01/18/2012 02:09 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Caterpillar Lockout: Harper Turns Back on Canadian Workers


In London Ontario, the new year began with the news that the workers of Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD), a subsidiary of the U.S. company Caterpillar, had been locked out by their employer and that the employer was demanding workers accept a 55 per cent pay cut, elimination of benefits, and significantly reduced pensions.

Contrary to what EMD and Caterpillar would have us believe, this move is not about remaining economically competitive. The company is thriving. Business is good. Profit continues to roll in.

The assertion that concessions are necessary to remain competitive is not supported by the facts. EMD posted profits well in excess of $1.1 billion last year. Its competitor, General Electric, was able to settle with its workers at a rate of US$30/hour and remains profitable.

The workforce at the EMD is highly skilled, experienced, and motivated. Workers take great pride in the quality and expertise of their workmanship. In fact, when this team of workers was asked last year to increase EMD's productivity, they managed to improve it by an astounding 20 per cent.

The reality is that Canadian workers provide a tremendous advantage to employers when compared to their counterparts in other jurisdictions. Our universal health care system means employers are not burdened with primary health care costs. The fact that workers are well-educated ensures a level of training and competence second to none. Though its tax base the municipality provides secure infrastructure like clean, abundant water, low cost energy, sewers, roads, and an extensive transportation network.

It must also be noted that Canada provides businesses with a very competitive combined corporate tax rate which is lower than the combined average rate in U.S. Great Lakes jurisdictions.

In fact, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper used EMD for a photo-op in launching its program of corporate tax-cuts in 2008. The benefit of the tax cut to EMD is estimated to be at least $5 million. Subsequently, the Harper government approved the sale of the company to the U.S. Caterpillar.

The Harper government has made it clear that it will do nothing to stand in the way of EMD using the profits gained by corporate tax cuts to decimate the workforce and community that paid for them.

The Conservative record of favouring corporations over communities in Canada is mounting.

In October of last year, workers in Hamilton were locked out by U.S. Steel while the Harper government turned a blind eye. The workers of Vale Inco in Sudbury have suffered losses as a result of foreign ownership being given federal government carte blanche. In Quebec, 800 USW members have been locked out by Rio Tinto Alcan, a formerly Canadian aluminum company now owned by an Australian mining giant.

The government can and should take measures to protect its constituents, its communities, its workers. A fair and decent wage contributes to a thriving economy. Professional and quality workmanship is what allows corporations to profit. A healthy relationship between workers and their employer does not threaten that.

What remains to be seen is how long Canadians will endure the bloodletting. It is no exaggeration to say that the profits of foreign corporations are growing on the backs of Canadians who struggle increasingly to keep their families and communities afloat.

It is imperative that we as Canadians demand accountability, fairness, and equity from our government. We can and should do better.