they want to toss them to the scrap heap. Only by taking the entire industry into public ownership can we break the grip of the billionaires on society and guarantee a decent standard of living for the workers.
Save the Oshawa Plant!
Nationalize the Auto Industry!
June 4, 2008