The MANA lockout in Hamilton

unnamedBy Evan Johnston

The arrival of Max Aicher North America (MANA) in Hamilton was supposed to be a success story, ushering in a new era of advanced steel manufacturing in a beleaguered steel city eager for good news. Public money was thrown its way by both the province and the city as politicians saw their next big chance to bring new manufacturing jobs back to Ontario.

Instead, the story of MANA has become a case-study in corporate fraud, union-busting, and the politicians who enable it by looking the other way.

Workers of United Steelworkers Local 1005 (USW 1005) at the MANA mills in Hamilton, Ontario, have been locked out for over three and a half years, and have twice rejected concessionary “final offers” from their employer.

They have been up against broken promises, layoffs, reductions in hours, threats, and scabs. But through it all, they have held firm to their principles, and are waging a fight to preserve the dignity of Hamilton steelworkers.

“A great economic story for Hamilton”

In April 2010, Max Aicher North America announced their intent to purchase the No. 1 Bar Mill and the No. 3 Bloom and Billet Mill from U.S. Steel. The deal was closed by November, and the existing workers of US Steel were bought as part of what’s called an “asset sales agreement.”

U.S. Steel had owned the mills for only a short-time after having bought them from Stelco in 2007, but they had been losing money as a combined result of the economic crisis of 2008 and internal mismanagement.

At the time of the sale to MANA, members of USW 1005 were told that their new employer had no problem with their collective agreement, and there was hope for renewed production in facilities that U.S. Steel had recently rendered dormant.

It seemed to some to be an unlikely purchase, but MANA needed a North American location in order to supply three of its most important markets: mining, construction, and auto.

The automotive industry was the most important, as many of MANA’s major customers have established operations in the U.S. and require their suppliers to be close for “just-in-time” production.

Additionally, there is significant cost savings from shipping products out of Hamilton as compared to Germany, where their headquarters are located.

The purchase of the mills by MANA were announced with great fanfare, including a 9 million dollar loan to MANA from the Ontario government to finance the purchase of new equipment. The city of Hamilton contributed more than $200,000 to dispose of 18 PCB-laden transformer units as part of the Environmental Remediation and Site Enhancement (ERASE) Program.

At a joint press conference in November 2010, Sandra Pupatello — then Ontario Minister of Economic Development and Trade in the McGuinty government — hailed the “rejuvenation” of the facility, stating that the mills “won’t be quiet anymore.”

The purchase of MANA, according to Pupatello, would mark a shift from imports to an increase in manufacturing in our own backyard. “That is a great economic story for Hamilton — steel capital of North America,” she said.

The Liberals’ corporate buddies at MANA waxed equally as poetic about the bright future of steel manufacturing in Ontario.

MANA CFO David Cameron promised that the sale would result “in the creation of new jobs,” and was going to be “a value-added economic win-win for MANA and for the province of Ontario.” He said they would be bringing 200 high-paying and skilled jobs back to Hamilton, and there was reason for everyone to be cautiously optimistic.

The rejuvenation betrayed

When the bar and bloom mills were idled by U.S. Steel, they employed about 300 workers. When MANA took over in November 2010, they acquired 59 workers who were sold as part of the asset sales agreement, and hired another 58 (54 retired members and 4 new electrical apprentices).

Immediately following the sale to MANA, workers were called back to work just a week having after been locked out by US Steel. Workers got the bar mill back up and running by the end of 2010, and they started up production after 2 years of inactivity.

But the promise of new work and a rejuvenated steel industry quickly faded.

In June 2011, MANA laid off 40 workers, and by September, a second wave of layoffs brought production to a halt. By November, a little over 20 workers were left.

For most of 2012, MANA reduced hours at the mills for the remaining workers to 32 hours per week, and things finally came to a head in December 2012 when the last of the layoffs came.

Concessions or bust

USW 1005 had been attempting to negotiate a new collective agreement with MANA since 2010, but negotiations broke in February 2013 after MANA tabled a “final offer” that demanded massive concessions on every front: wages, pensions, and benefits.

MANA is proposing seven pay levels ranging from $18.70 to $25.26 per hour. Compared to the old levels of $27 to $35, the new grid would mean a cut of approximately $10 per hour. On top of that, MANA wants to eliminate the cost of living allowance (COLA) for active workers, which means that workers could expect at a 20-30% pay cut overall.

On the pension front, MANA is joining lock-step with other employers in the private sector in their attack on stable, guaranteed pensions. In addition to scrapping indexation for existing pensioners, MANA proposes to move from a defined-benefit (DB) pension plan to a defined-contribution (DC) plan, with a minor transition period for workers with greater seniority.

Thomas Walkom summed up what is at stake in accepting a DC plan during the recent Unifor-GM negotiations: “A defined-benefit pension allows for some certainty. Those who pay in over their working lives know what they will receive at retirement. They can plan. By contrast, a defined-contribution plan is a crap shoot. Contributors know what they have to pay in. But what they get out at retirement depends on the behaviour of the stock and money markets. Such plans are, in effect, souped-up RRSPs.”

Benefits are also on the chopping block, with MANA proposing to cut the amount of weeks workers can take as part of their sick benefit, and is proposing reductions to both their vision and dental plans. MANA even wants to remove pensioners from the benefits plan altogether.

Lockout and scabs

It should come as no surprise that the members of USW 1005 rejected these concessions in overwhelming numbers. In June 2012, workers voted down the employer’s first “final offer” with 73% against, which should have sent a clear message to MANA that their proposals had gone too far.

Negotiations continued into March 2013, and workers were asked to vote on another “final offer.” It was voted down again, this time with a resounding 85.7% voting against it.

And on June 23, members of USW 1005 were officially locked out.

To add insult to injury, Tim Blackborow, MANA Unit Chairperson for USW 1005, notes that workers “were locked out prior to being eligible for severance on June 29th.”

In retaliation, MANA began to not only direct supervisors to perform bargaining unit work, but they also brought in scabs. They signed a collective agreement with the Building Union of Canada (BUC) in May 2014 to represent construction workers at the facilities.

Steve Arnold of The Hamilton Spectator reported that “the construction work being planned will rehabilitate the structure after years of idleness” and would cover as many as 300 workers.

Of course, the primary aim of bringing in BUC was to further demoralize the members of USW 1005, and to add further pressure on the workers to give in to the massive concessions.

And BUC was the ideal partner for this type of union-busting. BUC is a union not affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, and its stock-and-trade is raiding other locals and providing scab labour. It also happens to be the personal fiefdom of Craig Bromell, former head of the Toronto Police Association and self-styled “Copfather”. During the lockout, BUC has even tried (but failed) tried to sign-up members of USW 1005 and decertify the local.

The lock-out has been a vicious assault on the rights of these workers. MANA has made it quite clear that they have no intention to negotiate fairly with USW 1005, and instead of directing their negotiators to meet with the union, they’ve been spending time filing court injunctions to limit picketing, bringing in scabs, and using BUC as a battering ram.

MANA’s behaviour has been shameful, and the Ontario government — who were more than happy to write them a cheque and turn-up for the photo-op — have been nowhere to be found.

unnamed-1Solidarity with USW 1005

It’s been over three and a half years, but the attacks by MANA haven’t broken the workers’ resolve. The locked-out members of USW 1005 continue to fight for dignity and fairness in the face of a corporation that’s “out for revenge” (in the words of former 1005 president Rolf Gerstenberger).

Tim Blackborow describes MANA as “an employer that has no respect for it’s employees, the union and its representatives,” but he is still fighting for what he and the members have always wanted: “a just collective agreement.”

As we enter 2017, Blackborow says that he wants “the few members who wished to return to MANA to do so, the few members who wished to retire in dignity to do so, and the members who wished to move on and put US Steel and MANA employment behind them to do so.”

As a labour movement, we need to step up our solidarity and make 2017 the year that MANA backs down and negotiates fairly with 1005.

If you are a member of a union, consider bringing a motion forward at your next membership meeting to donate to the strike fund of USW 1005. You can mail the cheque to USW 1005, 350 Kenilworth Ave N, (second floor), Hamilton, Ontario L8H 4T3. If you aren’t sure how to write a motion, see our sample motion below.

You can organize a car or bus trip to their next solidarity rally. USW 1005 regularly organizes solidarity events at the MANA gates under the Burlington Street overpass, their most being their rally in December 2016. You can watch for their updates on the USW 1005 Facebook or on their website.

You can also put pressure on MANA by sending them messages directly. Their North American mailing address is: Max Aicher North America Ltd., 855 Industrial Drive, Hamilton, ON, Canada, L8L 0B2.

And just to be sure they receive it, you can also send a copy to their main headquarters in Germany: Max Aicher GmbH & Co. KG, Teisenbergstrasse 7, 83395 Freilassing, GERMANY.

Sample motion:

Whereas members of USW 1005 have been locked-out by Max Aicher North America (MANA) for over three and a half years; and

Whereas they are locked-out for twice rejecting an agreement with major concessions that would result in a $10 per hour wage cut, a weakened pension plan, and cuts to their benefits; and

Whereas their Employer has been refusing to negotiate fairly, and have instead resorted to using scabs; and

Whereas the members of USW 1005 are still fighting for a just collective agreement and deserve our solidarity; therefore

Be it resolved that we donate [$______] to the USW Local 1005 MANA Strike Fund; and

Be it further resolved that we send a letter to Thomas Fetzer, President of MANA, demanding that the company returns to the bargaining table to reach a just collective agreement.

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