Rising Up

Have Your Say

Just over 16 years since the hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time over the Soviet Union, the spread of democracy has led to a new global playground for corporations. Will they be able to conserve their good fortune or will they continue to flaunt their power to its bitter end?

The trend towards free trade deals, the emergence of China and India in the global economy, the supply of cheap labour and weak-kneed governments have given corporations, CEOs and shareholders so much, yet they seem incapable of easing off on the gas pedal.

Our current economic system rewards those companies that can best exploit their labour. The companies with the best bottom line survive. I doubt very much that they will ever realize that they have limitations, too, and that they can only push people so far. Today's labour force is ripe for rebellion on a global scale. Education plus the continued exploitation of workers around the world will inevitably lead to people rising up; it's only human nature, nothing new.

At a local level, rebellion and solidarity were on clear display in June this year at the blockade of General Motors' Canadian headquarters in Oshawa, Ontario, after GM announced it would be closing the award-winning pickup truck plant in Oshawa in 2009. This is where I work. Two thousand six hundred jobs will be lost, along with thousands more at suppliers. It only took General Motors Corporation two weeks to breach the recently signed contract with the Canadian Auto Workers over promises of product allocation to our plant.

Family, friends, and working brothers and sisters from all sectors came out in force as the Canadian Labour Congress, the United Steelworkers, teachers' unions and many other organizations joined the fight to save our jobs. I was at the blockade when one CAW retiree arrived after spending the previous four days driving from his British Columbia home to join the protest. This was two days after another retiree had pulled up after driving from his Prince Edward Island home.

The gap between rich and poor in Canada is widening at a pace that rivals the speed with which manufacturing jobs are leaving Canada. Scotiabank's chief economist Aron Gampel suggested on the CBC that "maybe we have to look at it that our manufacturing jobs are overpaid." Maybe, maybe not. One thing for sure is that what manufacturing workers like me are paid is much fairer than the obscene rates his bank charges their customers. Maybe he can tell us how a pay cut by the workers here will help Canadian manufacturers gain market share. Maybe we should consider the competition that working people in Canada are up against before we draw conclusions. It would appear that most of our manufactured goods are arriving from China the same China that still has reports of children being sold to factories for as little as $60. Maybe Gampel can explain how we can "compete" when Canada is saturated with vehicles imported from countries that place restrictions on the vehicles we can export to them.

The labour movement and corporations (and their governments) are at odds over the value of free trade agreements. About 400,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Canada since 2002 and the rate of job loss has skyrocketed since Stephen Harper's Conservatives gained a minority government. Under the Conservative agenda, we have become an energy supplier to the United States first and foremost, living off the avails of our natural resources. The human and environmental costs are staggering.

Production costs in Canada are very equitable but, through free trade, corporations have chosen to take advantage of new-found exploitable workforces and, in Canada, workers are being told that we should be more like the workers in the Southern States and Mexico. In other words, forget what we know and have fought for and won and behave more like the exploited working poor, and produce higher profits for shareholders. Attacks on health care benefits, pensions, dental plans, hours of work, holidays, wages, respect for the working class, and our communities in general, have come home to roost as the Canadian government tries to tell us everything is fine. In Oshawa alone we have had 10,800 people lose their jobs in the last two years, while Oshawa's MP Colin Carrie drives a Honda Pilot and Whitby's Jim Flaherty is more than happy
to keep our dollar at an inflated value to please the oil companies in Alberta.

In today's manufacturing industry, shareholders are rolling the dice, looking for the big payoff, immediate gratification. It's no more of a sound investment then a pyramid scheme. In the blind race to the quick buck, auto industry CEOs are destroying their own industry, going so far as to obtain their multi-million-dollar bonuses directly from the pockets of the workforce. They are destroying their own industry by driving down the wages of workers who, up until now, could afford to own their own homes, making a huge contribution to the recession we are slipping into and they try to sell this as a "competitive" issue.

Lately there has been an increase in labour disputes, strikes and protests around the globe as workers feel the pinch of this worldwide exploitation competition, including in Australia, South Africa, Vietnam, Brazil, Russia and Western Europe (not to mention China, where workers are struggling for decent and safe working conditions). Companies are jockeying for position to keep pace with the leaders riding the backs of the cheapest labour they can find. It's out of control, and we're at a point where any government that truly represents the people would step in and put up a fight for the rights of the people they are working for.

Unlike Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, I see Ontario as a tremendous opportunity for any manufacturer to invest in. Unlike Flaherty, I recognize the value of commitment, and the culture of a hard-working, educated labour force in Ontario and all over Canada. It's no accident that the Oshawa plants have been ranked No. 1 for many years by the J.D Power quality surveys and the Harbour production reports. General Motors is turning its back on the best manufacturing plant they own.

It's true, we will not settle for a return to terrible working conditions in Canada, despite the pressure of having trade policies that work against us and a federal government that refuses to address the issues that have led to hundreds of thousands of jobs disappearing from the manufacturing sector in Canada -- jobs that kept our communities healthy and gave our children opportunities and a good environment to grow up in.

If the federal government and their corporate handlers don't see that, or are surprised by the ongoing demonstrations in Oshawa, then they are out of touch with the people they are supposed to represent. Provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton got it right when addressing the crowd gathered in front of General Motors. "This is how you hold governments and corporations accountable," he said.

CAW Local 222 members in Oshawa have garnered support and encouragement not only from the surrounding community but from across the country, and from communities around the globe that have taken notice of our protests. We are proud Canadians who refuse to let corporations or right-wing governments destroy our culture.

Jeff Armstrong is a 24-year member of CAW Local 222 in Oshawa, Ontario, a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada, and a graduate of the CAW/ McMaster University Labour Studies Program.

At presstime General Motors announced that it will build hybrid pickups in Oshawa in the fall, but was still planning to close the truck plant next year.