Local 1005 Steelworkers Union Meeting

The Hamilton Steelworkers union, Local 1005, holds weekly meetings open to the public, so we decided to drop in on May 17 to find out more about the issues concerning steelworkers in Hamilton.

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By: Layla Mashkoor (This is Hamilton)

With roughly 40, all male, union members in attendance, the meeting began with a report by union president, Rolf Gerstenberger. He began by addressing the union’s strong opposition to Dalton McGuinty’s decision to appoint former Conservative MPP, Elizabeth Witmer, as the Chair of the Worker’s Safety and Insurance Board.

According to Local 1005 Information Update # 18, “Witmer, notorious for her tenure as Labour Minister during the Harris regime, oversaw the change of the Worker’s Compensation Board, a public system of compensation for injured workers, into the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which serves the interests of private insurance companies.” Local 1005 members are organizing a day trip to Ottawa in mid-June to protest her appointment as chair.

US STEEL LAYS OFF 46 WORKERS & HIRES “SCABS”

The next major issue on the table was regarding 46 Hamiltonian U.S. Steel workers who were laid off between April 29 and May 17, 2012. Gerstenberger informed union members that U.S. Steel is now hiring about 100 salaried workers in the skilled industries of electrical, mechanical and utilities who will be paid at about $40/hour as opposed to the standard $33/hour.

These salaried workers (or “scabs” as they are colloquially referred to) are largely retired and hired for contract, non-unionized work, that enables U.S. Steel to continue doing business without feeling the effects of losing 46 workers. According to Local 1005 Information Update #19 about 50 retirees denied the salaried position. This is causing tensions within the union because when some members are willing to do non-unionized, contact work it represents a break in solidarity amongst members and continues to weaken the union’s defense against the U.S. Steel Corporation.

The response to this news was very heated and passionate from attendees, visibly upset that retired union members are taking salaried positions from U.S. Steel, a corporation that the attendees clearly held in disdain. One member commented during the open forum, “U.S Steel promised they wouldn’t touch our pensions, but they continue to take money and take jobs from us.” Another member took to the microphone to say, “We were a large company 20 years ago but ever since then we are diminishing and diminishing and now there are barely any of us left.”

Gerstenberger addressed the members concerns and anger by saying he agreed that “scabs are selling their integrity to make a few bucks and hurting the union and all its work, “who will fight to defend the people when we start selling out?” But, he emphasized the need to not fight with the “scabs” because they both share a common enemy, the U.S Steel Corporation.

Overall, the emotions in the room teetered between passion and anger throughout the meeting. It was clarified, although not enough, that sometimes, financial reasons force individuals to take on “scab” work, but what really got the union members heated was fellow members, who are retired and “should know better” according to Gerstenberger, taking on work “they know will hurt the union and hurt those who have the integrity to say no.”

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SOLIDARITY

Lastly, the members of the union expressed strong solidarity with the protesters in Montreal and the Occupy movements around the globe. They addressed the use of force against protesters and reflected on their personal experiences at the G20 two years ago, which some Local 1005 union members attended. Questions surrounded how to effectively protest corporations in a globalized world.

OVERHEARD:

“Sometimes I wake up and think, these are the saddest days of my life because all the things we’ve fought for are under attack and up for sacrifice.”

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Questions to Ponder – Linking Practice & Theory

1) What is the role of the Hamilton steel industry in contributing to a neoliberal economy of disposability? Do “scab” workers really have a choice whether to cross the picket line? How is the steel industry via corporations like Stelco and US Steel creating further social stratifications among its workers? What is the role of the union in establishing solidarity, while also having to be faced with the harmful effects of picket-line crossers?

2) There are multiple complexities with the temporality of the steel industry. Currently, steel workers like Local 1005 realize the global crisis of neoliberalism, and the continuing disposability of ‘trained’ steel workers. However, we are left wondering if workers having to face this crisis are aware of the future of the steel industry, with not only concerns of the rights of workers, but the protection of the natural environment.

3) In a globalized world, where decisions made far away have drastic and life-long affects on local populations, and technology continues to build barriers in human communication; what lessons can be learnt from Local 1005 members concerning ideas of local community, the common good, the social security net and labour rights?

After our afternoon at the Local 1005 Union meeting, we walked to Cannon Coffee Co. for a delicious cup of speciality made stonefruit-caramel-orange coffee. Check them out here

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© All photos taken by Tiger in a Suit Productions. 

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