Emotions that began with shock are quickly moving to anger and frustration as the community adjusts to news of the closure of Electro-Motive Canada (EMC).
“This can’t happen, you can’t let this happen,” cried Deborah Hunter after hearing the news EMC was closing its London plant and she is now out of a job. “What about our family, what about our children, what about our futures?”
Progress Rail Services Corporation, a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc. and the parent company of EMC, announced the decision on Friday (Feb. 3) following a lockout of its 450 unionized workers that began on Jan. 1.
CAW workers on the line heard the announcement of the closure from a radio, but weren’t given notice from EMC directly until a van pulled up handing the strike captain a handful of letters announcing the plant’s shutdown.
“It probably makes it more of a reality, it’s definitely official,” said Bill Watson, a 23-year worker at the Oxford plant who was handed the letters. “It’s just a lack of respect.”
Tim Carrie, president of Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 27, said it has been clear for a long time Caterpillar was not interested in producing locomotives in Canada.
“Obviously we are feeling a lot of anger. The way this corporation has come in and treated the workers here is unconscionable. It is a disgusting approach to bargaining and a disgusting approach to closure,” Carrie said. “To suggest it is a surprise would really be stretching things, it wasn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t take away from the impact on families.”
The company said the closure is linked to issues of cost effectiveness being faced by the company.
“The collective agreement and cost structure of the London operation did not position EMC to be flexible and cost competitive in the global marketplace, placing the plant at a competitive disadvantage,” the company stated on a website created to provide updates on the situation. “While the company’s final offer addressed those competitive disadvantages, the gulf between the company and the union was too wide to resolve and as such, market conditions dictate that the company take this step.”
Ed Holder, Conservative MP London West said the clear loser in this fight has been the workers themselves. Holder also said that although he originally believed closure had been Caterpillar’s goal at the beginning, he changed his mind when the lockout dragged into February.
In hindsight, Holder said this might have been the only possible outcome.
“I have been pretty clear that CAW never wanted to preside over the largest cut in pay and benefits in the history of CAW, because I think employees would have said well what do we need you for,” Holder said. “I know they (EMC) came pretty clearly with their position and said this is it, we aren’t moving. And neither side chose to blink. And because of that, the folks in the middle are the ones who got stuck and hurt very badly.”
That statement brought harsh words from Carrie.
“Ed Holder is full of crap. Ed Holder doesn’t know what he is talking about,” Carrie said. “He was never at the bargaining table, he never saw what we were proposed to look at in regards to moving off our position of status quo. He has no idea of what he is talking about. I am disgusted by those comments.”
The company’s decision brought outrage from Irene Mathyssen, NDP MP London-Fanshawe. EMC sits within her riding and Mathyssen has been a key figure during the lockout. She called on the company, and the federal government, to remember the situation is about people’s lives and not just dollars and cents.
“This is a disgrace in as much as this is a company that has absolutely no ethics when it comes to the security of families, workers and the community that made it possible for them to accrue the kind of profits that they have seen in the past few months,” Mathyssen said. “It is also a disgrace that we do not have a federal government that was prepared to go toe-to-toe with the Americans. Our federal government failed. They turned their backs on this situation and now this community has to go and pick up the pieces.”
Holder said the decision “marks a sad day for London” and is one that will impact more than just the EMC workers themselves. He also said he would be speaking to government officials as soon as possible to try and expedite the process of getting Employment Insurance (EI) benefits to EMC workers as quickly as possible.
Holder also called on the province to assist the federal government with skills retraining for the workers.
According to the company’s statement, the assembly of locomotives will be shifted from the London facility to the company’s other assembly plants in North and South America. This move action was taken to “ensure the closing of the London facility does not impact delivery schedules.”
Words like that only upset CAW president Ken Lewenza more as he struggled to find words to comfort the EMC workers.
“We’re dealing with the lives of 465 families, 2,000 families in London and here’s a corporation that has generated $6 billion in profit,” said Lewenza fighting tears.
“This is a devastating day for our membership, it’s a devastating day for Canada and if Stephen Harper doesn’t wake up there will be no jobs left in this country that are meaningful.”
Lewenza added he would be pushing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for a public inquiry that would look at the sale of EMC right down to the day the plant closed.
London Mayor Joe Fontana was quick to express his shock at the way this decision was made. Saying it would have been “very sinister to put the employees and community through this” if the company had planned the closure all along, Fontana said more should have been done.
“I don’t know why this company failed to provide a little bit of respect to the community, respect to the employees and say ‘let’s try to work this thing out,’” Fontana said. “Just to arbitrarily, without even a last meeting, issue a press release, without giving me a call or giving the unions a call and say ‘guess what were closing’ . . . that’s not the mark of a good company.”
Progress Rail said it is in the process of notifying the workers of the company’s decision. In a letter given to workers, thanking them for “your good work and years of service,” Progress Rail stated it was regrettable “efforts to negotiate a new, competitive collative agreement were not successful.”
The lockout was instituted after the membership of Local 27 of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) rejected a final contract offer that would have instituted cuts of approximately 50 per cent to wages and benefits to workers at the factory.
Union officials have repeatedly stated the final offer would cut the wages to $16.50 from $35 an hour even as Caterpillar — EMC’s parent company — is enjoying record profits.
Prior to the lockout, a state made by Fleishman-Hillard, the Toronto public relations form contracted to speak on the company’s behalf, appeared to downplay any talk plant closure being the Caterpillar’s ultimate goal.
“EMC is equally dismayed that the CAW continues to make unfounded allegations of a plant closure, and the use of replacement production workers on Jan. 2 — both of which are false.”
Lewenza said EMC and the CAW bargaining team will meet Tuesday (Feb. 7) to discuss a closure agreement. Some workers still on the line aren’t optimistic EMC will bargain in better faith than a take it or leave it offer.
“I don’t expect them to be reasonable at all,” said Jay McIntosh, a five-year worker at EMC. “I can’t see them trying to be fair at this point.
- With files from Mike Maloney and Jonathon Brodie