By Gerard Di Trolio and Doug Nesbitt
The strike at the CAMI Automotive plant in Ingersoll, Ontario is of major importance to the labour movement. The 2,800 members of Unifor Local 88 have walked off the job in a battle for wages but crucially for job security. It’s the first GM strike in Canada since 1996 and first legal strike at CAMI since 1992.
Earlier this year some 400 jobs were lost as GM moved Terrain assembly to a plant in Mexico, leaving only the Equinox line at the plant. The union is fighting for contract language that will secure production.
It’s a gamble worth making. General Motors posted a massive $9.4 billion in profits last year and the CAMI plant is hugely profitable, one of the most productive and efficient in North America with numerous awards for quality. Only two years ago GM invested $560 million into a weld shop at the plant.
Strike against NAFTA
The problem of NAFTA in this strike is lost on no one. Unifor President Jerry Dias has been part of the efforts to renegotiate NAFTA to protect workers’ rights, rightly pointing out that so far it has been an “absolute disgrace” because it originally promised to improve workers lives in Mexico, Canada and the US. As the movement against free trade has pointed out all along NAFTA has been used as a race to the bottom by playing each country’s workers off each other.
CAMI workers, however, are showing a different way to take on NAFTA to secure jobs and production. Their strike is in stark contrast to what happened in the last round of pattern bargaining with the Big Three automakers of which CAMI is not a part of. Even though autoworkers in the Big Three bargaining delivered strike votes just as powerful as the 99.8 percent strike mandate CAMI workers delivered, a deal was cut that traded the maintenance of two-tier contracts and concessions for investments. Ratification votes were among the lowest in Canadian autoworker history, including 70% at FCA, 58% at Ford and 65% at GM.
Whereas last year’s auto bargaining was a huge disappointment, the CAMI strike has quickly won community and regional support. Fathers and daughters, husbands and wives are walking the line together and children of union families are getting an education they can’t get in class. The strike is bringing out support from autoworkers across the province, as well as teachers, postal workers, Steelworkers, government workers and more. Even a contingent of UAW workers from Rochester visited the lines. Ingersoll’s mayor is already calling for a good contract and production to stay.
The stellar record of labour solidarity from Local 88 members is being repaid. CAMI workers blockaded a locomotive in Ingersoll for an entire week in solidarity with the struggle at Electro-motive in early 2012. The locomotive was one of the last to leave the plant. CAMI workers also walked off the job in 2014 when a union rep was kicked off the shop floor. In December 1995, CAMI workers struck against the Mike Harris agenda in the London Day of Action cross-picketing the Ford Talbotville assembly plant.
1992: The strike that wasn’t supposed to happen
CAMI autoworkers have a rich history of fighting collectively and they have had to do so outside of the pattern bargaining at the other GM, Ford and FCA assembly plants. Local 88’s first strike was a strike that wasn’t even supposed to happen. The CAMI plant was supposed to be different.
CAMI was originally a joint venture of Suzuki and General Motors. Production began in 1989 and was built around concepts of “team spirit”, “worker empowerment” and the ideas of “kaizen”, a Japanese term for “continuous improvement”, and “yosh” meaning “go for it!” These “lean production” methods were supposed to mean big profits and happy workers.
But workers quickly discovered “lean production” and the other feel-good ideas were empty concepts used to institute a regime of management by stress. Grievances mounted as workers felt management was seeking total control over workers, and only interested in relentless productivity drives. As one striking CAMI worker said at the time: “CAMI was a great place to work until we started making cars. It seems that once we started production, all the values got tossed out.”
The mainstream media thought CAMI workers were crazy for delivering a 98.9% strike vote and then walking out in the middle of a brutal recession with huge auto job losses. But with huge community support and solidarity from across the labour movement, the workers kept their morale up and held out for five weeks, eventually winning major gains towards parity with other autoworkers in the province and contract language to fight arbitrary discipline from management.
CAMI workers point toward the need to take this power and solidarity beyond the border. The battle against NAFTA is going to require working with Mexican and American autoworkers and fighting against divisive phony nationalism. It means looking to Korea where GM workers there went on partial strike earlier this month as bargaining stalled and rumours swirled of GM pulling out of the country.
Automakers everywhere on the planet are going to continue to use the threat of relocation to coerce their workers to fall in line and expect less. Workers must face down their bosses in their plants while forging links across borders to restructure the global economy so that the bosses stop using threats to push forward a never ending race to the bottom for wages, benefits, and working conditions.
The CAMI strike has the potential to be the opening salvo of a renewed mass movement against NAFTA and the fight for a more equitable global economic order.
Follow developments on Twitter: @CamiJobAction @UniforLocal88 @Rankandfileca