Unions plan worldwide joint actions against GE

General Electric has been on a job cutting binge not just in the US but in Canada and Europe as well.

After a steady drip of job cuts in 2017 that resulted in the elimination of 1700 US jobs in GE’s Transportation division, the company announced in December that it would eliminate 12,000 of its Power division jobs in Europe and Canada.

Unions whose members work for GE in Europe, Asia, and North America finally said enough is enough and banded together.

Under the auspices of IndustriALL, a global confederation of manufacturing unions, GE’s unions formed the GE Trade Union Network.

Unions from the network on May 7 and 8 met in Toronto to develop a plan to win respect for workers and their communities from GE.

At the end of its meeting, the network issued a statement saying that they will take joint actions on a worldwide scale to change things at GE.

The statement condemned GE for walking away from workers and communities that helped build the company, and it said that GE must work with their workers to “achieve a fair and just social business model.”

Despite the company’s assertions to the contrary, GE comes up short when it comes to being a fair and just social business model.

At the network meeting, delegates heard from Bill Corp, president of Unifor Local 524, whose members work at a GE factory in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

The Peterborough factory has been operating for 125 years and is the heart of the local economy.

Workers there make large motors for many industrial uses.

But last year GE announced that it is closing the factory and that in September 2018 when the factory shuts down, 358 workers will lose their good-paying jobs.

Those jobs will be shipped to Brazil, France, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.

“It’s devastating news for the community and Peterborough, there’s no doubt about it,” said Sue James, who has worked at the factory for 30 years to the Toronto Star.

Corp criticized GE for “walking away from workers and communities that the corporation was built upon” and leaving behind what the Star calls a “lethal legacy.”

The “lethal legacy” referred to by the Star is the health impact of thousands of toxic chemicals that Peterborough GE workers worked with between 1945 and 2000.

A report by Unifor found that during that period, workers were exposed to 3000 toxic chemicals, 14 of which have come to be identified as carcinogens.

More than 600 Peterborough workers filed workers compensation claims charging that exposure to toxic chemicals left them with debilitating illnesses including an exceptionally high rate of cancer.

The company contested those claims.

Erie, Pennsylvania is another community that GE has let down.

The Erie locomotive plant, part of GE’s Transportation division, has for the three years seen a steady trickle of its jobs being shipped to a non-union factory in Texas.

GE is Erie’s largest employer, and it pays good, hard-won union wages.

But as it shifts more work to its non-union plant, workers have become more concerned about losing their jobs and the community is on edge about GE’s future plans.

Last year, GE announced that 570 Erie workers would be laid off beginning in 2018.

The layoffs were announced after a decline in demand for the products produced at Erie, but demand is starting to pick up.

GE in December announced that Canadian National Railway Company will buy 200 new GE locomotives over the next three years, and GE management in Erie told leaders of UE Local 506, the Erie production workers’ union, that they expect production to pick up by the beginning of next year.

Nevertheless, the company recently told the local newspaper that it still plans to lay off workers;  although, the layoff number has now been lowered to 300.

In a message to members, Mike Ferritto, business agent for Local 506, said that the union will continue to fight the layoffs.

UE and Unifor, both members of General Electric Trade Union Network, have already begun to take joint action to protect GE workers’ jobs and the communities where they work.

They have started an across-the-border campaign called GE-Commit to Our Communities to generate public pressure on GE to

  • End mass layoffs and plant shutdowns and honor its commitments to retirees,
  • End the practice of intimidating workers who try to exercise their fundamental right to organize collectively, and
  • Where GE has harmed the health of workers, community members or the environment, GE should offer lifetime medical monitoring at no cost to those persons exposed to PCBs and other toxic material, and financial restitution to communities.

On April 25, members of Unifor’s GE locals in Peterborough and UE local 506  demonstrated outside GE’s annual shareholders meeting in Pittsburgh.

“GE’s recent history of poor decision-making is hurting workers, communities, and shareholders,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. “Corporate leaders are making one bad move after another. The company’s decisions don’t make financial sense, they wreak havoc with the lives of GE workers and local economies, and they threaten to lead us all over a cliff.”

One of the bad moves to which Slawson may have been referring was GE’s decision to go into the long-term care insurance business.

After the market failed to produce the revenue GE hoped for, the company scrambled to get out of the business, but it was too late.

GE recently took a $6.2 billion charge against earnings because of the losses from the failed venture.

The whooping losses became public shortly after GE announced in December that it was laying off 12,000 manufacturing workers worldwide.

In Pittsburgh some GE workers left the demonstration outside and went inside to address investors.

“GE workers are the economic stimulators of our communities,” said Tom Bobrowicz vice-president of local 506 to at the meeting. “We buy houses and new cars, we spend our income in the local communities. Over the last several years, GE has slashed the workforce in Erie from 3000 to 1500. GE’s workers, the communities where GE operates, and GE’s shareholders are all tied into this mess together. Getting GE on the right course starts with GE making a commitment to their employees and the communities in which they operate.”


CAMI workers in Canada strike for job security

Workers at the CAMI Automotive factory in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada are on strike for job security.

The workers, members of Unifor Local 88,  want guarantees in their new collective bargaining agreement that General Motors, which owns CAMI, will designate the Ingersoll plant as the lead producer of the Chevrolet Equinox.

The Equinox is a popular mid-sized crossover SUV, and right now the CAMI factory in Ingersoll is its primary producer.

But there is concern among the 2500 Unifor members on strike that GM plans to shift more production of Equinox to Mexico.

Unifor is the largest private sector union in Canada, and Jerry Dias, Unifor’s president, says that the outcome of the strike is important not only for the CAMI workers but for the community of Ingersoll.

“These workers are standing up for good jobs. Not just for themselves, but for the entire community,” said Dias.

Dias also said that the impasse between GM and the CAMI workers “reveals significant flaws in NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).”

The strike began on September 17 after the current collective bargaining agreement expired.

In a strike authorization vote that took place in August, 99.8 percent of Local 88 members voted to authorize a strike if the bargaining committee and GM couldn’t reach an agreement that would ensure that Ingersoll remains the lead producer of the Equinox.

Workers were concerned because in July GM moved production of the GMC Terrain, another crossover SUV similar to the Equinox, from Ingersoll to Mexico.

That move resulted in the layoff of 600 workers at the Ingersoll plant.

Dias in a message to Unifor members said that the strike at CAMI is bringing the troubles caused by NAFTA into clear focus.

“As Canadian, Mexican and American negotiators gather in Ottawa this weekend to begin the third round of talks toward a renewed North American Free Trade Agreement, the problems with the deal identified by the labor movement over the years are playing out right now in Ingersoll,” writes Dias.

The promise was that NAFTA was supposed to benefit workers as well as business, writes Dias, but instead NAFTA has only benefited business.

As a result of NAFTA, “we’ve seen manufacturing leave Canada for places such as Mexico” where “workers still work for poverty wages,” writes Dias.

NAFTA promised a better life for workers, continues Dias, but all that it has delivered is more poverty in Mexico and stagnant wages and more insecurity in Canada and the US.

Because of NAFTA, more auto factories are being built in Mexico, but despite the influx of auto factories, the minimum wage in Mexico remains at 65 cents an hour. “Mexican workers can’t even afford to buy the cars built in their country,” writes Dias.

As GM takes advantage of NAFTA to move work like the production of the Terrain to low-wage Mexico, the pangs of insecurity have increased at the CAMI plant.

Dias said that the CAMI workers’ demand for some job security is not unreasonable. They’re not asking that the Ingersoll plant be the only factory where the Equinox is made but rather that the Ingersoll plant remain the main site where the popular SUV is made.

Local 88 members want GM to look beyond the bottom line and realize how important the workers’ demand for job security is.

“They just want to know that their livelihoods, the stability of their communities, and the prospect of a decent future for their children will not be lost to cheaper labor made available by trade deals that failed to take these needs into full consideration,” writes Dias.

There is more at stake than just the well-being of CAMI workers. There are a network of smaller business in Ingersoll that supply auto parts to CAMI and services to people who work at the plant.

“(The strike) affects everyone,” Lori Perkins, who works at a plant across the street that supplies CAMI, told the CBC. “From our fast food people to our grocery store to what we can afford. It affects everybody.”

Formal negotiations between Unifor and GM broke off when the strike began, but resumed on September 24.

Local 88 President Dan Borthwick told Automotive News that the workers’ main demand has remained unchanged.

“We need job security and to be named the lead producer (of the Equinox),” said Borthwick.

Canada: New NAFTA must include ban on so-called right-to-work laws

The second round of negotiations on changes to the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) convened on September 2  in Mexico City, and some unexpected news came out of the first session.

Canada demanded that any changes to NAFTA must include an agreement by the US to roll back anti-union right-to-work laws.

Canadian negotiators said that the so-called right-to-work laws, which have been enacted in 28 states, lower labor standards by making it more difficult for workers to form and maintain unions.

The Canadians also said that lower labor standards in the US and Mexico are costing Canada good-paying jobs and driving down living standards for Canadian workers.

The Canadians said that one of the things that the US could do to raise labor standards is to pass a federal law nullifying state right-to-work laws.

Doing so would increase unionization and give workers more bargaining power with their employers.

The Canadians also urged Mexico to discontinue government support for yellow unions, those unions more concerned with protecting employers’ interests than the interest of their members.

“I’m very pleased with the position the Canadian government is taking on labor standards,” said  Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada’s largest labor union.” Canada’s got two problems: The low wage rates in Mexico and the right-to-work states in the United States.”

When round two of NAFTA negotiations began, Dias was in Mexico City to speak at a rally of workers and farmers opposed to NAFTA.

At the rally, Dias said that Mexican workers need a big pay raise and criticized the Mexican NAFTA negotiators for ignoring the concerns of Mexican workers.

“I don’t buy the argument that the Mexican negotiators are making that somehow we have to keep our citizens living in poverty in order to get jobs,” said Dias. “That’s a nonsense argument.”

Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is leading Canada’s delegation at the NAFTA negotiations, said that a new NAFTA had to be a fair NAFTA that benefits workers of all countries as well as business.

All of us want to come out of this negotiation being able to say to workers in our countries, ‘We have achieved a deal that will improve your standard of living’,” said Freeland. “That is an essential foundation for going forward.”  

Prior to the beginning of the negotiations on a new NAFTA, the Canadian government created a NAFTA Advisory Council to help the government shape its agenda for the negotiations.

One of the members of the advisory council is Hasan Yussuf, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, Canada’s national labor confederation.

Prior to the commencement of the NAFTA negotiations, he and other labor leaders met with representatives of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss a new NAFTA.

They told the prime minister that a new NAFTA should boost the living standards for workers in all of the countries affected.

In addition to ending so-called right-to-work laws in the US and yellow unions in Mexico, Dias said that a new NAFTA must contain a commitment by all countries involved to honor eight core conventions laid out by the International Labor Organization:

  • the freedom to join labor unions
  • the right to bargain collectively
  • freedom from forced labor
  • abolition of slavery
  • a minimum wage
  • abolition of the worst forms of child labor
  • equal pay for equal work
  • abolition of discrimination on the job

Speaking to reporters, Dias said that wages of Mexican auto workers were so low that many of them can’t afford to buy the cars they make.

Raising those wages would improve living standards for Mexican auto workers and make it more difficult for Canadian and US auto makers to move work to Mexico, which would improve living standards for US and Canadian workers.

In the US, labor activist were encouraged by the position taken by the Canadian government, especially its stance on right-to-work laws.

In Ohio which is shaping up to be the next battleground state for right-to-work legislation, Richard Dalton, business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18 was pleased to hear that Canadian negotiators wanted the new NAFTA to ban right-to-work laws.

“Canada is taking a bold step to do what’s right,” said Dalton. “Right-to-work is not only bad for American business, it’s bad for international businesses as well.”

Dias said that the Canadian government is serious about raising labor standards and ending anti-union laws like the US’ so-called right-to-work laws.

Dias told Bloomberg Politics that without improved labor standards for all workers, Canada will walk away from the negotiations.

“It’s a red line,” said Dias.

New union, new organizing strategy in Canada

The Canadian Auto Workers and the Communication, Energy, and Paperworkers Union, two of Canada’s largest unions, recently merged to create a new union intent on strengthening and modernizing the union movement and expanding the definition of what it means to be a union member.

Unifor, the name of the new union, will, according to a posting on its website, “be a union for all workers. But it will also be a union for the unemployed and self-employed, a union for women and young workers–a union for everyone. That’s its strength.”

Delegates to Unifor’s founding convention over the Labor Day weekend adopted a new constitution and laid out a path for invigorating the union movement in Canada.

“Unifor is here because it’s time to stop playing defense and start playing offense,” said Unifor’s newly elected president Jerry Dias. “It’s time to stop reacting and time to start acting. It’s time to set the agenda. We have to show our collective power.”

Like workers in the US, Canadian workers have seen there wages stagnate and working conditions erode. At the same time, more of the wealth they create has been redistributed to the country’s 1 percent.

Unifor intends to stop this trend by building a culture of organizing within the union.

With this in mind, convention delegates voted to endorse a new model for unionism proposed in a policy paper entitled Broadening Union Citizenship: Unifor’s Members in Community Chapters. These community chapters will include people not traditionally thought of as potential union members–the unemployed, precarious workers, retired people, and others.

“We want to redefine how the public defines unions,” said Roxanne Dubois, Unifor’s community chapter coordinator to the convention.

Dubois also said that more and more workers are unemployed or working at precarious jobs. When organized, these workers will share the benefits of union membership and learn how  to take collective action to improve their lives.

Dubois introduced three Unifor delegates who represent this new face of union membership: a freelance writer, a bike courier, and a member of the United Church clergy.

Gary Engler, vice-president of Local 2000 that represents media workers in British Columbia, said that his local will set up a community chapter whose members would include digital media workers such as game developers.

Most of the community chapters would be affiliated with an already existing local of Unifor.

While building community chapters will be an important focus of Unifor’s organizing efforts, its priority will be “to build density, strength, and bargaining power where our existing members work,” reads the Unifor Organizing Policy.

To do this, Unifor will strengthen its organizing department, but it will also make organizing the priority of everyone in the union including the national leadership, local leadership. union staff, and especially activists workers.

“Workers make the best organizers,” reads the organizing policy. “And other workers are more likely to join the union when they can relate to and identify with the union’s organizers. Workers talking to other workers enhances union organizing effectiveness, especially when they are from the same company, sector, community, gender, or ethno-cultural heritage. Member Organizers (taken off the job to work full-time on specific organizing drives) will also increase our organizing capacity and develop our organizing culture. The new union will, therefore, develop and train a large and diverse pool of Member Organizers in all sectors and regions to assist in organizing.”