Stopping the Bulldozers: CAT and the EMC Lockout

[i]Protest signs and work boots hang off a fence at the front gate of the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London Ont. on Jan. 21[/i] [b] Photo: Mick Sweetman[/b]

By Alex Balch

There was little to celebrate this New Years Eve for workers at the Electro-Motive Canada (EMC) plant in London, Ontario. As midnight struck, the factory's 465 employees found themselves locked out of their workplace and forced into a labour dispute with one of the largest industrial equipment manufacturers in the world – Caterpillar Inc (CAT).

Making matters worse for the workers represented by Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) local 27, is the fact that CAT - like most industry-leading conglomerates - is notoriously brutal. This brutality has built the company a reputation as a strident enemy of organized labour. Its rise to prominence in the corporate world owes much to the ruthless manner in which it has historically employed union-busting tactics and cost-cutting measures. Beginning in 1992, United Auto Workers (UAW) members in Decatur, IL fought a bitter six-year strike with CAT. The company's threats to hire a permanent replacement workforce eventually pushed a frightened UAW leadership into accepting humiliating concessions. The betrayal of Skilled Trades Unions – whose members crossed picket lines to service industrial machinery operated by scabs - left workers in the community thoroughly disillusioned and their union local broken. This is CAT's legacy in the United States.

After acquiring the London EMC plant as part of their $890 million dollar purchase of US-based Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) in 2010, CAT introduced a new contract that would cut workers' wages in half (from $34.00 to $16.50) and drastically reduce their pensions and benefits. In justifying the massive rollbacks, CAT cited their concerns that the EMC plant's workforce wasn't “sufficiently flexible and cost-competitive in the global marketplace.”

Originally based out of the midwest, CAT's US factories have largely shifted to the country's southern states – to places where “union” is often seen as a dirty word. In October the company opened a new locomotive plant in Muncie, IN – heightening fears that they intend to close the London plant and move the jobs south of the border. Internationally, CAT has factories located in 21 countries, with an increasing amount of its production over the past decade shifting to Russia – where labour costs are much more “flexible”.

Needless to say, this frugality doesn't extend up CAT's corporate ladder. Occupy London – who cooperated closely with CAW 27 during the occupation of the city's downtown Victoria Park – hit the nail on the head in their [url=http://www.occupylondononca.org/2012/01/08/press-release-jan-8th-2012/]c... for an international Day of Action[/url] against CAT on January 21:

[quote]Caterpillar CEO, Douglas R. Oberhelman, makes over $5,000 an hour, before bonuses are even added to his salary. We [...] insist that Mr. Oberhelman take a 55% reduction in wages before he asks over 90,000 of his workers to accept a sub-standard wage while the company enjoys record profits.[/quote]

Of course, the idea that a CEO of a Fortune 100 company would ever institute a voluntary pay cut – of any size, let alone one that amounted to millions of dollars annually – is anathema to capitalist self-interest. Under his stewardship, in 2010 the company posted annual sales and revenue of over $42.5 billion (a whopping 31% increase over the previous year); why would he listen to the insistence of a group of activists who are in no position to hurt him or the company he represents economically?

And that's the point. You cannot argue with corporations like CAT through acts of moral persuasion, or inspired rhetoric. Like the bulldozers they manufacture and sell to the IDF to demolish homes in Occupied Palestine, CAT is unmoved by the pesky sentimentalism of human emotion.

Let's be honest. The workers at the EMC factory are in serious trouble. While it is important to keep up morale and to show solidarity with our working-class brothers and sisters, we cannot have any illusions that this fight will be won through marches, rallies and speeches. If the workers at EMC have any chance of coming out of this dispute with any semblance of victory, it will come from speaking to CAT in the only language they understand – economic disruption.

That means coordinating a broad-based and international campaign against CAT and its many subsidiary corporations that makes real connections to other stakeholders in their corporate empire; it means maintaining hard and militant picket lines that scabs and those who may try to transport machinery out of the factory cannot cross; it means supporting the workers on those lines should they choose to employ direct action tactics... and it means being prepared to deal with the consequences.

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