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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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A support rally for locked-out steelworkers with Hamilton’s USW 1005 local at the former Stelco plant took place this past Sunday at US Steel Headquarters in Pittsburgh. 20-30 radicals rallied to support Hamilton workers, as well as condemn general assaults on workers. The protesters, with NEFAC (the North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists), the IWW (Industrial workers of the World) and other notorious anarchist organizations braved the cold to show solidarity, from one steel town to another. POG (the Pittsburgh Organizing Group)plans a benefit show for the 1005 later this month.

Frankly, I’m blown away. It really warms my heart that somewhere out there, somebody else cares about what our town is going through right now. This kind of support and solidarity is often rare in these cynical times, but I sincerely hope there’s more to come. If this happened here, in support of locked-out workers in Pittsburgh, would you take notice? Next time it does, will you?

Three cheers for Pittsburgh. These are rough times, and us steel towns need to stick together.

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.

According to the spectator and other sources, as many as sixty busloads of workers may be headed to City Hall this Saturday to show solidarity with steelworkers and pensioners. If this holds true, it may be the biggest labour demo in Hamilton since the Days of Action in 1995.

I don’t usually post events, but this one seems a little too relevant to pass up. Stelco is a perfect example of the impact globalization and corporate rule are having on our city. Let’s show these guys that Hamilton does care.

#### PLEASE FORWARD WIDELY!!! ####

CALLOUT FOR AN ANTI – CAPITALIST CONTINGENT AT THE 01/29 “PEOPLE VS US STEEL” MOBILIZATION, HAMILTON ONTARIO

Since late November 2010 United Steel Workers 1005 have been locked out of their workplace US Steel Hamilton (Stelco) for refusing a bad deal put forward by their employer – the Pittsburgh based multibillion dollar, multinational company, US Steel. US Steel has demanded the union make a number of concessions and has taken aim specifically at pensions.

900 workers and over 9000 retirees have now been forced into a fight for their livelihoods. US Steel is attempting to exploit the current economic downturn hoping young workers feel they have no choice but “take the bait” accepting a deal that will shaft thousands of fellow union members, pensioners and workers. USW 1005 is fighting for the rights of their members to a decent living and decent retirement after a life time of labour. It is a fight that deserves support – 1005 has consistently shown their commitment to popular struggle and solidarity with the oppressed.

But what is at stake in this particular struggle will have implications beyond those immediately involved. Rather than an isolated labour battle this lockout is part of a broader ongoing attack on working and poor people in Ontario and beyond. Capitalists everywhere are acting to ensure that we pay for their crisis through cuts to social programs like Ontario Works and Disability, immigrant services, undermining our unions eroding job security and standards of living. All the while the average CEO made 155 times the average working person in Canada last year.

We need to decide that enough is enough. The Austerity Agenda can only be opposed by broad and ongoing mobilizations of working, poor and oppressed people everywhere. This why we are calling for an angry, energetic and family friendly Anti-Capitalist Contingent within the “The People VS US Steel” demonstrations on January 29th.

We will be meeting at the demonstration at 1pm at Hamilton City Hall (71 Main Street West) Look for the red and black flags!

NO JUSTICE NO PEACE! STRENGTH TO USW 1005!

-Common Cause Hamilton

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