National Steel Car workers on strike for their lives

By Dave McKee 

When most of us go into work, we don’t ask ourselves if this is the shift that will end with the death of one of our co-workers. But for workers at National Steel Car (NSC) in Hamilton, that has happened three times in the past 21 months. And now, they are on strike against the rail car manufacturer, fighting for key contract changes that will make their workplace fairer and safer.

The 1480 workers are members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7135. They work in all areas of production, from welding to painting to crane operation.

NSC is a privately held company, so its financial information isn’t publicly available but estimates from financial websites put its revenue at around $540 million annually. That works out to nearly $365,000 in revenue per production worker, so NSC is making quite a killing (literally) off its workforce.

Based on that kind of surplus value, you’d expect NSC to be ponying up a decent wage package during negotiations. Not so, according to Local 7135 President Frank Crowder. He says the company has offered 10 percent over three years, but that other areas in the same industrial sector are getting 14-16 percent over three years. Furthermore, the company’s offer doesn’t even approach inflation, which topped 8 percent last year. “In this environment, 10 percent over three years just isn’t good enough,” Crowder told PV. “You have to at least match inflation, if not better.”

In fact, wages at NSC are so out of step with the industry and the cost of living, that the company is having a hard time attracting new workers. Crowder says that the picket line is marching in the shadow of a sign from the employer (which went up before the strike) advertising for 200 skilled positions. But poor pay – and, no doubt, notoriously unsafe working conditions – mean the positions go unfilled. And that means existing workers have to work harder, which further jeopardizes safety.

Boss’s “incentive” program key to unsafe work environment

The heart of the problem is NSC’s peculiar pay system. About 75 percent of production workers (welders and painters especially) work on an “incentive program” under which they get a base wage plus a piecework rate that amounts to about 25 percent of their pay. But the program only extends to what the employer deems to be production time – it excludes prep time and cleanup, so it leaves workers effectively getting a 25 percent pay cut during those periods, which could be a couple of hours or more.

So, unsurprisingly, workers will start their shift early and work through lunches and breaks. They are “incentivized” by the boss to cut corners, rush, take risks. It’s a ticking time bomb that has gone off with fatal consequences three times in less than two years.

Beyond safety considerations, the program is unfair. The 25 percent of workers who are not part of it includes crane operators, for example, who still have to keep pace with welders and painters, supplying them with material. They get no additional compensation for their sped-up work. It’s a clever – and evil – way for the boss to divide the workforce while cashing in on productivity.

Crowder says that the incentive program is a key issue. And he and the union have put a clear solution on the table: “either remove the program and bring wages up to par or involve the union in the time studies and setting the rates.”

It’s a tough fight. The incentive program has been in place since before NSC was first unionized in the 1940s (the plant was one of the first big industrial organizing victories in Canada by what was then called the Steel Workers Organizing Committee). Crowder points out that the union has not been involved with it, and it is not grievable or arbitrable – another key problem.

The issue of the program has been becoming more serious over recent years. The union has tabled changes to it in the last three rounds of bargaining, including this one. The company, though, was openly angered and hostile the first couple of times and, with other immediate matters to deal with, the union backed off its demands. While safety conditions improved a bit following Ministry of Labour investigations into the workplace fatalities, the company’s human resources department continues to intimidate workers who want to discuss safety concerns. Now, safety and the incentive program are at the centre of the fight.

Divided workplace, united union

With the combination of unfair pay and an extremely dangerous work environment, all related to the incentive program, you might expect that the membership delivered an overwhelming strike vote. But the company’s final offer was only turned down by only 52 percent of the workers.

There are myriad reasons for how workers vote on an offer, but one of the key factors in this case is NSC’s effort to divide the workplace by playing one group against the others. An example is the fact that one-quarter of the production workers aren’t subject to the incentive program, even though it drives a lot of their working conditions. Another is NSC’s pension plans, which is a two-tier arrangement that provides DB (defined benefit) pensions to one group, but DC (defined contribution) to another. Crowder says that the company purposely stalls on improvements to the DB side, keeping those pension benefits lower and playing it off against the DC side.

Another example of the company’s eleventh-hour offer of a $1 per hour wage increase to selected trades each of two years of the contract, while keeping the wage increase low for everyone else. In this case, NSC arbitrarily defined who was a “skilled trade” and eligible for the increase, while leaving out a lot of other skilled workers. In the end, the company identified around 100 workers who would receive the bonus.

A union that has been divided by the employer and which only turned down the boss’s offer by the slimmest of margins may sound like a pretty precarious basis for a strike. But the picket line at National Steel Car radiates the kind of unity and solidarity that are crucial to maintaining and winning a strike. Crowder describes the Local 7135 picket line as “one of the best lines ever,” noting that the union has games (including axe throwing), movie nights, music and lots of working-class spirit. Community groups are turning up to provide picket line support, and local businesses are sending food, water and gift/discount certificates to the striking workers.

Making a workplace fight into a political struggle

Among the people who have showed up to bring solidarity to the picket line are Hamilton Centre NDP MP Matthew Green and NDP Ontario leader Marit Stiles. Stiles addressed the workers and stated: “This company, like so many other companies, is making billions, billions on the backs of working people … who are going to lose their homes if this company doesn’t come forward with a solid deal.” She’s right, of course, but there’s a political dimension to this struggle that goes beyond the collective agreement dispute, and which the NDP needs to be pushed into being a part of.

Crowder tried, by asking Stiles why the federal and provincial governments have provided billions and billions of dollars in assistance to auto manufacturers (both unionized and non-unionized), but not to rail. The NSC plant is more than one hundred years old – some areas still have a dirt floor – and is desperately in need of upgrades to improve efficiency, productivity and safety. Stiles said she would raise the issue with the provincial government.

But there’s more political work that labour can demand from the NDP. What about strong plant closure and plant safety legislation which requires an employer to answer publicly for relocation or workplace injury, with stiff consequences like jail time for executives or nationalization of their plants? What about yanking all public contracts from companies that don’t provide fair wages and pensions, benefits, working conditions and union rights for their workers? What about a shorter work week with no loss in take-home pay, so that workers get both jobs and leisure time? What about implementing the Westray Law, which treats critical injuries on the job under the Criminal Code, not just the Labour Code.

Building workplace fights into political struggles is key to winning real, enduring gains for the working class. But doing that requires the support and mobilization from the broader labour movement and community. USW members often proudly say, “One day longer, one day stronger,” when referring to a strike. We could add to that, “One more day of unity, one more day of solidarity.”

[Photo: Matthew Green Twitter]

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