Right down the road in London, hundreds of workers are now fighting a bitter lock-out. Beginning on the first of the year, Electro-Motive, now owned by Caterpillar Inc., who bought the Electro-Motive Diesel empire along with all of Progress Rail from venture capital firms a few years ago, has given a “final offer” of less than half their former wages and benefits with no pensions if they want to go back to work. The workers, represented by the CAW, haven’t been back to work since.

By now, this is a familiar story. It mirrors the experiences of Stelco, here in Hamilton, which was bought up by venture capital firms and then sold off to US Steel, which promptly ended up in a bitter lockout that lasted most of a year. These union-busting tactics have become increasingly common in recent years, with large corporations seeking to break up the “uncompetitive” wages and benefits enjoyed by their competitors, generally by buying them out and playing hardball at the negotiating table. Companies like US Steel and Caterpillar can do that, since they have such large networks of plants elsewhere to which they can shift production.

What do these corporations gain by spending billions buying up and shutting down competitors? Beyond the obvious – ending competition, as Labatt did when they bough up and shuttered the Lakeport brewery, there’s a second, more insidious goal. Wages are the price given to labour on a market, and in markets, if you lower the price somewhere, it affects prices everywhere. Driving down the wages of workers at one plant will encourage other workers at nearby plants to settle for less.

Is it worth it for Caterpillar to spend their profits this way? Perhaps, but that ignores the bigger picture. Caterpillar’s shareholders aren’t just shareholders in Caterpillar – they’re invested in many corporations, all which have an interest in keeping labour costs as low as possible. The loss of a month or year’s production at one plant is well worth it if it helps set new (lower) standards for compensation or serves to discredit the labour movement. Union membership has been waning for decades, especially in the US, and many of these corporations sell blood. Similar trends can be witnessed with the swath of states (like Wisconsin) which attempted to effectively outlaw public-sector unions last year, as well as the continuing attempts to close workplaces where new unionization drives succeed.

Nobody is safe from this kind of “vulture capitalism”. If your company is in trouble, expect the rescue effort to come complete with wage and benefit cuts. If you’re successful, you have to be wary of the owners simply selling it off for a profit, then facing much of the same. If you have a “good job” and “solid career” in the private sector you must watch for outsourcing and temps. If you’re in the public sector, you have to look out for maniacs like Rob Ford. Small businesses only hope to survive, current students can only hope to have jobs at all and those without jobs can look forward to far longer lines at the food bank. If this sounds like a coordinated attack on working people that’s because it is. Amidst one of the worst economic crises in a century and brutal, crushing unemployment which largely has yet to rebound, large corporations are making some of their largest profits ever.

The workers from a single plant can’t fight this on their own. A coordinated attack calls for a coordinated defence, and that’s something the labour movement’s been doing for a very long time – it’s called solidarity. A week from tomorrow, Saturday the 21st, people from all over Ontario will be heading for London, where thousands are expected to take part in protests against the lockout. This kind of support is crucial – locked out workers need to know that they’re not alone, and the public needs to know that this debate goes beyond the anti-labour rants so often presented by the media. We all have reasons to stand with these workers, and if we don’t, we’ll soon have even more.

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