Over the past week two announcements have dealt crippling blows to Southern Ontario’s manufacturing sector. First word came that US Steel had no plans to re-start the blast furnace at their Hamilton operations (formerly Stelco), leading to around 200 layoffs as soon as the workers have enough days to qualify for EI. Then came the announcement that Caterpillar Inc. plans to close London’s Electro-Motive Diesel plant where workers are have been locked out sine the beginning of this year after refusing to accept a 55% cut in pay and benefits.

There are many similarities here – in both cases keystone employers have been bought out by foreign, industry-dominating multinationals, who then moved to lock out workers unless they agreed to unprecedented compromises when it comes to wages, pensions and benefits. Like usual, the new owners claimed they were only trying to update plants which weren’t “competitive” any more, but that begs the question – why did they buy such “uncompetitive” plants?

Stelco’s saga began almost a decade ago as the old owners filed for bankruptcy after being left with a colossal shortfall in their pension plans (mainly because they hadn’t paid into it for years). The workers fought this in court, arguing that there was no evidence the company was actually insolvent. By the time it was being argued in court, not only had steel prices risen significantly, but Dofasco, across the street, had become the continent’s most profitable mill. Nevertheless, the court approved a partial buyout by venture capitalists Tricap Management, who soon sold it off to US Steel.

Electro-Motive Diesel was sold by General Motors to private equity firms Berkshire Partners and Greenbriar Equity in 2004, who sold it to Caterpillar in the summer of 2010, incorporating it into Caterpillar’s Progress Rail empire. Though EMD London has been operating at quite profitably until now, the new collective agreement was sprung on them in the lead-up to new years day.

These cases, and those like them, show how devastating these kind of investments can be to the real-world communities they represent. It’s fairly obvious from both timelines that neither US Steel nor Caterpillar had any intention of keeping these plants in operation. Rather, they were far more interested in contracts they could fill with cheaper labour elsewhere, the opportunity to shut down competitors and generally to weaken the bargaining power of workers everywhere.

In the wakes of these layoffs, many will be left with only a pittance. Given today’s unemployment rates, it’s likely that many (especially those who’re older) won’t find new jobs soon, and most of those who do will see far less in wages and benefits. People will have to ask themselves whether they can seriously manage to keep up with their loans – and may have to start giving up their cars, homes and even declaring bankruptcy, spreading the pain further. Many of these sacrifices, such as selling cars and tools to make mortgage or rent payments, will only further limit their options. These workers didn’t “slack off” at school or piss their lives away on drinking and drugs – they learned a trade and devoted decades of their lives to careers they thought were secure. These jobs were not easy or safe – to quote one retire during one of many attempts to loot the pensions of former Stelco workers “do you know how many of my friend died in those furnaces?”

How much worse does this have to get before we admit that the “class war” is real, and that most of us are losing?

Given these kinds of actions, it’s becoming harder and harder to claim that capitalism creates high living standards. Between the massive stockpiles of capital built over the past few decades and the campaigns of global integration and deregulation which allow them to go anywhere on earth and throw that weight around. Capitalism is evolving in an increasingly predatory direction, attacking both public and private benefits with increasing zeal, and growing more power powerful each time it achieves it. That the London closure was announced two days after Indiana passed a controversial anti-union “right-to-work” law is no accident. Coupled with efforts like those seen last year when Wisconsin sought to ban public-sector unions, or Canada’s postal lockout and subsequent back-to-work legislation, workers are being attacked everywhere. Employers are on the offensive, and workers can no longer afford to to play only defence. The fact that so many of these struggles are lockouts rather than strikes only goes to show that even if we don’t act up, we can still be singled out.

Public anger is already beginning to grow into something more, especially in London. Mark’s Work Warehouse has announced, amid pressure, that it will pull Caterpillar “CAT” boots from its shelves nationwide. Better yet, the CAW publicly threatened today to “occupy” the plant. Could a factory occupation like those in Europe or South America work in Canada? The CAW did it to Caterpillar in 1991, during a similar conflict in Brampton, and it worked then. Given the enormous unrest which has swept our continent lately, there’s probably never been a better time to re-start the tradition. Beyond the obvious revolutionary potential (moreso, arguably, than just about any other “protest”), it makes this current corporate strategy prohibitively dangerous for the same reasons, putting workers in a far better bargaining position. If corporations such as Caterpillar had to fear that buying companies out to break unions and shut down competitors would instead result in unions restarting those plants as new competitors (not just to their company, but also their class), they’d no doubt think twice before trying it again.

These shut-downs affect all of us. By driving down the price of labour (wages) as well as organizations which represent our bargaining rights (unions), the effects will ripple through the economy around them, forcing even more of us into low-waged precarious work, if we can find any at all. As a share of the economy, corporate profits are scraping all-time highs while workers see their lowest share ever. Unless we start really fighting back, this is only going to get worse.

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