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Unions vs austerity

Carolyn Egan

May 16, 2013

A thousand steelworkers at US Steel Lake Erie Works in Ontario have been locked out once again by their employer. This is the second time this has happened since the multinational purchased Stelco in 2007. USW local 1005 in Hamilton also fought an eleven-month lockout against the same company that ended in 2011. It’s another example of the ruthlessness of corporations, which are interested only in the bottom line.
The company is demanding a concessions contract and the members rejected the final offer by 70 per cent, with 92 per cent of the membership coming out for the vote. They are digging in for a long battle. The company wants to cut the maximum vacation to five weeks (those presently entitled to more can retain them), co-payments on benefits and a restructuring of cost of living increases. The membership of USW local 8782 was prepared to accept a stand-pat agreement.
We are seeing an ongoing assault on workers’ living standards as employers try to create a low wage economy in this country. The recent scandal around the temporary foreign worker program showed how the Conservative government in Ottawa is trying to whip up racism and divide workers one from the other and in the end drive down the wages of all of us.
The Chinese Canadian National Council is working with the United Steelworkers and First Nations, calling on the Harper government to scrap the program and replace it with something that would give any temporary foreign worker full rights of employment. They are working together and fighting for migrant workers’ rights, including the right to unionize and full rights to Canadian citizenship.
Although there has not been a mass fightback in this country—something union leaders seem unwilling to initiate—we recently saw the 50,000-strong demonstration in Montreal against the cuts to employment insurance. Local actions throughout Quebec and New Brunswick over the past months sparked the call for the mass rally in Montreal. This has now brought Ontario unions and community organizations into the fight as well.
Though there may be mixed feelings about prison guards, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has seen mass walkouts of guards who are continuing to defy a ruling that declared their job action illegal. Two members were suspended for raising health and safety concerns and this precipitated wildcat strikes across the province. Other unions are providing solidarity and the government is seeking an injunction.
On the Day of Mourning, which commemorates workers who have been killed, injured or suffered illness due to workplace-related hazards and incidents, there was outrage about the horrific toll of injury and death in the Bangladesh tragedy. The secretary treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour spoke how this could be the start of a revolution. In Canada there are over 1,000 deaths from workplace injuries and diseases each year. In Saskatchewan the number of workplace deaths has doubled in the last year.
In Ontario the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party is calling for legislation which would create “open shops” to allow members to opt out of paying union dues and allow employers to refuse to collect them through payroll deduction. This would allow for “free riders” and severely weaken the ability of a union to defend its members’ rights in the workplace.
Unions are the strongest organizations standing against the ruling class attempt to impose a devastating “austerity agenda” on the working class and the poor. They have become the target of governments and corporations and the attacks have been hard.
Unfortunately many members have become alienated from their unions because of a lack of action on their behalf and this has to change. The membership has to push hard on the leadership to stand up against these attacks and as more actions take place more activists will take up the call and stand together with their sisters and brothers against these assaults on our jobs and services.
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "solidarity against austerity: lessons from the front lines", "Occupy! a brief history of workplace occupations", "Teaching them a lesson: the struggle for public education", and "Austerity and scapegoating: resisting the Conservatives' attacks on refugees and migrant workers."

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