01. DOFASCO: A BREAKTHROUGH FOR STEELWORKERS?

(The following article is from the April 1-15, 2008 issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $25/year, or $12 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $25 US per year; other overseas readers - $25 US or $35 CDN per year. Send to: People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 133 Herkimer St. Unit 502, Hamilton, ON, L8P 2H3).

By Sam Hammond

In the 1930's a member of Local 105 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers took an electrician's job in the Dominion Foundries and Steel Company (Dofasco). Also a member of the Communist Party of Canada, he organized the first SWOC (Steelworkers Organizing Committee) chartered local in Canada - Local 1004 of the United Steelworkers of America.

     Harry Hunter was eventually fired by Clifton W. Sherman, the head robber baron of Dofasco. Harry became the first employee of the SWOC in Canada and laid the groundwork for the famous Hamilton Local 1005 at Stelco's Hilton works, which is still alive and fighting today.

     Local 1004 fell into oblivion and unfortunately didn't survive long enough for the post-war resurgence of industrial unionism. Harry Hunter was fired in the steel union's anti-communist purges carried out by  Phillip Murray and Charlie Millard, but went to work immediately for the United Electrical Workers Union which organized three large Westinghouse plants in Hamilton. Later he worked full time as a Communist Party organizer and played an important role on Hamilton City Council for many years.

     The first Steel local in Canada at Dofasco is long forgotten, and the courageous efforts of left militant workers like Harry Hunter have been either forgotten or purposely obscured by historical revisionism. Labour legend has it that the implementation of profit-sharing and a carefully nurtured sense of community implemented by the Dofasco corporate brass have made the second largest steel producer in Canada un-organizable.

     But legend is legend, and the truth is there has never been a massive serious attempt to organize Dofasco by the Steelworkers, who were too busy in the 40's and 50's raiding Mine Mill and UE to organize much of anything unless workers came pounding at the door. I have lived in Hamilton since I was born in 1941, and I have been involved in Hamilton labour since 1961; in my opinion, the organizing attempts have been half-hearted.

     Stelco, part of the 1946 Hamilton Labour war, and Dofasco, notoriously unorganized, have both disappeared in the cauldron of Free Trade neo-liberal foreign take-overs. Stelco is now US Steel and Dofasco is now Arcelor-Mittal. The U.S. and Euro-Asian imperialists have divvied up Hamilton's waterfront, eyeing the windfalls of ownership as they compete globally for resources and markets.

     This largest of Canadian industrial cities has felt the effect of globalization and Free Trade like no other. We have lost the manufacturing enterprises of Massey-Ferguson, a Studebaker auto plant, Otis Elevator, Proctor and Gamble, Canadian Porcelain, three Westinghouse plants, Frost Fence and Wire, International Harvester, Hoover appliances, Dominion Glass and the American Can Company, and literally dozens of peripheral secondary plants and suppliers. The products these plants made now arrive in our city on trucks carrying containers from ships and rail, acquired from off shore or other parts of the Americas. Tens of thousands of lost jobs, but still we survive in a sort of industrial twilight zone created by a succession of Liberal and Tory governments that have peddled us as commodities for sale - cheap.

     In this twilight zone we still produce even more and better quality steel with less than 25% of the 1960's work force. The Steelworkers union is still in Stelco, and has fought its way through bankruptcy protection and past bottom-feeding capitalist speculators. Overall, the union has represented Hamilton steelworkers very well.

     The so-called "profit sharing" plan at the now Arcelor-Mittal plant (still called Dofasco in local vernacular), is really an employee investment fund: the company matches employee contributions up to a ceiling and pays dividends on the employee share, according to a corporate controlled percentage supposedly based on annual profits. Employees receive lump sum or other payments on retirement, really based on their own investment.

     In a real profit sharing plan, workers receive a portion of the profits they have created. The Dofasco plan is not this at all. It is a hybrid, and in this writer's opinion, there has never been a thorough and public comparison of this plan with the real benefits of the Steelworkers Union pension and benefits plan. The Dofasco workers are very edgy right now, because in a non-union situation the plan could fall under the axe at any time at the whim of their new owners, and what would they have left?

     The corporate myth is unravelling. The myth of a corporate family where there have been no problems for almost seventy years, no grievances, no health and safety grievances, no unfair dismissals and no need for representation at the Labour Board, is digestible only by those who believe in Bugs Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. The rest of us know better and Dofasco workers are very uneasy.

     Besides this general uneasiness there is a feature at Dofasco that is the direct result of a non-union environment. The amount of "contracting in" of labour not directly employed by Dofasco (cleaning, maintenance and engineering services) is only known to the corporation, but it is a serious quantity.

     On Thursday, March 20, on the front page of Hamilton's only large daily newspaper, The Spectator, is a half page picture of Wayne Fraser with the headline "The Dofasco Choice". Under the picture is this caption: "For Decades, the steel company founded by the Sherman family fought fiercely to keep the union out. Today, United Steelworkers leader Wayne Fraser makes history by walking through Dofasco's gates. He has permission to ask workers if they want a union." Wow! Permission?

     Apparently USW and ArcelorMittal have similar agreements at their US plants. ArcelorMittal purchased outright International Steel Group, which had cornered a majority of US steel manufacturing through the purchase of plants under bankruptcy protection, then re-tooled at the expense of retirees and reduced pension and health benefits. The purchase injected the Euro-Asian interests into US manufacturing in a rather large way.

     Under the USW-Arcelor Mittal Dofasco agreement, the company will issue a letter to 3500 workers from the desk of vice-president Andy Harshaw, where the workers are "strongly encouraged to consider" the union pitch. Union Reps will be escorted by company officials to different work areas to address the workers and make the argument for unionization. If a majority of workers agree, they will elect from amongst themselves members to comprise a negotiating committee which will at some point present a contract for ratification. If the contract is ratified, the plant will automatically be unionized and the Steelworkers will become the certified bargaining agent.

     What is important here, and is shared by the CAW-Magna deal, is that ratification of the first agreement and certification of the union are the same. One vote. What is different, at least with the limited information, is that the first agreement will be hammered out by a committee of elected workers free of management input, instead of being presented by a union-corporate committee as at CAW-Magna. Also the Steelworkers have made a big effort to point out that the right to strike has not been and will not be compromised.

     Is this a legitimate new organizing strategy, or another corporate-union partnership? The jury is still out on this one and will stay out until more than the initial sketchy information is available. There are definitely perks for the corporation, and we must analyze these as well as the union benefits to make a sound judgment. Until this becomes clearer, we must hope for the overall welfare of these workers who have been riding the benefits of  unionized Steelworkers struggles for generations without being in the family.


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