Why We Should Boycott Caterpillar

When Caterpillar locked out over 400 employees in London, Ontario on New Year's Day 2012, it did not do so because it was unprofitable. In January 2012, Caterpillar reported a 58 per cent rise in quarterly earnings. Its retiring CEO received compensation in 2012 of $22.5 million and the new CEO in 2011 was paid $10.4 million. Caterpillar locked out its employees to show its power, and its unyielding opposition to unions and collective bargaining. It is setting up in Georgia in a non-union plant paying low wages. When it locked out its employees in London, Ontario, it did so with the assistance of the Canadian federal government, which gave the company a substantial tax break in a deal that remains a secret, and with the acquiescence of the Ontario government, which did nothing to save a plant that was important to the province's manufacturing sector.

Governments are supposed to uphold the public interest of the citizens that elect them, and the laws of the land - including those laws that say collective bargaining is a right where a majority of a work force belong to a union and seek to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. It is the employees of companies, after all, who create the wealth.

I have started a petition to boycott Caterpillar and I'm hoping you will go there and sign it. In boycotting Caterpillar, you will be affirming democratic rights in a democratic society, including the right to a job, the right to collective bargaining, the right to be fired only for just cause, the right to some security of employment and the right to be treated with dignity.

The generation that lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War determined it was going to create a fairer, more democratic society in North America through its organized will. Those workers built democratic unions that brought large corporations to the table. Philip Murray, a miner and first International President of the United Steelworkers said: "We must have democracy in industry!" Through the unions, workers won wage increases, benefits and pensions so they could live well, house their families, educate their children, and pay their taxes.

Companies always disliked unions for abridging, in a small way, their management rights. From the 1980s, companies started pushing back, consolidating and creating large, rich, multinational corporations, many of which have more money than many governments. These companies are accountable to no one, and exert enormous influence on governments and politicians who increasingly govern in their interests rather than the interests of citizens that elect them. The multinationals have pushed to change the tax laws that favour the one per cent, as the Occupy Movement has pointed out; receive large subsidies from governments; and, on the international stage, they have developed trade laws that favour their interests (as the Council of Canadians and other bodies have shown). At the same time, they have exploited non-unionized workers around the world, have destroyed the environment with impunity, and have drastically weakened unions in North America by shutting down plants and locking out workers. They have created an elite of unaccountable wealthy men who exude contempt for ordinary people. There is now an imbalance in the labour relations system that can only be corrected by informed citizens and responsible leaders.

It is time for all of us to push back! The fate of the labour movement is the fate of North American democracy. As Dorian Warren, professor and political commentator in the U.S., says: "Without a strong countervailing force like organized labor, corporations and wealthy elites advancing their own interests are able to exert undue influence over the political system." We need to affirm our democratic rights, and create a social order that supports and protects our citizens. We need to build new businesses that are competitive but behave responsibly. Most importantly, we need to resist arbitrary force exercised by hierarchical, unethical corporate institutions. Because, if we don't, we are acquiescing to their tyranny.

If you find yourself hesitating before signing this petition, think about how you would have felt going to work on New Year's Day and finding yourself locked out of your job and deprived of your source of income, because you refused to work for 50 per cent less than you were paid the day before. Think about that, and, wherever you live in this world, please consider signing my petition. After you sign, please send the link to your friends, colleagues, other links, Facebook, Twitter.

Let us send Caterpillar a message, together.

Laurel Sefton MacDowell is a professor of history at the University of Toronto.