An End and the Beginning

by Glen

Well, it’s over. Tears filled our eyes this morning as my wife and I heard that Caterpillar had finally made the decision to cut its workers loose and shut down the plant for good. Jane wondered if I had perhaps invested so much in the lockout over the last few weeks that I hadn’t prepared myself for the news. Perhaps she was right.

What to say? Emotionally I can’t stop thinking of where these men, women and children go now. They were locked out, denied Employment Insurance, and now have to negotiate with the very company that walked away from them to get some kind of severance. As we approached the line upon hearing the news there was many hugs and even more tears. I shook one man’s hand, only to receive a bear hug as he said through his tears that he would be seeing me at the food bank shortly. What could I say? These are familiar faces who will soon be in my neck of the woods, collecting a few food supplies to feed their kids. It won’t be a moment to be proud of.

But it’s important to remember that my community did not fail. In fact, it became energized in ways I haven’t witnessed previously. In every corner of this city I ran into people who continue to express sympathy for the workers and anger at Caterpillar. And slowly many of these people drove to Oxford St. East, parked their cars, grabbed the coffee, and walked up to the workers, unsure as to what to do or say. It was enough. They were there and that’s what counted.

I guess I’d have to be honest and express my disappointment at the jurisdictional squabbling offered, especially by the feds, who couldn’t express enough that this was a provincial matter. That’s like watching people drown as you’re boating by and asking them to hang in there because it’s the Coast Guard’s concern. I still have trouble accepting it. These people needed a lifeline, not a battle over responsibilities.

But there is something that can now be done. Federal MPs stressed that the workers couldn’t get EI because they hadn’t officially lost their jobs. Well now they have – sacked in fact – and that’s a game changer. Terminated by their employer, they now qualify for EI. The problem is that they are fighting for severance at the same time and EI can’t kick in until that is solved. So here’s something you can finally do without any jurisdictional excuses. Seek to streamline the access to EI in this unique situation. Given Caterpillar’s modus operandi, the severance issue might not be settled for months. Get these workers EI now and help them to survive. The maximum a veteran worker gets is two-thirds of their salary for 42 weeks. They’re about to lose their homes, so maybe a little intervention would be nice – it’s now in your jurisdiction. If severance is an issue, then arrange it so that it can be clawed back out of EI once the negotiations are concluded. But please, do something. This isn’t about your party’s detached position but about human justice, ostensibly offered to every worker who has paid into the system. I want to say more on this but I’ll close with noting that by refusing to visit the workers on the line with all the other politicians, the Conservative MPs turned it into a partisan issue.

The worker’s line doesn’t go away. They will be out there tomorrow, and the next, and the next, and the next until people who have worked hard all their lives get the very benefits they paid into. So we as citizens have a further opportunity to stand in solidarity with them, knowing now the true nature of Caterpillar’s intentions. This is a beachhead. Of course we want firms to invest here, but if you want to just pack up in leave in such a hard-hearted fashion, then maybe this just isn’t the place. We want your jobs and your investment, but not at the cost of ruined lives at the end of them day.

I have been in discussion with civic and provincial officials today and emergency measures are being put in place to help these workers transition and for the kids to still go to school. The London Food Bank has already met with union officials and stands at the ready to deal with the difficult days ahead.

For a brief period of time my community took on a corporate giant and lost … or did it? I see it now more galvanized than ever before. Our mayor and council have done what they can against incredible odds. People who never knew one another before are now sharing coffee in mid-winter. Citizens are awaking to the need for a new compact between themselves and those firms who seek to operate and make profit in their midst. Everywhere I’m hearing about the need for a new kind of capitalism that values labour and community as much as shareholders and profit. It now becomes the task for all of us to make something of this moment and not to relegate it to history.

But this moment is about these workers. Tomorrow morning (Saturday) at 11, my wife Jane and I will be standing on the line with these very good but hurting folk. Why don’t you come out and join us there? There will be the agony of defeat, to be sure, but somewhere in this community I’m beginning to sense the thrill of victory. We have come together as never before on an issue like this and we must now form and shape something from all this trouble we have been through together. Come tomorrow if you can. Bring a coffee. Shake a hand. Give a hug. Wipe away a tear. And then let’s start to talk about the kind of community we are now ready to build and let’s make it happen. So you there tomorrow – and thank you in advance. Please link to the video below.