Dofasco Redux

When the United Steelworkers ended the recent drive to organize Dofasco, Steve Arnold of The Hamilton Spectator posted the following:

Today’s decision by the United Steelworkers to back off from the Dofasco organizing effort closes, at least for now, a bitter and divisive debate in the company.

It’s clear before the USW comes back to Dofasco it has to mount a major education effort to overcome nearly a century of ignorance about the true role of a labour union in the modern industrial world.

Watching this process from the outside, I’ve been amazed at the unfounded, untrue and downright malicious allegations raised by USW opponents.

For example, the allegation the union did nothing for the workers laid off at Amcan Castings is simply not true. No labour union can stop a plant closing decision — but in this case because the company was insolvent the workers were going to lose not only their jobs, but any chance of severance pay as well. It was the United Steelworkers which salvaged some form of payment for them.

Many writers on this blog seemed to be quaking in fear that joining a union inevitably meant going on strike. That’s not true. When there’s mutual respect and willingness on both sides in a contract negotiation working conditions and pay can be improved without confrontation.

At the bottom of much of the anti-union rhetoric, however, was the belief “The Dofasco Way” would make a union as unnecessary in the future as it had been in the past. The simple truth, however, is that the old Dofasco of the Sherman family is gone. Dofasco today is not the heart of a family’s business, it is a tiny piece of a global operation. In that kind of environment workers need protection — something Dofasco workers haven’t had to experience yet.

Their day may be coming.

The following op-ed was printed in Monday’s Spectator:

USW will be there for Dofasco

The Hamilton Spectator

Monday, April 7, 2008

Page: A13

Section: Opinion

Byline: Wayne Fraser

Unions rarely hit the front page. Sure, tough strikes sometimes get lots of coverage. But great contracts, path-breaking settlements and victories in court defending members’ rights happen regularly and receive too little attention in the news media.

Last month, the United Steelworkers made big news in Hamilton. The union used its bargaining leverage and a mature relationship with ArcelorMittal to be able to talk face-to-face with thousands of Dofasco workers. Dofasco, the storied bastion of nonunionism, the once-Canadian-run steel success story, now had union activists inside the plant. No wonder it made the front page.

Most employers traditionally display a primitive hostility to workers who are pondering union membership. As a result, unions are limited to handing out leaflets at the plant gate and having furtive meetings with supportive employees in coffee shops and houses around town. However, ArcelorMittal Dofasco agreed to take a different approach, to step back and allow its employees to engage directly with the union.

Fourteen United Steelworkers (USW) activists, many of them from USW-represented steel plants across North America, walked straight through the doors and into what almost everyone still calls Dofasco. For a week of often 12-hour days in the plant, we listened, we talked to workers, we answered questions and we debated.

Discussion centred on contracts, about how they were built, about what a union like the USW can do and what it cannot do. We discussed how bargaining issues have expanded beyond the traditional focus on wages, benefits and health and safety to new spheres such as corporate decision-making and governance.

For example, USW contracts with ArcelorMittal prevent the company from bringing low-cost steel from overseas into USW-represented mills if any union members are idled. Further, the company cannot sell any of its USW-represented operations without the approval of the union.

Dofasco workers were presented with an innovative opening — the chance to make the choice about whether to join the union only after they had seen what the Steelworkers, with their support, could do at the bargaining table. It was unique. It was also challenging, both for Dofasco workers and for the union.

It is true that many ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers oppose the very idea of union membership, no matter what it might offer. But hundreds were open to learning about the process and open to thinking about what bargaining might bring. A number of workers wanted to get the process started right away.

But the pledge to Dofasco workers was that we would move forward only if there was enough support to move into bargaining with a democratically elected bargaining committee. That necessary level of interest was not there. We made good on our pledge, and we ended the in-plant access portion of our campaign.

Some may question what actually was achieved. After all of the discussions, the excitement and the headlines, after the sometimes hyperventilating anti-union blog postings on the Internet, some things have changed.

After the period of uncertainty over changes in ownership and global consolidation in the steel industry, workers at Dofasco have had a chance to talk directly with unionized steelworkers about their hopes and doubts for the future. They learned more about the collective bargaining process and about the USW relationship with ArcelorMittal. They got a chance to ask some good and tough questions.

As for the USW, we learned more about Dofasco workers’ pride in their history. We learned many Dofasco workers are well aware that their good wages and benefits package can be traced in large part to our union’s gains in bargaining at Stelco and elsewhere. And while some may not appreciate every bit of the union’s history in Hamilton, many know that they have benefited from it.

ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers are a lot like USW members — hard-working, hopeful for the future of Hamilton, needing to protect what they have gained at work and deserving of the right to bargain for improvements.

In the next few months, the USW heads into major bargaining with ArcelorMittal in the United States. At the same time, the union is defending the rights of ArcelorMittal workers across Canada and the United States as the company makes changes to its product mix, selling some operations, ending others and opening new ones.

In the end, the basic questions remain. Will the consolidation of the global steel sector continue? As the terrain of collective bargaining shifts, what will be the issues of contention and co-operation between the union and the major steel companies in the future?

Members of the USW insist that those questions demand a real place for workers’ voices in the corporate decisions that affect them.

Some ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers believe that Dofasco’s successful past will guarantee success into the future, or that a charmed mixture of good steel production, hard work and fervent hope are all that is needed to protect what they have.

Perhaps, but it must be said that members of the USW have the added democracy and security delivered by their collective agreements.

The campaign to engage with ArcelorMittal Dofasco continues in more traditional ways, although still without the usual grim opposition shown by some companies in the past. Our time on the shop floor has given us food for thought, and will help make the USW a better union.

No one can predict the future, but Steelworkers remain hopeful that ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers will choose to join with us in the future.

Workers, their families, the community and the Canadian steel industry would be better off for it.

We will be there for any ArcelorMittal Dofasco workers who want the opportunity.

Wayne Fraser is director, United Steelworkers District 6 (Ontario and Atlantic provinces).

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