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On June 3, 2008 General Motors (GM) announced the closure of four of its North American plants including the Oshawa plant east of Toronto. This would mean that 2,600 workers would be laid off. GM Canada is one of Canada's largest automobile exporters with General Motors Corp. being the world's largest automaker employing approximately 284,000 workers and with net sales and revenues over 200 billion dollars annually.
The lay-off announcement came shortly after the approval of the collective agreement where according to Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) President Buzz Hargrove, GM committed to the production of pick-up trucks in Oshawa until the end of this collective agreement in 2011. Hargrove also stated “This decision is unfair, it's unjust, it's unwarranted, it's illegal, it violates our collective agreement and we're going to do everything in our power – and we have power.” Hargrove in his role as the elite President of the CAW had, in this particular collective agreement, conceded 300 million dollars of the workers wages and benefits over three years for a production commitment by GM for the same time period. This works out to be approximately more than $38,000 per worker per year. Considering the major concessions made to supposedly secure productions followed by future lay-offs, the workers were furious and so immediately following the announcement a blockade began at the GM executive offices by Canadian Auto Workers Local 222 in Oshawa, Ontario. This blockade lasted almost two weeks preventing managers from entering the building. On June 16, 2008 a judge ordered the end of the blockade and the Union Local agreed and the workers ended the blockade. The anger had been directed at the employer GM, but it was not clear if there was anger at the Union who negotiated this questionable collective agreement; if there wasn't there should have been. A workforce of this magnitude must come to be conscious about its potential power; if not soon their future may be doomed and similarly all workers must come to understand their ties to other workers both within similar industries and outside of them.
Ironically, shortly thereafter on June 11th there was a multi-million dollar charity and tribute dinner for Hargrove at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This dinner was attended by the who's who of Canadian politics and business including former Ontario premier Mike Harris (notorious for his right-wing Common Sense Revolution which slashed social assistance), former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, Magna Chairman of the Board Frank Stronach and President of GM North America Troy Clarke, among many others. D'Arcy Jenish, a former Macleans editor (a Canadian Current Affairs Magazine) writes (referring to Hargrove) “He will be enjoying retirement, hobnobbing with the high and the mighty who have become his friends over the years. The autoworkers he represented will be clinging desperately to their jobs. Or, having priced themselves out of the industry, driving taxis, flipping burgers or otherwise trying to make ends meet.” These extremely wealthy people have been termed “friends” in the media, but more aptly speaking these people appear to be members of the same class. The CAW has done a mighty fine job of stifling a true working class movement against a system that is meant to suppress resistance and to exploit the labour power of the masses.
It must be recognized first and foremost that labour and capital are always at odds; the capitalist system incorporates many institutions within its framework and this includes the Trade Unions. Unfortunately for the rank and file GM workers, the collective agreement had been negotiated within the capitalist system's judicial process and so in response to the supposed 'illegality' of the company's recent announcement of the plant closure, the union will 'fight back' within this same system which is designed for and by the capitalists, not the workers. This results in a losing situation for the workers who are only pawns in a negotiation between union officials and the company. Therefore with the union trying to fight against the lay-offs they are constrained within the framework of the legal process and therefore doomed to lose, i.e. make concessions and withdraw.
A serious ripple effect of the Trade Union flawed character is the June 19th announcement by Magna International, a worldwide automotive parts supplier based out of Aurora, Ontario, Canada to lay-off 400 workers from its plant in St. Thomas, Ontario. This represents 25% of the employees working at this plant who make the frames for General Motors pick-up trucks. Economic reasons cited are the falling sales for full-sized trucks amid the higher fuel prices and high Canadian dollar. Magna has reported its first-quarter profit of $207 million US, compared with $218 million ($1.96) in 2007. Both hourly and salaried workers will be affected and the lay-offs will commence this September 8th, 2008. Earlier this year these workers had been temporarily laid off due to the American Axle strike in the United States. This strike had affected some GM assembly operations and this in turn affects parts suppliers. On June 20th in the United States 18,657 United Auto Worker members, approximately a quarter of the General Motors union workforce, have accepted a buyout which will open the door for new hires who will be paid one-half of the wages of its current workforce. The linkages are clear and the divisions between the workers only injure and suppress their struggle. There will be undoubtedly more lay-offs for this sector; just wait.
Rank and file workers must question the tactics of their Trade Union and think outside of the box. This entails the understanding that although the Union represents the workers, why are they not fighting back without compromise? The lay-offs mean serious consequences for the families of these workers and for the whole community as a whole; additionally the plant closure also demonstrates further retreat by a powerful union and sets a precedent for the manufacturing industry and the workers. Tactics that work are wildcat strikes, factory occupation and self-management with a long-term vision to end wage-slavery. This has occurred in other countries such as Argentina, why can't they occur in Canada? These actions cannot be ruled by a Trade Union as it is in their capitalist nature to deny the workers' their own autonomy and to bargain for a short-term demand. Workers by their own nature are anti-capitalist due to the capital's nature to extol profits from the labour of the workers. Why do Trade Unions not educate the workers about the core of the issue? – Because this would mean suicide for them. Furthermore, a serious and successful battle must also include complete working class resistance whereby workers from around the world engage in strikes to support one another. Where were the other workers when GM workers blockaded the offices? Trade Unions divide the workers thus creating a weaker base.
It does not take a mathematical genius to understand the fallout for the thousands of workers affected by lay-offs and buyouts and for the additional exploitation of future workers. The union by its nature must always choose the lesser of the evils with its negotiated concessions with the management. The global competition of the corporations is a natural economic occurrence. Politically it becomes a battle between the capitalist left reformists/unionists and the right-wing capitalists. It could be surmised that the workers will continue to descend as the unions continue to concede with the pretext of high fuel costs and the real threats of companies moving away to regions where wages and working conditions are cheaper. This is a clear sign that the huge issues are rooted to the basis of the capitalist system, wage-labour. The economic ups and downs are continually weathered by the ruling classes while devastating for the working class; the source of the problem must be addressed, that is an anti-capitalist movement whereby the identifying cause is wage-slavery, rather than the more superficial capitalist explanation of a failing economy.
The reality too is that the workers accept this as natural, that capitalism is natural and that they must agree to concessions, that there are no alternatives to this model. The situation of the General Motors workers is a crystal-clear example of the economic relationship between the workers and how the natural economic response of the current system affects the bottom of the food chain, the workers. If it was not obvious before, it is now; workers across industries and geographical regions must realize and act upon their connections economically as a class. Capital is a reality but it is not a universal constant, it can be defeated, but the first step is to understand the power of the workers and that wage-slavery is a choice and therefore must be fought. An anti-capitalist worker's council can be the alternative agent of change to the current, catastrophic state of affairs for workers where by their own natural conflict with capital, workers attain the consciousness and self-activity essential for an international anti-capitalist workers movement.
Nancy LaPlante lives in Toronto, Ontario and is one of the editors for the publication Against Wage-Labour.