Since the Second World War, to be a unionized autoworker in Canada was to belong to the labouring elite. High wages, job security, great benefits and a generous pension were guaranteed those, mostly in Ontario, who were lucky enough to get a permanent job with one of the big three – GM, Ford or Chrysler.
To be sure, the work on an assembly line was composed of much drudgery and mindless repetition. But the profits and wages of the car companies and their employees helped power the Canadian economy, fund our social programs and build a large middle class. These were model employers and most other provinces envied Ontario’s – and, to a lesser extent, Quebec’s – privileged position as Canada’s auto-manufacturing centre.
No longer. Now the companies are justifiably pilloried as near-bankrupt dinosaurs that failed to evolve, continuing to produce high-priced, gas-guzzling SUVs as the planet warmed, wages stagnated and fuel prices have skyrocketed. Unjustifiably, however, their employees are being caricatured as greedy and lazy, unworthy of the decent pay and benefits that once made them the object of envy.
That’s the emotional wave that right-wing politicians and the corporate predators who fund them are surfing as they attempt to take advantage of this economic crisis to strike a crippling blow to a pillar of the Canadian labour movement. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) is the country’s largest private sector union. It’s also one of the richest, using its resources to fund a plethora of progressive aims that benefit all Canadians, not only the union’s members.
But now, in return for government loans to help keep Chrysler afloat and make it more attractive to a takeover by Italy’s Fiat SpA, Canadian Industry Minister Tony Clement is blackmailing Chrysler’s CAW members on Fiat’s behalf to accept $19-an-hour wage cuts.
“It’s not pleasant, it’s not palatable to the union, I understand that,” Clement said last week. “But we cannot have a situation where the union is resisting the reality of the situation and then expecting the Canadian taxpayers and the Ontario taxpayers to contribute.” Meanwhile, Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne told The Globe and Mail that Chrysler workers in both the U.S. and Canada have to end their sense of entitlement, but said the CAW has taken “more rigid positions.”
That’s called framing the issue, and they do so in a way that serves their narrow financial and political interests. But, for Canadians, it’s also a way to cut off our collective nose to spite our face.
Over the years, Canadian autoworkers have contributed far more to the Canadian social fabric than is on offer from the Conservative government to help these companies survive an unprecedented – for our times – economic crisis. A good portion of those high wages are redistributed for our collective benefit in the form of funding for schools, hospitals and social programs – not to mention the streets and highways their products travel upon.
If Clement succeeds in his ploy, however, more of that wealth will be leaving Canada to make a few very rich men even richer. And it’s not just autoworkers that will be poorer for it; all Canadians will lose out.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Fiat is not on a charity mission. It has the opportunity to pick up a potentially massive money maker for a song while crippling its union in one fell swoop – and, as a cherry on the sundae –benefiting from hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds. As a study on auto-industry profitability by CAW economist Jim Stanford demonstrates, Chrysler Canada alone made almost $5 billion in profit between 1972 and 2007.
Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is indicating that the province’s pension insurance plan, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Fund, may not have enough money to cover pensions if one or more of the auto-makers fails. That would mean the people who worked to generate billions of dollars in profits for the companies and billions more in income taxes for the federal and provincial governments would be denied compensation they deferred until retirement.
As Stanford noted, “It is painfully ironic that the retirees who worked during the auto industry’s ‘golden age’ should now be targeted for major reductions in income and benefits.”
For Canada’s right-wing federal government, however, that’s just gravy. It’s unlikely that unionized autoworkers ever voted Tory in large numbers. So inducing bankruptcy by denying federal aid if today’s workers refuse to be blackmailed will hit two of their targets with a single bullet. Clement, of course, will be the first to blame the pension reductions on today’s workers.
Don’t buy it. It’s in our interest to help Canada’s auto industry survive – provided it adapts and begins producing efficient, low-polluting vehicles. It’s even more vital that we preserve well-paid, secure jobs. Giving in to right-wing appeals to jealousy and union bashing only hurts us all in the end.