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Auto workers are saying, “Enough”

It’s been two years since the financial sector’s recklessness and greed plunged the world economy into recession and cost millions of people their jobs. Now we face stark choices about the kind of future we want.


December 8, 2010
by Ken Lewenza

It’s been two years since the financial sector’s recklessness and greed plunged the world economy into recession and cost millions of people their jobs. Now we face stark choices about the kind of future we want.

With high unemployment and a weak global economy, employers worldwide are telling workers to cut wages as governments target social programs. They’re counting on workers joining this retreat from progress, but many are saying no. Consider recent events in Britain and France, while in Canada 15,000 auto parts workers demonstrated on Oct. 27 at more than 100 workplaces to defend good jobs in our communities and say: Enough is enough!

A job in an auto parts plant is hard work. Workers deserve to earn a decent wage to support a decent standard of living. An autoworker’s average pay is about $19 per hour – slightly below the average Canadian wage.

On Oct. 27, auto parts workers sent two strong messages. First, we reminded auto assemblers that throughout the recent crisis workers have been part of the solution. We didn’t re-negotiate our agreements with assemblers so they could relentlessly drive down conditions for parts workers. We will fight to keep work in our parts plants.

Second, we told auto parts suppliers to “stop pushing!” We will work to secure investment and build high-quality and productive workplaces, but we’re not going to cut wages or pensions, nor will we sign two-tier agreements that will permanently lower conditions for the next generation of workers. We did not go down that road during the worst of the financial crisis, and we are not going to head down that road now.

The very existence of the automotive industry was at stake last year. Canadian governments understood that a half-million jobs were on the line, but their short-term relief was meant to save good jobs, not help turn them into bad ones.

During the turbulence, auto parts workers provided painful cost savings through wage freezes and cutbacks to benefits, work rules and time off.

Profitability is now returning to the industry, and auto production is up strongly in Canada – by two-thirds so far this year – and it’s expected to return to pre-crisis levels within two years.

Invest in productivity
The success of our parts industry is based on its highly skilled workforce, high productivity and top-level quality. Production costs are in line with other advanced auto-producing regions, so arguments that we should follow a low-wage path to compete with Mexico and China are absurd. We need to continue investing in technology and productivity instead, the goal being progress for workers around the world – not a race to the bottom.

We also need to focus on the industry’s real problems. Auto trade remains a one-way street for Canada, with offshore imports reaching a record market high of 26% last year, while we send nothing the other way. The solution is managed and balanced trade, not more one-way free-trade deals.

To make matters worse, the Canadian economy has been too closely linked to oil, making our dollar soar, which is pricing many manufactured goods out of their markets. We need policies that will encourage a lower, more stable dollar and we need sustained industrial policies aimed at growing the auto industry.

However, it’s likely an auto parts employer will test our resolve. We don’t want confrontation, but we will mobilize all our resources to resist employer demands, including demonstrations, occupations, plant shutdowns, and refusing to handle disputed auto parts in our assembly facilities.

While we don’t know where our efforts will take us, we know what kind of future we’ll have if we don’t fight back.

Ken Lewenza is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which represents 225,000 workers. E-mail cawcomm@caw.ca.