On Tuesday, March 17th, a group of workers in the industrial town of Windsor, Ontario, occupied the Aradco auto parts plant. The 80 workers at the plant, along with workers from the neighbouring Aramco plant were told on March 9th that they should not report for work. This occupation marks the re-awakening of the occupied factories movement in Canada and is an important turning point in the ongoing crisis of the North American auto industry.
Aradco and Aramco produce motor mounts and other metal parts almost exclusively for Chrysler. The news that Chrysler planned to terminate its contract with Catalina Precision Products, the parent company of Aradco and Aramco, led to the closure of the factories. The workers by law are owed back pay, vacation pay, termination and severance pay totalling an estimated $1.7 million. In a criminal move, the workers were offered a paltry $205,000. The workers, represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union rejected this offer by 64%.
Chrysler, in the wake of the plant closures, applied for and received a court injunction which allowed it to remove parts and equipment from the plant. On Tuesday, March 17th, about a week after the workers were first told not to report for work, Chrysler made its attempt to seize its property. However, the workers were not having any of it. As a truck showed up at the gates on Tuesday about 30 workers, whose lines had swelled to around 100 with the arrival of support from the Chrysler assembly plant, formed a blockade preventing the truck and Chryslers security vehicles from entering.
A few hours after blocking the attempt of Chrysler to remove parts and equipment the workers took the initiative and fought back. In a bold move they entered the closed plant and welded the doors shut. While a section of workers remained to maintain the lines around the plant, a detachment entered the plant to begin the occupation. Before Chrysler would be allowed to seize its property, the workers moved to seize theirs. Shortly before 6:00 pm a group of half a dozen workers appeared on the roof of the factory, and planted the CAW local 195 flag on the roof, announcing that the workers had taken control of the factory.
The events around the plant closure, and the attempt of the company to take the monies it owes to the workers, left the workers with very little in the way of options. "They're stealing our money," said one 17 year veteran of the plant, “I'm ready to retire; luckily I don't have small children. But, for many of my brothers here, this job is all they have. This is like a little funeral.” Ali Hammoud, an 18-year employee, said "I've got three little ones at home. We need our money, so we can move on with our lives. That's what we're telling Chrysler now if they need their parts and tools they must put pressure on Catalina so we can get our money."
The workers struggle went beyond the demand for payment of the money owed to them. The workers began to demand legislative changes to enhance unemployment benefits and rules that would guarantee that workers receive their severance money before the banks and other creditors in the event of company bankruptcies. "They feel as though the law isn’t working for them," said Mr. Farnham, the President of the local, "They are prepared to fight that fight for all workers, union and non union."
At a rally of over 500 on the afternoon of March 18th, Ken Lewenza, National President of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), announced that a deal had been reached with the bosses. “We just struck an agreement not less than two or three minutes ago that we have in writing that provides some support, not all the support, for the membership,” said Mr. Lewenza. Details of the deal will be released at 11am, March 19th to go to a vote of the workers. In the meantime the occupation has been ended. If the occupation had continued, Chrysler production would have ground to a halt at a number of plants in Canada and the United States.
For a brief period the
workers at Aradco in Windsor took matters into their own hands, and
showed that the traditions of militant struggle in North America are
not lost. Although the demands were initially over severance and back
pay owed by the company, which it illegally refused to pay, quickly
they became about more than that. They stood for all workers, not
It remains to be seen what kind of deal Lewenza was able to negotiate. It won’t be the first time that the current leadership of the CAW has signed deals that do not meet the needs of workers. Maybe the workers should have maintained their occupation until they had a chance to read the small print. Gerry Farnham, president of CAW Local 195, also commented that, “It’s bittersweet because our members are still out of work.” Even if the workers get their settlement, they are still out of a job during the start of the largest recession since the 1930s. The workers need a strategy to not just get what is owed them, but to save their jobs and livelihoods.
Whatever the result of this struggle, it has showed that militant tactics work and can beat back the bosses. This struggle got significant media coverage and millions of workers who will find themselves in the same position are listening. Eventually, workers will not just demand their back pay; they will demand that their jobs be saved. Chrysler is threatening to shut down all of its Canadian operations and the entire industry is in crisis. These plants have the highest productivity in the world, and yet the capitalist system is destroying them. This system makes no sense for working class people.
The only solution to the loss of jobs, loss of livelihood and communities, and the crippling economic crisis which the bosses are demanding that workers pay for, is the end of the capitalist system. The workers are learning that factory occupations are the only tactic that works against factory closures. The next demand is to bring the factories and shops into production under workers control, and nationalize them to save jobs. That way we can end the crisis in manufacturing and re-tool production to meet the needs of the whole of society.
But along the way to the final goal every step forward, every small victory, must be celebrated. While the workers may only be struggling for severance, the logic of capitalism will not leave them alone. Each militant action is a revival of the memory of the working class, and its traditions. Out of the crisis of capitalism, workers are learning that the solution lies in their own hands and their own power.
As we feared, the deal negotiated by the CAW leadership only provided $400,000 for the workers, which is paid by Chrysler and not Catalina Precision Products. This is $1.3 million less than what the workers are actually owed. It appears that Lewenza and the CAW bureaucracy wanted to do everything possible to bring the occupation to an end before it spread or became a focal point for a larger struggle to save manufacturing jobs. Hopefully workers at the next occupied plant will know not to end their occupation unless a full vote of all the workers has been taken. (March 20, 2009)