By David Bush and Gerard Di Trolio
Despite public outrage and political controversy, EMD was shut down in February 2012 after its owner, Caterpillar, demanded 450 EMD employees take a 50 per cent pay cut. The workers rejected this demand and Caterpillar relocated most of its production to Indiana – a state which had just passed right-to-work laws. However, about 50 locomotive testers, design engineers and production planners remained employed in London until they were laid off in October 2015.
There are many lessons for the labour movement to learn when looking back at the struggle at EMD.
The most glaring lesson is the reality of free trade and the ability of capital to easily move between borders. The existence of NAFTA allowed Caterpillar to push for deep and concessions and ultimately made the EMD closure possible.
And it also shows the limits of government intervention in the age of free trade agreements. Both the federal and Ontario governments have lured jobs by offering subsidies and tax breaks for individual businesses. These deals come with no strings attached, and they are a poor substitute for a real industrial policy, something that is practically illegal under NAFTA.
With NAFTA up for renegotiation, labour must forcefully oppose any moves to make it worse for workers in Canada as well as the United States or Mexico. The weakening of worker standards in any of those countries impacts all workers. Between Trump and Trudeau labour must strike its own pro-worker path in the debate over the future of NAFTA.
Occupy and boycott
The labour movement also has to take stock of how it responded to the EMD closure. and how it can fight similar situations in the future.
There was tremendous public support for the EMD workers. The January 21 rally in downtown London drew thousands and even brought out local politicians who were not necessarily close to the labour movement.
However, this did not sway Caterpillar. Coming on the heels of Occupy there was a real possibility that if the union and the workers occupied, this could have galvanized the entire labour movement and changed the outcome at EMD.
One of the lessons we should take from the EMD closure is that the labour movement needs a proactive approach to organizing in communities like London which have seen many factory closures. A coordinated and well-timed boycott effort could have been organized by labour to unite and draw together a layer of activists and supporters right across the province like the Steelworkers did with the #BottlesNotCans movement.
Building broad public support and using that to pressure politicians to retain and create jobs in the community is essential to winning fights like the EMD lockout.
Resisting rightwing populism
The further erosion of manufacturing jobs in places like Southwestern Ontario, could prove a boon to far-right populism. Hucksters like Conservative Party leadership candidates Kevin O’Leary are already talking about the need to create jobs revitalize these communities. Patrick Brown, who has made political hay by standing against rising Hydro prices, has been linking the decimation in Ontario’s rustbelt to the lack business friendly policies. Polling well ahead their competitors, Ontario’s Tories are looking to ride a decade of economic frustration and resentment into power.
Five years later the lost battle at EMD should serve as a warning for the entire labour movement. Absent a response from labour and the left, the right will benefit from the frustration of good jobs disappearing. We can’t afford a right wing populist movement to pop up in another country, especially one that borders Trump’s America.