Windsor Humanist Society

May 26, 2007

Canadian Auto Workers’ Union Shifts Focus

Filed under: Uncategorized — moderator @ 3:15 pm

In the last five years, Windsor has watched almost 18,000 jobs disappear. In the last year alone, Windsor lost 8,000 well-paying manufacturing positions. That does not include more than 1,000 announced job cuts still pending at the Big Three. Nor does it include more than 1,000 people who took severance packages or retirement earlier than they wished. Nor does it include further spinoff job losses that may come.

Some rare good news in the auto sector locally, however, is that Chrysler is retooling with a billon-dollar investment to build a new minivan at the Windsor assembly plant, though with 1,100 fewer workers.

“It is a crisis,” Union leader Ken Lewenza said. “Everybody feels more insecure today than ever.”

Mr. Lewenza spoke about widespread hardship of union members and their families, about how even some union locals may vanish without government action. Specifically, Mr. Lewenza advocates laws which require reciprocal trade with other countries, and lowering the high-flying loonie.

As for unions, which often battle negative perceptions, Mr. Lewenza says change is afoot.

The last Big Three strike came in 1987.

Unions started at the turn of last century concerned mostly with low wages and poor working conditions. They have traditionally resisted technological improvements. Not so now, Mr. Lewenza argues. “I care more about investment today than I do about any other collective bargaining issue,”

 he said, “If you don’t have investment, you don’t have jobs”.

“Unions have always changed. Now we’ve kind of moved into the investment mode, the product mode.”

But does the public see a more flexible union movement?

Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis’s state of the city address May 14 ruffled some feathers. Mayor Francis suggested labour leaders refrain from talking tough lest potential investment be scared off.

“Many people inside our city believe things about Windsor that are simply not true. For example, some believe we have militant labour unions in our city,” said Mayor Francis, who praised the economic, cultural and charitable benefit of local unions. Though he stressed that militancy is a misperception, he asked for more assurance from the labour community.

“We are being watched very closely by investors,” Mayor Francis said. “That’s why I am calling upon our labour movement to show Windsorites, and to show the world, that we are modern and sophisticated. That we have moved on. That we share a common interest that balances job security and corporate success.”

Mayor Francis also noted that officials are chatting with companies considering Windsor, and that The Financial Times of London recently named Windsor the No.1 small city for business investment in North America.

Tony Faria, chairman of the department of marketing and management science at the University of Windsor, predicts the “Our Jobs, Our Community, Our Future” rally scheduled for this Sunday won’t help.

“If you talk to business people around town or if you talk to business people out of town we do have a negative image as a really militant union area, which hurts us in investment,” Tony Faria said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily as militant as our image suggests, but we are a little militant.”

Mr. Faria also considers looking for government intervention misdirected.

“What can the government do to save manufacturing jobs, other than do things that are artificial?” Mr. Faria asked. “Establish trade barriers not to let products into the country? That won’t benefit consumers. Subsidize business so that companies can operate inefficiently?”

Mr. Faria said North America will continue to lose manufacturing jobs — and that becoming more competitive in a global economy requires lower costs, particularly through wages.

“The current wage rates we see in the auto industry are not sustainable,” Mr. Faria said, noting that typical hourly workers earn from $28 to $35 an hour at the Big Three. “The level of wage rates are well beyond what the skills of the job call for. The level of benefits are matched only by government officials.”

Competition reduces union clout, Mr. Faria believes.

With the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Jan. 1, 1994, some people worried that jobs would migrate to Mexico. Now, Mr. Faria notes, Mexican jobs are heading to even lower-wage countries.

“Our standard of living is going to fall,” said Bill Wellington, associate professor of marketing at the Odette School of Business. “Our wages and standard of living have to fall while other countries’ wages rise until they balance out. I don’t see changing that as possible, given global markets.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Wellington, who has advised a union local on public relations, suggests labour organizations need an image makeover.

“I suggested that instead of going with ‘Buy Canadian’ campaigns, which sound like begging, they should talk about all the good they’re doing and how they contribute,” he said. “They do a lot of charity in the community and they contribute tremendously by volunteering — so they should emphasize how much unions give back to the community.”

Union members locally have donated millions to local charities, including The United Way, The University of Windsor, Hospice of Windsor, sports organizations, food banks and many other social justice causes. Mr. Wellington suggests using a “CAW Working For” campaign, which highlights community benefits on everything from billboards and stationary to websites and print ads

Windsor West MPP Sandra Pupatello uses the local labour force as a selling point, even if potential investors voice concern about Windsor’s union-town image.

“People certainly ask me about it, but that is a perfect opportunity for me to launch into the great partnerships you find in this area. I always speak about our workforce as one of our biggest selling points. We flaunt it as a positive. We’ve got one of the most educated, highly skilled workforces in a concentrated area anywhere in North America.”

Nevertheless, as Ontario’s minister of economic development and trade, Ms. Pupatello is concerned about job losses, and on Thursday announced support for tool-and-die companies as well as displaced workers seeking new work, and a local economic summit Aug. 24.

Buzz Hargrove, president of The Canadian Auto Workers union, calls the loss of manufacturing jobs permanent — unless something is done.

“It’s only permanent if we don’t have any government action, if this Harper government doesn’t get off its ass and deal with the import question,” he said. “Canada has the highest level of vehicle imports since 1985, and it was considered a crisis then.

“But we also have transplants (car company plants from other countries) now that are capturing 20 per cent of the market. So over 50 per cent of the market is going to offshore manufacturers who don’t make the same kind of commitment to jobs.”

Mr. Hargrove said that strong economies are built on strong policy, not laissezfaire ideology.

“We’re calling for a North American type autopact, where we work with the U.S. government which is facing the same challenges we are,” Mr. Hargrove said. “GM, Ford and Chrysler are closing all kinds of plants in the United States.”

Mr. Hargrove said while Canada is losing 2,000 Chrysler jobs, the U.S. is losing 11,000, plus some 30,000 Ford and GM jobs disappearing from North America.

The original Autopact, Mr. Hargrove said, was a boon for Canadian jobs.

“That’s what built the economy in Windsor, the Canada-U.S. Autopact in 1965,”  Mr. Hargrove said. “Thousands of new jobs were created within a decade.”

He believes the government should ensure that countries which sell to Canada must buy as many vehicles from us, or produce as many in this country, or no deal.

Meanwhile, he said unions are transforming, too, becoming more flexible and business-minded. He says studies from corporate-analysis firms such as J.D. Power and Associates and Harbor Associates show that Ontario quality and productivity is exceptional.

“So we’re doing everything right,”  Mr. Hargrove said. “The problem is the government is allowing the jobs to be created in Japan and South Korea today and China and India tomorrow if we don’t do something about it.”

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…this post forwarded by a Windsor Humanist (N.Hod) after a May 26, 2007 article in The Windsor Star

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