Canadian Auto Workers Block Plant Auction To Salvage Back Pay, Benefits

CAW members occupied a Windsor, Ontario plant of American-based Catalina Precision Products in March, winning eight weeks of pay owed to them, and then stopped the auction of the company’s equipment in November. Photo: Bob Cruise, CAW Local 195.

Why are workers in Canada forced to occupy plants and blockade workplaces in the hopes of getting what they are legally entitled to?

Currently our Canadian Auto Workers local is in a bitter struggle with an American-based company, Catalina Precision Products. The company made heat shields, battery trays, hood hinges, and other small but crucial parts for Chrysler. Its two Windsor facilities, Aradco/Aramco, employed 80 of our members.

In March 2009, management told employees not to report to work until further notice. Our only leverage for getting severance, vacation pay, and other benefits they were owed would come from blockading both these facilities. With help from CAW members of other locals and the labor council, up to 200 union members blocked trucks from entering the facilities.

Police presence increased quickly, and we decided to occupy the Aradco plant. We were aware that the parts were needed by Chrysler to keep its production flowing.

Eight members chained the doors shut from the inside and stopped the company from removing valuable equipment, tooling, and parts needed by their customers and the owners.

Our CAW attorneys and top national officers negotiated with Chrysler, and after four days of blockade and occupation, Chrysler finally came up with a small portion of the money owed, about eight additional weeks of pay.

Still, this fraction was $400,000 more than we had prior to taking on this fight. Our occupation was a small victory for these workers.

In early October Aradco and Aramco put up “sold” signs, and our staff rep discovered an asset auction was scheduled for mid-November. A viewing of the equipment was scheduled for November 16, with an auction scheduled the next day at the Radisson Hotel.

Again, about 200 supporters and members from Aradco and Aramco gathered. We approached the hotel. The police told us we were on private property and were not welcome to enter. But we forced our way through the door. The elevators were shut off, so we ran up the stairs, finding more police and the auction underway.

NOT DONE YET

We muscled our way in and took over the entire room. Police reinforcements arrived, telling us we had to leave. We told them we were there to bid on the equipment. Eventually negotiations produced a postponement of the auction.

Upon leaving the hotel we received a call from the consultant representing Catalina, asking for a meeting. Those discussions led to the first conversation with the employer since the closing of the facility. The company agreed to stand down on the auction until a meeting with the CAW could be arranged.

We decided to take our fight to Detroit, in front of Comerica Bank—the company’s major creditor. Brothers and sisters from Michigan unions joined us at a November 24 rally, and United Electrical Workers Local 1011—the Republic Windows workers out of Chicago—sent a letter of support and a check for $300.

WORTHLESS LAWS

Bringing a fight across the border and finding support is a rarity. The showing of international solidarity was enough to spook the company, however, drawing a message from Catalina’s attorney the same day. Not bad, considering the company had no contact with us for nine months!

Two days after we went to Detroit, we called on the provincial government in Toronto. They told us they had sent letters to the company about our concerns.

The laws on severance and termination are not worth the paper they are written on! In France, two principal executives from Catalina have been convicted of embezzlement, with two five-year sentences as well as up to $30 million in fines.

The French government held these individuals responsible for closing a plant and putting 300 French workers out of work without paying them what they were owed.

Why does our union have to spend time and resources trying to win severance pay through bankruptcy courts? Why do we have to bargain with third parties to win severance for workers abandoned by their employers? Why do workers owed thousands of dollars end up with significantly less than what they are entitled to, or nothing at all?

It is time to speak with one voice for those organized and those not organized. We’re calling for others to take up the CAW campaign to Save Our Severance! It’s time for the government to change the law from its current restrictions. Here are four proposals:

• Reform bankruptcy laws to give workers secured-creditor status.

• Exclude severance pay from the calculation of unemployment benefits.

• Allow “severance trusts” to be set up by mutual agreement between employers and bargaining units.

• Require justification for plant closings, hold employers publicly accountable, and support interventions to keep workplaces open.

This fight is far from over. We are determined to keep the issue in the forefront regardless of what happens with Aradco/Aramco, as the law must be changed to protect all workers.



Gerry Farnham is the president of CAW Local 195.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #370, January 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.