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Interview: autoworkers vs Wynne

By: 
Ritch Whyman

May 29, 2018

One of the backdrops to the election in Ontario, is the changes that were made this year to the Employment Standards Act, known as Bill 148. These changes increased minimum wage to $14 in 2018 and $15 in 2019, and made a large swath of changes that opened the door to improved working conditions for workers in Ontario.

However not all workers in Ontario received the same benefits from these changes. The over 120,000 workers in the automotive assembly and parts industry in Ontario were excluded from one of the larger gains in Bill 148, two paid emergency leave days. This exclusion was met with almost deafening silence from the labour movement, the union for autoworkers UNIFOR.

However, a grassroots group “Autoworkers against Wynne” came together over Facebook to try and raise awareness and petition about the unfairness of it all and pressure the Liberals and UNIFOR into reversing this exclusion. They held a rally at Queens Park on June 16, which was the first rally organised by non-union autoworkers in living memory.

William Murray who has been employed at the Toyota assembly plant in Woodstock, Ontario for 15 years spoke to Socialist.ca about the experience of being excluded and the attempt to organise to fight that exclusion. 

How did “Autoworkers Against Wynne” come together?

WM: Autoworkers had already been excluded in 2017 from some of the Personal Emergency Leave days by the Liberal government. Everyone else had these 10 PEL unpaid days, autoworkers had 3 days removed that couldn’t be used for anything but bereavement. We were all under the impression that we’d be getting these days back when the new ESA changes came into effect.

In November of 2017, we found out that we weren’t going to get them back. I was in a management roundtable meeting and we were told that we wouldn’t get the days back. Somehow HR knew, but we didn’t.

We called around asking MPPs is this was true and finally a Liberal MPP confirmed it.  So, I started a facebook page to oppose the exclusion. We all thought originally it would just be non-union workers affected by this, but it turned out to be everyone union included.

How did it affect union plants?

Allies of our campaign from CAMI (a GM assembly plant) in Woodstock said that their Short-Term disability now count as PEL days. Basically, the removal of having 10 PEL days to 7, and then the exclusion of getting 2 paid PEL days has lowered standards for everyone in the industry, thanks Kathleen.

How was the response from your co-workers and other in non-union workplaces?

Support was varied, some came from the pro-union group, some from outside of the normal activists. Support was built by word of mouth. It was a totally grassroots campaign.

We set up a petition that circulated in some places, but it was hard. There was some uptake in feeder plant or two. Some still believed we’d get the days back. Sadly, we’ve been nickeled and dimed for so many years by the Companies and Government, people get kind of used to it.

What about other support? The NDP? UNIFOR?

The ONDP has been very supportive, they’ve raised it in parliament. Lisa Gretzky and Jennifer French sponsored a private members bill to get our days back. The other parties won’t promise anything. But outside of that we’ve basically been on our own. There has been some great support from pockets in UNIFOR locals in Peterborough, Oshawa and at CAMI. There was some talk or a group organising at Honda, but it doesn’t seem to have materialised.

We really tried to get UNIFOR on board, we assumed they’d be fighting against this. But, UNIFOR wouldn’t respond to us. They didn’t even reach out to us when they met to discuss this with the government. They took a hand-picked group instead, despite us calling and emailing them. For the rally we organised on June 16 UNIFOR pretty much refused to support it, they called for a rally in Windsor to support the Casino strike there, which is great for those workers, but it felt like they were trying to undermine our rally. Its been frustrating and disappointing both in trying to get other autoworkers to get involved and from the lack of support from the unions.

Wouldn’t this have been a good place to re-invigorate the union drive?

Some people have lost faith in that given that the union knew about the first changes and really did nothing. But likely it was a lost opportunity, especially as some of the support for our petition was from people that traditionally didn’t support the union and those pushing it weren’t the core of union supporters at Toyota.

What about the review panel the Liberals have initiated to look at the exemption?

It felt like that as we were trying o get people out to our rally on the 16th Jerry Dias and the Government made this announcement to undermine our efforts.

Autoworkers never had a say in the legislation, the average autoworker isn’t in the union anymore, it doesn’t speak for us. This review panel has no transparency. Its made up of a Ford company executive and Buzz Hargrove, who has no idea about what its like for non-union autoworkers. No one talks to us.

Did you have any knowledge or connection to the $15 and Fairness campaign.

A guy from that spoke at our rally on the 16th, that was the first time we’d had any connection. I’m glad to hear that people are pushing against the exclusion beyond just us.

What is next for the campaign?

We have lots to do to try and educate our co-workers, but also the public. I mean people get told autoworkers get extra days off and have it good. But they don’t know we often have to work 6 days a week, we have forced overtime, it’s hard work. Once you get down to the parts plants the pay isn’t that good. It’s so disappointing that we had these exclusions, and no one seemed to care.

Right now, the few of us driving this are tired. The best we can do at present is try and get the people who signed our petition to go to all candidates debates and raise questions about this. Challenge the Liberals and Conservatives.

I hope we get an NDP government, they are the only people who have supported us, but I worry that autoworkers will take bigger hits.

We know that our pensions aren’t safe. As goes the union locations so goes Toyota. As soon as Ford, GM, FCA lost their pensions for new hires, Toyota did the same. I mean we’re all in the same boat.

 

 

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