People’s Voice, Dec 1 2010
By Liz Rowley
A busload of Hamilton’s locked out steelworkers went to Ottawa Nov. 15 to press Local 1005 USW’s demand that the federal court grant the union intervenor status in the case of the Attorney General vs US Steel.
They also met with Tory MP David Sweet, Chair of Parliament’s All‑Party Steel Caucus and of the Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, to insist that the government must prosecute US Steel for breaking the terms of its Investment Canada agreement to maintain production and employment levels at Hamilton’s Hilton Works, and for price fixing and manipulating the Canadian market place in 2009.
The Attorney General has finally moved against US Steel, which bought the former Steel Company of Canada in 2007. But not before US Steel had banked the last furnace, locked out its unionized workforce, and is now trying to turn out the lights in Hamilton.
US Steel Admits Price‑Fixing
Local 1005 wants intervenor status to put before the court the admissions of price fixing and manipulating the Canadian steel market by closing down two Hamilton steel mills in 2009. The admissions are contained in an Ernst & Young document that US Steel has submitted to the court in its own defence. US Steel contends that it did not break its commitments made under the Investment Canada Act. In the document, Ernst & Young argue that the company’s price rigging and manipulation of the Canadian market provide a “net benefit” to Canada.
But the union wants the court to focus on the admissions of price fixing and manipulating the market, which are criminal acts no matter who benefitted, and should be dealt with by the court as such.
In fact, while the two Hamilton mills were being closed and hundreds laid off, US Steel was opening two new mills in the US where labour ‑ including unionized labour ‑ is cheaper and municipal taxes are often waived for new capital investment. In fact the beneficiary was US Steel: what a surprise.
The Investment Canada Act
The sale of the former Stelco to US Steel was widely protested by those concerned with Canadian sovereignty and independence. The transaction marked the closure of the last Canadian owned steel company, decimating any hope of a Canadian industrial strategy, and leaving workers at the mercy of powerful transnational corporations and their global institutions and governments.
Labour in particular was concerned that US Steel would close the Hamilton operation and move production and jobs to the US ‑ a concern that grew with the economic meltdown.
The Harper government responded with the Investment Canada Act, which it said protected Canada’s interests and guaranteed jobs and production levels for at least three years. Thin on details, the signed agreement between US Steel and the government was never made public.
But US Steel began laying off steelworkers and cutting back production shortly after the deal was signed, citing the global economic crisis as justification for flouting their legal obligations. The Harper government refused to act, and kept the terms of the deal secret to prevent others from taking action. Meanwhile US Steel (like others in the steel and mining sectors) has been pressing its unionized workforce to make deep wage and benefit concessions, and most significantly, to give up their defined benefit (DB) pension plans.
Busting unions and pension plans
The Hilton Works in Hamilton, with 900 hourly employees still working, and 9,000 pensioners dependent on the DB pension plan, was the last Local union to come to the bargaining table. Local 1005′s efforts to achieve a joint bargaining strategy with the Lake Erie Works fell through last year, when early bargaining resulted in a two-tier pension plan for the unionized workers and new hires at Nanticoke. The new hires will get a defined contribution pension ‑ essentially a savings plan that is fully exposed to market conditions like the crash of 2008. Within 20 years the DB pension will be an artifact, and the well‑paid, indexed pension plans won over a century of struggle will be gone.
The key difference between the two Locals were the number of retirees ‑ not many in the relatively young Lake Erie Works, 9,000 in the century old Hilton Works. The company made the most of the difference.
During the same timeframe, the Brazilian-owned Vale bought out the International Nickel Company of Canada in Sudbury, and Xstrata bought out Falconbridge Noranda, also in Sudbury. The entire nickel basin, Canadian-owned and operated since mining began there, is now completely foreign owned and controlled.
There too, Harper pulled out the Investment Canada Act to justify the Inco sale. Vale, the second largest mining company in the world, pushed for massive concessions and an end to the defined benefit pension plan. The result was the longest mining strike in Sudbury history. Miners and smelter workers, supported by their community, courageously fought back against scabs and deep corporate pockets for more than a year, before returning to work for want of any other option.
Left out of the settlement by a vengeful, vicious employer, are about 100 workers at Voisey’s Bay, who remain on strike because Vale refused them the same settlement imposed on the workers at Sudbury and Port Colbourne. A large proportion of the miners at Voisey’s Bay are Aboriginal, a group Vale is known to super-exploit and oppress at its operations around the world.
A strategy to win
The fight in Hamilton has started out differently, and not only because it’s a lock‑out.
In Sudbury, the entire battle strategy was mapped out from the start in Toronto and Pittsburgh with a focus on bargaining, mobilizing local support for the strike, and holding out “one day longer” than Vale.
In Hamilton, the Local union is at the centre of the struggle, working to mobilize the whole labour movement and the Canadian public around the issues at stake: Canadian jobs, foreign ownership, the Canadian steel industry and the need for a made-in-Canada industrial strategy, Canadian labour and investment laws, and the rights of workers to live in dignity and security.
This fight is about the interests not only of Hamilton steelworkers, but of their community, and the whole country. It’s US Steel versus everyone else, and that’s how the union is placing the question to everyone who will listen.
This is everybody’s fight, says Local 1005 President Rolf Gerstenberger. He urges the public and governments to stand up to US Steel and defend the community’s best interests, Canada’s interests, and their own best interests as workers, seniors, youth, students, small business people, and community in the process.
The union has identified this fight with the 1946 Steel strike in Hamilton that involved the whole labour movement and the whole community. The 1946 struggle cemented the victory of the closed shop for workers across Canada.
The Spirit of ’46 means “all in” for a united fight on behalf people everywhere struggling for decent work and wages, job security, labour rights. It’s a fight for a country that provides social programs, creates jobs, protects labour and democratic rights, and puts curbs on corporate power.
US Steel’s tactics
The company is working hard to divide the union internally, by separating the working members from the retirees, and the leadership from the membership. A company letter to union members accuses their leadership of being “ideological” and “unrealistic”. By this they mean that the leadership refuses to roll over and is effectively mobilizing its members and the community to defend pensions, benefits, jobs and wages.
Local 1005 will be heartened to know that last month, newly organized CAW workers in car parts plants in southern Ontario won new agreements that are concessions‑free, after firmly rejecting earlier offers containing concessions.
Note: PV readers, trade unions, and supporters everywhere can support the locked out workers with food, toys, donations, and messages or resolutions of solidarity this Holiday Season. Mail to: USW Local 1005, 350 Kenilworth Ave. North, Hamilton, ON, L8H 4T3, or call 905-547‑1417 (email email@example.com) to offer assistance. Check www.uswa1005.ca for information and updates.