by Cory Weir
GM Oshawa autoworker, Unifor Local 222
As we rolled into the town of Ingersoll on Friday night a familiar sight was noticeable from the highway: an otherwise quiet night sky filled with industrial light from a burgeoning automotive facility much like the one we had just finished our shifts at in Oshawa.
Striking workers from Unifor Local 88 and others lined the entrances to CAMI production facility, with tents and lawn chairs strewn around them. Spirits were high and music played from the back of a GM pickup truck as we piled out to join them. We were greeted warmly by our sisters and brothers as they entered the sixth night of their job action.
Moments after our arrival a security van drove by with surveillance cameras trained on the the workers. Hired by the company and tasked with monitoring strikes across the province, these pinkerton-lites spy on the picket line from a distance and report back like clockwork. Much like the constant supervision on the line, the workers remained largely unphased by their presence.
As we introduced ourselves to our fellow workers it didn’t take long for us to start talking contracts and strike demands. For all of us from Local 222 in Oshawa who had just weathered the signing of a disappointing 4 year deal with the auto giant the empathy was immediate and palpable.
Their demand for job security and a letter of lead production for the hot-selling Chevrolet Equinox struck us as both reasonable and well earned after the enormous profits the workers of CAMI have allowed General Motors to enjoy for many decades.
Workers were sick and tired of having their wages frozen while the cost of living skyrockets around them, and seek improvements to benefits that have grown in cost as well. Aside from the big-ticket demands, many of the issues they faced are the same as all workers regardless of the industry: dignity and respect in the workplace.
Corruption and disgust
The recent bombshell of corruption and collusion between Alfonse Iacobelli and top UAW leadership – where contract concessions were bought and sold through an illegal company/union slush-fund – left many of them with a bad taste in their mouths. This was especially true after finding out that Iacobelli was instrumental in inking the deal with Unifor last year.
They were disgusted by it and are determined not to go down the same road. Many of them expressed disbelief that the rest of the auto industry would ratify the pattern deal offered up in last year’s round of bargaining. During that round their plant chairperson Mike Van Boekel walked away from the table and issued a letter to his shop floor with a promise to never bring such an insulting deal back to CAMI. With the full support of the Local 88 membership, their local leadership have made good on that promise.
Global and local
It became clear throughout our stay that these workers see the importance that their strike carries for the rest of the auto industry and the broader workforce as they reject free trade deals like NAFTA that pit worker against worker in a global race to the bottom. As we shared our stories with each other, more skids were thrown on the fire barrels which sunk into the asphalt from the heat. We walked from entrance to entrance speaking with workers about their issues as well as broader social issues, and their resolve was the same at each line. They have planned for this and are determined to see it through until they win.
As sunrise came and went, we decided to stop into a local restaurant for breakfast. The workers serving up meals at Miss Ingersoll’s were very sympathetic to the strike. In a town of 13,000 everyone knows someone who works there and everyone is affected. A local independent grocery store has even changed their schedule to remain open around the clock providing free water and snacks to their striking family and friends. In the early morning members of the community stopped by with their families in tow to show their support for the strike. When workers build real solidarity in their community like Local 88 has it comes back tenfold when they hit the picket lines and fight for justice.
Their local mayor has come out in support of the strike and visited the picket lines, however their Oxford County Conservative MPP took to social media earlier that week and said he couldn’t take sides in the strike. “He doesn’t want to take sides? You just did asshole!” was the response from one worker who felt betrayed after risking his job for the security his family deserves. He would later change his tune and visit the strike after a barrage of anger on social media.
For the rest of us in the auto industry, we can only look on with admiration and pride for the principled stand of our sisters and brothers. As the strike wanes on these workers will feel the weight of economic hardship and uncertainty about their future, but they will prevail; it is in these moments of shared struggle that unbreakable bonds are forged and true working class solidarity flourishes.
As we said our temporary good-byes and drove away Saturday afternoon with a promise to return, I couldn’t help but look down at the barrels which had sunk even further into the asphalt. It seemed a fitting metaphor for these workers who have defiantly dug in their heels at what will be looked upon as a critical moment of resistance for all autoworkers in the pages of labour history.