Workers at National Steel Car (NSC) in Hamilton, Ontario, represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7135, went on strike on Thursday, June 29. The 1,450 striking workers are calling for safer working conditions, an increase to wages, and a cost of living adjustment as inflation remains high.
In May, NSC was charged in relation to the death of Quoc Le. Two other workers, Collin Grayley and Fraser Cowan, have died working for NSC in recent years. The company has treated these deaths as mere inconveniences rather than preventable tragedies. National Steel Car went so far as to suggest that it would be “irresponsible” to consider holding the company criminally responsible for the workers’ deaths after the union called for police to open a criminal negligence investigation.
Currently, the divide between workers and NSC remains wide with Local 7135 President, Frank Crowder, saying that there are “still significant issues on the table.” The company’s last offer keeps wages below inflation, offering workers a four-percent wage increase in the first year, followed by three-percent increases in the following two years of a three year contract.
Members form rank-and-file committee
But it seems that rank-and-file workers no longer trust USW leadership to lead workers to victory. Workers have established a National Steel Car Rank-and-File Committee (NSC-RFC) to take control over negotiations. The NSC-RFC claims that the union bureaucracy attempted to block a strike, dividing and demoralizing workers by refusing to encourage workers to reject the employer’s last bad offer. Union leaders’ equivocation produced uncertainty amongst rank-and-file workers, contributing to a slim majority (52 percent) who voted “No” to NSC’s ‘final’ deal.
To lend credence to the NSC-RFC’s allegations, USW seems to be avoiding publicizing the strike action. The union local’s website has not been updated since March to reflect recent contract developments and the local’s Twitter account, updated June 24th, merely celebrates Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, with no mention of bargaining at all.
In addition to wage increases, the NSC-RFC is demanding an improvement to safety and the end of two-tier compensation. The committee suggests that safety concerns have not been properly addressed by the company or the union, including the use of a piecework system that incentivizes workers to work at an unsustainable and unsafe pace.
The committee also suggests that the union failed to bargain around ending two-tier compensation. Currently, NSC workers are divided into two groups with new hires receiving a one-year “training rate” that exacerbates attrition and supplies NSC with a constant supply of low-cost workers. Post-2012 hires also are denied access to the ‘legacy’ defined benefits pension plan, contributing instead to a marketized defined contribution pension plan, which doesn’t guarantee workers a liveable retirement income till end of life.
Finally, the NSC-RFC is demanding that USW increase strike pay to at least $500 a week to support strike action. With $850 million in the USW strike fund, the committee suggests that the current $260 a week offered to workers, and only after workers have completed four weeks on strike, encourages workers to make concessions.
Learning from NSC workers’ history of resistance
In the face of the NSC’s intransigence and USW’s lack of support, workers are facing a tough, but not insurmountable battle.
Lessons from the 1916 walkout, where NSC workers joined with 2000 other workers from over 30 Hamilton plants on strike, teach us that employers and government will seek to undermine labour action by undermining solidarity with other workers. In 1916, the government banned press coverage to avoid arousing sympathetic public sentiment. The Amalgmated Society of Engineers was forced to end their participation in the strike after its British-based parent union called off the strike to conform with a no-strike pledge given to former British Prime Minister, David Llloyd George.
Knowing this, success for NSC workers today remains contingent on taking back the reins of power from concessionary union leadership and mobilizing the solidarity of other workers. A win for National Steel Car workers would help set new standards for wage increases for all workers as inflation continues to rage and stand up to bosses who are willing to play with workers’ lives.
To support the fight, consider joining the picket line, set up at Kenilworth and Burlington street. A full list of the NSC-RFC’s demands can be found here.
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