Op-Ed: No happy new year for locked-out workers at Ontario company Special

Posted Jan 2, 2012 by Ken Wightman
The lockout at the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ontario comes as no surprise. Contract talks seemed to be off the rails way back in May when both the union and company agreed to a six month extension of the contract.
Electro-motive in London  Ontario locked out its unionized employees who were returning to work afte...
Electro-motive in London, Ontario locked out its unionized employees who were returning to work after the holiday shut-down.
The first night on the street for the locked out locomotive assembly workers was cold with a biting wind working its way through heavy winter coats. It is January in Canada and a poor time to be outside picketing. One must wonder if the company agreed to a contract extension in order to make a strike, or lock out, that much more miserable for the workers.
At a main entrance to the plant, flames shot from upended oil drums filled with burning scrap lumber. On fiercely cold nights these warming flames will be important. If you've never been locked out or on strike you have no idea how difficult a shift on the picket line can be in the dead of night in the middle of winter.
There's a calm before the storm feel to the first night of a picket line. This is especially true when the workers have been locked out. Everyone sort of knows its coming, the lock out or the strike, but still there is always hope that an eleventh hour solution will be found.
As one worker, Frank Van Wiechen, said: "We're dealing with a bully here," referring to Electro-Motive and its not-so-distant parents Progress Rail and Caterpillar Inc. Van Wiechen continued, "You say, 'Calm down. Let's get reasonable here.' "
It is not hard to understand why the workers feel the company is being unreasonable. These workers have families, some have children in university; They have mortgages to pay and car payments to make. How can any employer ask employees to take a 50 percent cut in pay, to quietly accept having their benefits slashed and to stand idly by while their pensions are gutted?
Special  high-priced  security guards with cameras record images of all who get too close to the Ele...
Special, high-priced, security guards with cameras record images of all who get too close to the Electro-Motive plant grounds.
For now, the workers mull about on the street, quietly chatting among themselves, wondering what the company's next move will be. EMD has already hired a security company, reportedly out of Mississauga, Ontario, that specializes in labour disputes. The imported security personal have been on the job for a few days now. They were one sign that a lock out was in the offing. Such hired muscle doesn't come cheap.
In situations like this there is no money to keep the present contract in force while negotiations continue, but there are funds for security guards, cameras, extra fencing, and replacement workers, who will also not come cheap if they are expected to assume the skilled jobs of the locked out workers.
And make no mistake; These are skilled jobs. When it comes to the trade skills needed to work in heavy industry, "You can't just get burger flippers to do these jobs."
For instance, Rick Antone, is a welder at the plant. He has 35 years experience. Yet, before he was hired he had to pass not one, not two, but six tests. They build locomotives here. The welds must be perfect.
The British news-magazine, The Economist, in explaining why the new Progress Rail plant for assembling EMD locomotives in Muncie, Indiana, is apparently having a difficult time recruiting workers, reported:
"Not every one has the capability or the drive to become an expert welder. If they choose to do so then it costs money for them to take a class on welding then it takes even more time to become an expert welder. After all this money and time eventually the ten or fifteen people of the thirty in the class may be qualified enough to actually get the job."
EMD is a wholly owned subsidiary of Progress Rail and PR is a wholly owned subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc. The new plant in Muncie, like the plant in London, is said to assemble diesel-electric locomotives. Much of the guts of the locomotives, but not all, comes from the EMD facility in LaGrange, Illinois.
Why is this important? Well, it seems a big chunk of the railway locomotives produced in Canada originates in the States. The parts are shipped from LaGrange to London, in the same way they are shipped from LaGrange to Muncie. The difference is that the London operation brings 61 years of experience to the table.
When it comes to working in heavy industry one worker told this reporter, "You've got to be alert. If you don't know what you are doing, you can get killed." Makes one wonder if this rule from the factory floor also applies to the boardroom.
The London plant has been very productive. If management is not alert, if they don't know what they are doing, could they get this company killed? With their competitor in the locomotive business, G.E., expanding their existing locomotive factory in Erie, Pennsylvania, is this the time to be locking out skilled workers? Maybe this is a time for calming down and being reasonable.