Ottawa Turns Its Back on Steelworkers-Op-Ed

Aug 23, 2013

U.S. Steel’s destructive agenda is tacitly condoned by Harper government

By Marty Warren, Ontario Director of the United Steelworkers

For the second time in three years, 1,000 families in Nanticoke and surrounding communities face an uncertain future, targeted again by a deliberate attack on working-class living standards achieved over generations of struggle in Canada.

U.S. Steel’s lockout of employees at the Lake Erie Works steel mill — now in its 17th week — reflects the impunity foreign multinationals enjoy to slash Canadian jobs and drive down wages, benefits and working conditions.

U.S. Steel, in particular, has ample reason to believe it has the tacit consent of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to run roughshod over Canadian working families.

In 2007, the Harper Conservatives approved U.S. Steel’s takeover of Canadian steelmaker Stelco. The deal included legally binding commitments from U.S. Steel to maintain production levels and a 3,100-strong workforce at former Stelco operations.

Time after time, the Harper Conservatives have demonstrated they stand with giant multinationals that abuse their dominant economic power.

U.S. Steel broke those legally binding commitments, with devastating results for working families and pensioners whose combined losses ran into tens of millions of dollars.

"(Their) working lives, retirement and income security have been seriously and adversely affected," a Federal Court judge stated in 2011 after legal proceedings were launched against U.S. Steel.

The legal action was brought against U.S. Steel under terms of the Investment Canada Act, which dictates foreign takeovers must provide a "net benefit" to Canadians.

The government’s case against U.S. Steel included expert analysis that concluded the company knew full well the implications of its legal commitments. Even in the midst of the recession, fulfilling those promises "would not have threatened the financial viability" of the company, the analysis concluded.

However, rather than enforce the law and hold U.S. Steel accountable, the Harper government struck a secret deal that abruptly ended the court case. Promises of jobs and healthy production levels were abandoned. Workers, pensioners and communities devastated by U.S. Steel’s behaviour were denied their day in court.

With a nudge and a wink from our federal government, U.S. Steel was free to continue its onslaught against Canadian employees and pensioners.

U.S. Steel has now followed the same transparent, destructive pattern in three successive rounds of contract negotiations with former Stelco employees — twice at Lake Erie Works and once at Hamilton’s Hilton Works.

In each case, U.S. Steel has betrayed even the pretense of attempting to negotiate a fair deal for Canadian employees. The agenda has been to abuse the full force of its corporate power and resources to impose its will — under threat of arbitrary, lengthy shutdowns.

In each instance the workers refused to be provoked into a strike. To their credit, they proposed to keep operating their plants while pursuing a settlement through good-faith negotiations aided by government mediation.

U.S. Steel’s agenda dictated otherwise. It locked out Lake Erie Works employees for eight months in 2009-2010, then imposed an 11-month lockout in Hamilton in 2010-2011.

In April of this year, with carte blanche from the federal and Ontario governments to do as it pleases, U.S. Steel locked out Lake Erie Works employees for a second time. Four months later, the community’s largest employer remains shut down.

The locked-out employees, members of United Steelworkers Local 8782, remain committed to negotiating a fair collective agreement and are eager to get back to work.

They have received tremendous support within and outside their community, from like-minded Canadians who understand the need to resist a relentless and orchestrated assault on our middle class.

The workers, their families and supporters will continue to fight the good fight. However, it is beyond shameful that they don’t have their government on their side.

Time after time, the Harper Conservatives have demonstrated they stand with giant multinationals that abuse their dominant economic power to drive down our working and living standards and eliminate good jobs. It is part and parcel of the Conservatives’ low-wage economic strategy for our country.

Earlier this year, without meaningful public debate or consultation, the Harper government decided to arbitrarily amend the Investment Canada Act, folding the changes into its latest omnibus budget bill.

The Conservatives’ changes weaken the Act. They allow for more foreign takeovers to be rubber-stamped. Secret deals will remain the norm. Neither the government nor multinational corporations will be required to consult with, or be accountable to, the Canadian families and communities directly affected by foreign takeovers.

It has never been clearer that only a change in government can reverse this disgraceful trend.


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