Fighting austerity in London, Ontario

By Gerard Di Trolio

London, Ontario has become a flashpoint showing the destructive intersection of austerity and neoliberal economic policy that has transformed Southwestern Ontario into Canada’s rustbelt.

CUPE Local 101 and allies in front of London City Hall
CUPE Local 101 and allies in front of London City Hall

With a population of nearly 370,000, London is Southwestern Ontario’s largest city and once boasted a diversified economy that included high quality higher education, health care, insurance, and manufacturing jobs.

London has been bleeding manufacturing jobs since the early 2000s, and the Great Recession and its aftermath have accelerated the process.

First there was the infamous Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) lockout of 2012 which culminated in parent company Caterpillar closing the EMD plant and moving operations to Indiana, which is a right-to-work state. This episode also showed the futility of government subsidies to attract and keep business in Canada as Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself had made a previous announcement of a $5 million subsidy while standing in the EMD plant in 2008.

Then there was the closure of the Kellogg’s plant in late 2014, after 100 years of producing Corn Flakes in London. There have been dozens of other factory closures in Southwestern Ontario since 2008.

Double-digit unemployment rates were not uncommon in London during the last recession, and homelessness and drug addiction have emerged as hot button issues in the city as a result. While unemployment has slowly come down to its lowest rate in eight years, it is a result of retiring workers, not strong job creation.

The CUPE 101 strike

The latest showdown in the city highlights the austerity that has been taking its toll on the public service. 750 members of CUPE Local 101 representing the city’s inside workers have been out on strike for nearly six weeks. The sticking points not only include wages, but issues of benefits, scheduling, and seniority rights.

The City of London has been taking a page from the private sector in its aggressive approach to bargaining. It is seeking to remove retirement benefits for new hires, creating a two-tier contract. CUPE Local 101 has also publicly raised the issue that the city’s scheduling demands – scheduling shifts anytime between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. and on weekends, smacks of sexism in a union that is predominantly made up of women. Municipal workers’ unions that are mostly male like fire, police, and outside workers were not asked to make such scheduling concessions in their last rounds of bargaining.

Striking workers have also been subjected to a bizarre campaign of intimidation by City Manager Art Zuidema who sent out angry letters about the strike to the workers’ homes, and has hired scab labour to help keep city departments running. Zuidema has also been encouraging Local 101 members to cross the picket line and a reported 40 or so have.

CUPE Local 101 and the city have returned to the bargaining table in the past week, but have maintained a media blackout. That has not stopped labour and community activists from joining Local 101 members on the picket lines at city hall or expressing their solidarity.

“We proudly stand together with all unionized groups in the city and with all our fellow brothers and sister firefighters across the province,” John Hassan, President of the London Professional Fire Fighters Association (LPFFA) told AM 980 Radio last week. The LPFFA has been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2010.

City politics and the local movement

While the labour movement in London has shown a tremendous amount of solidarity towards CUPE Local 101 members, it finds itself in an awkward position. The London and District Labour Council (LDLC) had endorsed 11 of the 13 city councillors that won election in October 2014, as well as the new mayor, Matt Brown. It did not take long for a split between council and the labour movement to emerge, leaving many activists skeptical of working with council after the strike is resolved.

Sign placed on the CUPE Local 101 picket line expressing the members' feelings about London's mayor
Sign placed on the CUPE Local 101 picket line expressing the members’ feelings about London’s mayor

“We had Matt Brown send a spokesperson to our local, telling us they supported us (in the movement against community mail boxes) and so on. And now, with what’s going on here, we don’t believe he’s got our best interests in mind,” says Lou Godoy, a Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) member involved in the movement to save home mail delivery. “I am definitely sorry that I voted for him, and I will definitely think twice next time around.”

But this setback in the electoral realm has not stopped the emergence of new progressive alliances in London. Emerging out of Occupy London, the London Common Front bridges the gap between the labour movement and other activists.

“I was part of Occupy, and that’s where the Common Front was born, when the labour council and the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) came out and supported us with our needs in the park. Just months afterwards, the Caterpillar struggle started and that gave us the chance to go and pay them back on their line,” says Anthony Verberckmoes, a member of the London Common Front. “And it was around that time that the Common Front started. The OFL had been pushing for unions to work more with grassroots movements.”

This collaboration opened up union members to new perspectives and tactics that the grassroots activists brought. “We had a screening of the movie The Take with a bunch of CAW workers down at the union hall. We did direct action training with them, we were talking about taking the (EMD) factory,” says Verberckmoes. “While it never went there, it was a small development, and since then the relationship has grown. London as a city, didn’t really have a tight relationship between radicals and the labour movement before.”

The LDLC, has embraced these new alliances and is looking to push forward with mobilizations like the London Common Front. “In terms of strategy there is lots of appetite across activist groups, unions, and social justice movements for mass mobilizations, and there’s a good chance we could see that in the fall. Certainly I will be pushing for that. A call for or return to a type of Days of Action,” says LDLC President Patti Dalton. “I think OSSTF has had a really solid model in terms of the selective local strikes and being supported financially by other districts so that those strikes can be sustainable.”

Health care and labour activists protesting in front of Deputy Premier Deb Matthews' constituency office against cuts to London area hospitals
Health care and labour activists protesting in front of Deputy Premier Deb Matthews’ constituency office against cuts to London area hospitals

Despite setbacks, political wrangling, and lost jobs there is a sense of serious resistance coming together in London. “I’m convinced that unions and activists have tremendous collective power that we really haven’t shown yet in the ways that we can in Canada,” says Dalton.

London was the site of the first Ontario Days of Action strike and protest on December 11, 1995. Labour and activists across the province and country may end up looking towards it again for inspiration as struggles intensify.

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