Earlier today thousands of workers, retirees and activists descended on downtown Hamilton to show solidarity with locked-out workers at US Steel Hamilton. Though nobody could offer an accurate headcount, numbers may well have been double the <a href=”http://www.thespec.com/news/business/article/477919–thousands-expected-at-rallypredicted 3000.

City Hall

Despite the cold, slush and snow, there was an atmosphere of amazement and enthusiasm that I haven’t seen at a Hamilton rally in years. The crowd was so large one could stand in the middle and have no idea where the edges were, with flags, signs, drums and a speaker system energizing the march. When we arrived at one, speeches were being held outside city hall with a roaring crowd which already stretched nearly all of the way from Bay St. to the Family Courthouse. A short march began, circling around Gore Park and over to Bay before returning to City Hall, stretching farther than anyone could see along King St before returning to Main and Bay to disperse.

King and James

King and James

Background

Workers at US Steel, formerly Stelco, have been locked out since Nov. 7th when collective bargaining broke down over the issues of pensions. Under US Steel’s proposed plans, pensioners would no longer see their pension payments indexed and would risk losing a large chunk to inflation over the years. “Defined Contribution” pension plans would replace current “Defined Benefit” plans. This means that rather than receiving a fixed percentage of their final salary (also taking into consideration the number of years worked) for the remainder of their retired years, pensioners would instead receive payments from money they had invested in an investment account. Were the retired Steelworkers to accept the Defined Contribution plan, their pensions would rely on market performance and would not offer the same security as the Defined Benefit Plan.

This lockout comes on the heels of a very similar lockout at US Steel’s Nanticoke plant on Lake Erie, where workers eventually caved, as well as a total shutdown of the Hamilton and Erie plants for a good chunk of last year. The Government of Canada is currently involved in a lawsuit against US Steel violating promises it made during it’s 2007 takeover of Stelco.

Police Presence.

Banner

"Evil anarchists" supporting pensioners

From the moment we arrived downtown, the enormous number of police were obvious. Everything from horses and bikes to cruisers and a portable command station. Given the expected numbers, that’s not unexpected. But getting closer to the rally, it became clear that many of the police were simply “hovering” around any part of the crowd that looked young, or radical. As soon as the march began a pair of police officers began circling a group of anarchists holding a banner, taking videotape and photos from a few feet away. Despite this, there was no violence, destruction or arrests – only more flags, banners and chants, from the anarchists as well as others.

Beware the Cop-arrazzi

Officer 621 and friends, some of the many cops stationed to watch anti-capitalist demonstrators

This sort of intimidation and profiling is not uncommon at large protests. Over the past year, anarchists and other radicals in Ontario and elsewhere have seen a large rise in this kind of surveillance. Not only does it serve an important role of scaring away newcomers from voicing their opinions, but it allows police to assemble complex dossiers and profiles of well-known activists, for the purposes of launching frivolous and fabricated charges on the basis of people’s stated political opinions. As was shown at the G20 (as well as many times over in American and Britian lately), those who hold radical views aren’t just “guilty until proven innocent” – we’re guilty long before a “crime” has even been committed.

The Pony Police

Conclusion

Stelco is only the last in a long string of major Hamilton employers to see these kinds of shutdowns, lockouts and layoffs. As a factory and industry which once defined Hamilton, Stelco’s decline, now, seems just as symbolic. What we witnessed downtown today, though, was a rejection of the cynical and defeatist attitudes which we’ve come to associate with these issues. And while one rally may not change everything – it can send a powerful message. Hamilton’s steelworkers have friends – young, old, rich, poor, and from cities all around us – and none of us are willing to back down.

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