Labour And Globalization: As Conflicts Go International, Unions Follow Suit
On any battleground, common wisdom has long held that
defeating an adversary often owes a great deal to one's
ability to think like the enemy.
So it comes as little surprise that as transnational
corporations use their global reach to cut costs -- and
workers' pay -- the labour movement has begun to take a
similar tack. From picket lines to backroom
discussions, big labour is banding together across
sectoral, national and international borders in an
attempt to capitalize on the very forces that for years
have been employed against them.
As Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of
Labour, explains, "There's only one way we can fight
globalization, and that's to reach out to unions around
It's a strategy that's being implemented on many fronts
in an effort union leaders describe as labour's best --
and only -- chance for survival.
This week in Washington, D.C., Public Services
International, an umbrella organization representing 20
million workers from nearly 150 countries, is holding a
meeting of North American public sector unions -- which
Canadian Union of Public Employees national president
Paul Moist says is the first of its kind in more than
In addition to increasingly hostile bargaining tables
and mounting attacks on pensions, Moist says discussion
has underscored the need for greater cooperation.
"I don't think we have the luxury anymore in our own
borders to focus on our own issues. Globally, we can't
afford not to be talking to each other," he told The
Huffington Post on Wednesday. "The trade union movement
must move beyond the borders of supporting one another
and supporting communities and non-unionized workers as
"I believe we'll thrive -- or not -- based on our
ability to do those things."
CAW national president Ken Lewenza echoed this
sentiment at a rally on Saturday in London, Ont., which
drew thousands in support of 420 locked out
Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) workers.
"This will be a wake up call for the international
communities, for the international labour movement to
act like these global companies. If they're going to
exploit workers from one country to another, we arm our
forces and we just refuse to do work that's going to be
moved to the lowest bidder," he told media. "If the
international labour community can't come together in
one voice and one fight-back campaign, then the only
question is when are we going to lose the identity of
the trade union."
The CAW is now in talks with the Communications, Energy
and Paperworkers Union (CEP) to create a new labour
organization -- which, according to a report obtained
by the Toronto Star, is part of a strategy to "reverse
the erosion of our membership, our power and our
With pressure mounting to cut government spending and
boost corporate profits, Moist says the bonds between
public and private sector unions have never been
This cooperation was evident at the rally in London,
when the leaders of virtually every major Canadian
labour organization took to the stage.
During his speech, Moist pledged $15,000 on behalf of
CUPE to support the affected CAW workers and their
families -- an amount he expects to grow if the lockout
"We need to not just visibly support, we need to
financially support all strikes," he said on Wednesday.
"CUPE is predominantly a public sector union, but ... we
need to support all workers who are kind of on the
receiving end of a corporate blow, and that's my take
on what's going on in London."
Despite raking in record profits in 2011,
Illinois-based heavy machinery manufacturing giant
Caterpillar, which owns EMD through its subsidiary
Progress Rail, locked out CAW workers at its London
plant on January 1 when the union refused to accept a
deal that would slash wages from $35 to 16.50.
Some observers have suggested that Caterpillar -- which
has declined multiple requests for comment from
HuffPost -- is planning to shift operations to a new
facility in Muncie, Ind., where workers earn less than
what the company wants to pay its employees in London.
All of which explains why a delegation from United
Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)
-- the union that represents workers in Erie, Penn.,
who build locomotives for General Electric, EMD's main
competitor -- made the trek to London on Saturday.
When it comes to "fighting these multinationals," Gene
Elk, a UE official involved in bargaining with General
Electric, says widespread cooperation among unions is a
Though UE recently negotiated a three-year contract for
workers at the Erie plant, Elk says there is a sense
that "GE is following lock-step the pattern set by
Last year, GE announced it is building two new plants
in Fort Worth, Texas, where Elk suspects wages will be
within the $15 to $18 range -- about half of what
workers make at the Erie plant.
"We don't think it's an accident that GE is setting up
a low wage shop in Fort Worth, just like [Caterpillar]
is setting up a low-wage shop in Muncie," he says.
"They're both doing the same thing."
Both Texas and Indiana are so-called "right-to-work"
states, where legislation has made it more difficult
for unions to organize.
GE Transportation spokesman Stephan Koller did not
address questions about the Fort Worth facility, but
maintained that the recent negotiations in Erie "ended
in a package that offers good wages and good benefits
to our employees."
"GE did not lock out any of its employees and did not
request any wage reductions," he said.
According to Elaine Bernard, executive director of the
Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, the
solidarity between the CAW and UE represents a
deepening understanding within the labour movement of
how dramatically globalization has shifted the playing
"In the old days, you would have said, 'Well, gee if
these Canadian workers' plant closes, that's good;
That's more work for us.' They're not seeing it that
way," she says. "They're realizing that if these
workers who have fought for and won reasonable working
conditions have their working conditions cut in half,
that's not going to benefit anyone in the U.S."
She describes the recent, tangible examples of growing
coordination between disparate unions as the tip of an
iceberg that is only beginning to emerge.
"You're seeing the one-ninth," she says, "but trust me,
there's eight-ninths below."
Precisely what this enhanced cooperation will bring --
and how soon -- however, remains to be seen.
In the case of disputes with multinationals like
Caterpillar, Ryerson University labour expert Maurice
Mazzerolle says power will elude workers until they can
mount a campaign that affects the company's bottom line
-- "because at the end of the day, that's what they'll
"I think it would take a meaningful or dialogue or
gesture or something from a significant purchaser or
their equipment or a government," he says. "It just
can't be [about] their reputation."
Local 506 Goes to Canada to Rally With Locked-Out Locomotive Workers
23 January, 2012
The members of UE Local 506 build locomotives at the
General Electric plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, on the
shores of Lake Erie. When the local learned recently
that, on the northern side of that same lake, fellow
locomotive builders were under attack by a greedy
multinational corporation, they knew that this was a
fight that directly concerned them.
So on Jan. 21, Local 506 sent a delegation to London,
Ontario to a rally in support of the 465 members of
Local 27 of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), who were
locked out of their jobs on New Year's Day by
Caterpillar Inc. Caterpillar bought the London
locomotive plant and the rest of Electro-Motive Diesel
(EMD) just 17 months ago, and is now trying to impose
massive cuts in wages and benefits. Caterpillar's
attack, if it succeeds, is likely to put downward
pressure on wages and labor conditions throughout the
The Ontario labor movement mobilized for this rally,
which brought 15,000 people - many travelling by bus
from the far corners of the province - to a park in
Downtown London on a cold but sunny Saturday morning.
The CAW greeted the UE delegation like VIPs,
recognizing the importance, in a battle like this, of
solidarity among workers in the same industry. CAW
members hung the Local 506 banner behind the stage,
next to their own banner, as a backdrop for the
speakers. Local 27 President Tim Carrie, who chaired
the rally, called on Local 506 President Roger Zaczyk
to kick off the rally as the first speaker. Zaczyk
brought the greetings and solidarity of his members,
and said that one of the signs carried by many in the
crowd expressed what we are all united to fight for -
"Good Jobs for All."
The range of speakers who followed Zaczyk to the
microphone showed the breadth of support for the
lock-out workers, both in the London community and
across the Ontario and Canadian labor movement.
Speakers included the presidents of both the Canadian
Labor Congress and the Ontario Federation of Labor; the
leader of the New Democratic Party, Canada's labor
party, in the federal Parliament; the president of the
Canadian Union of Public Employees, the country's
largest public-sector union; a daughter of a locked-out
EMD worker; the president of the graduate employee
union at the University of Western Ontario; the
director of the London Abused Women's Center, an
activist from Occupy London, and a nun who is a leading
social justice activist in London. Several speakers
noted how significant it is that the GE locomotive
workers are in solidarity with the EMD locomotive
workers - including London Mayor Joe Fontana, who took
issue with the company's claim that the EMD workers
perform "unskilled" work. "It's not easy building
locomotives. You're not making tweezers!" Fontana, like
several other speakers, also called out Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper (of the Conservative Party),
who gave Caterpillar tax breaks but refuses to
intervene to help end the lockout. The mayor told the
prime minister, "Get your ass down here!" Local 27's
EMD Shop Chair Bob Scott told Caterpillar, "You want a
fight? You got a fight. You pissed off the wrong
The rally concluded with a barnburner of a speech by
Ken Lewenza, national president of the CAW. Lewenza
denounced the attacks on public employees, which are
occurring in Canada as well as the U.S., and blasted
the Harper government for presiding over the loss of
450,000 manufacturing jobs across Canada.
Besides Zaczyk, the UE delegation included Local 506
Treasurer Steve Hyzer and Executive Board Member Mike
Ferritto, as well as UE-GE Conference Board Secretary
Gene Elk and UE NEWS Managing Editor Al Hart. Following
the downtown rally, the UE members and other rally
participants headed for the EMD plant, where they
joined workers on the picket line.
Despite making billion dollar profits and benefiting
from a 20 percent increase in productivity, Caterpillar
wants to cuts EMD workers' wages by as much as $18.50
an hour. The company's take-it-or-leave-it proposal
also eliminates the defined benefit pension, retiree
benefits, survivor benefits, COLA, four holidays and
many other benefits. The company would also drastically
reduced vacation, overtime pay, prescription, dental,
vision and other benefits. At the same time it is
demanding outrageous contract concessions from its
London employees, Caterpillar is threatening to move
their work to a low-wage plant in Muncie, Indiana.
(See more photos from the London rally on UE's Facebook
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