Caterpillar closing part of a coordinated attack on unions
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Fri Feb 03 2012. By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
The timing of Caterpillar Inc.’s decision to close its locked-out London locomotive plant was no accident.
On Wednesday, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed into law a so-called right-to-work bill making his state the first in the U.S. industrial north to directly take on private-sector unions.
Two days later, Caterpillar — which is based in next-door Illinois — closed its unionized London plant.
Since it locked out 460 Canadian workers in January, the giant U.S. firm had made little secret of its intent to move their jobs to Muncie, Indiana.
All it was waiting for, apparently, was a signal that the state government there was serious about crippling trade unions.
The London plant closing is not an isolated event. It is part of a coordinated attack across North America on unions and wages.
Last year, Wisconsin famously passed a law stripping state employees of most bargaining rights.
In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government gratuitously involved itself, on the employer’s side, in two separate private-sector labour disputes involving Air Canada.
The reason Harper gave was his alleged desire to protect the economy which, according to his government, might have been terminally compromised if travellers had been forced to shift to alternate carriers like WestJet.
I call all of this a coordinated North American attack because it is. As the Star’s Olivia Ward revealed in December, governments and employers routinely hold workshops on how to rid themselves of organized labour.
Hard-line employers have had their sights on unions since the 1930s, when organized labour in Canada and the U.S. first started to make serious gains.
One of their biggest targets has been compulsory check-off (known as the Rand formula in Canada, following a landmark 1945 ruling by Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand).
Under that formula, all relevant employees in a workplace organized by a trade union must pay union dues.
The rationale here was simple: If a union provides services to all workers in a bargaining unit then everyone in that unit — whether fans of organized labour or not — must chip in to pay the costs.
It was a fair formula, in that it prevented so-called free riders from gaining services they didn’t pay for.
But it also allowed unions to become lazy. With dues automatically coming in, trade unions did not have to convince members of their usefulness.
For some workers, unions became just another bureaucracy to endure.
From the 1950s onward, state governments in the largely non-unionized U.S. south took advantage of this antipathy, as well as provisions of that country’s labour legislation, to pass right-to-work laws that banned compulsory check-off.
As expected, these states remained non-union.
But now the fight is heating up. The aim now is not just to keep unions from organizing in, say, South Carolina.
It is to bust those unions that still do exist — in places like Indiana and Ontario.
The global slump provides the context in which all of this is taking place. When unemployment is high, workers find it hard to keep wages up.
Indeed, Friday’s Caterpillar announcement came as Statistics Canada reported a jump in Ontario’s unemployment rate from 7.7 to 8.1 per cent.
But the attack on wages is also being aided and abetted by governments. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is blatantly anti-union. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government is simply useless.
“Our thoughts are with the (Caterpillar) workers,” was the only thing provincial economic development minister Brad Duguid could think of saying Friday.
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