LONDON, ONT — A crowd of more than 10,000 descended upon this city's Victoria Park to support local workers who have been locked out of their jobs since the new year. They came from all over, from Timmins, Sudbury, and Pennsylvania in scores of buses. They came to protest corporate greed and Stephen Harper.
The prime minister didn't come, although he was invited.
"We need you down here to support Canadian workers," yelled London Mayor Joe Fontana. "Get your ass down here!"
At issue is a three-week-old lockout at Electro-Motive Canada, a subsidiary of Caterpillar. The company locked out 465 Canadian Auto Workers Local 27 employees when the collective agreement expired on Jan. 1, citing the union's negotiating flip-flops as the reason for the labour stoppage.
Workers became outraged over the company's last offer in late December, which they said included wage reductions by as much as 50 per cent for some jobs, and the elimination of pensions, benefits and holidays.
So the union voted to strike, but would work under their old agreement as negotiations continued. The company said no.
Jeremy Beyea, who took a break from the picket line to join the rally, said the workers' resolve is strong.
"There is no going back now," Beyea said. "We're digging in, here for the long haul."
Beyea said the community has supported those locked out with food, drink and clothing. His family has also provided support, both moral and financial. But some of his co-workers are struggling.
The anti-government and anticorporate sentiment was palpable throughout the park, many waving signs that read, "Harper: stop corporate greed." Bob Scott, union chair in the negotiations with Electro-Motive, said the union will hold a hard line.
"Caterpillar, you want a fight, you got one," Scott yelled. "You pissed off the wrong membership here."
The vitriol continued from the country's union heavyweights.
"If the government doesn't step in, Canada will become a low-paid workforce," Ken Lewenza, president of Canadian Auto Workers, told the Star before the rally. "We need to protect the middle class if we want a more equal society."
Equality has been the klaxon call for the occupy movement, which mixed easily with the workers in the crowd. Occupiers have set up tents on the picket line in support.
"Caterpillar is the poster child for corporate greed — we can now put a face to the 1 per cent," said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. "Let's link the occupy movement with the labour movement."
Ryan focused on hallmarks of the occupy movement by comparing Caterpillar executives with its workers. The crowd roared "Shame!" at every suggestion of corporate greed.
Meanwhile, at the back of the throng, where the speeches couldn't be heard, some workers wanted solutions, not just talk of it.
"We need governments that make proper trade agreements, especially now with these large multinational companies," said Angus MacDonald, with an Oakville union. "Otherwise these companies can pit workers in places like Mexico against workers in Canada."
Labour leaders fear settling with Caterpillar would set a dangerous precedent for workers around the world.