Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) announced on March 28 that they will be eliminating a third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant supposedly due to low sales of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, one of two vehicles manufactured at the plant along with the Dodge Grand Caravan. The reduction to two shifts, which is set to take effect on Sept. 30, 2019, would mean the elimination of 1,500 jobs and hundreds of others at local feeder plants.
In a statement to news media, FCA Canada said that it planned to return the plant to a two-shift operation “in order to better align production with global demand,” and that the company “will make every effort to place indefinitely laid off hourly employees in open full-time positions as they become available based on seniority.” These soothing words are little comfort to the thousands of workers who now face the prospect of joining the ranks of the unemployed.
The end of the third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant, which currently employs 6,100 people and is the city’s largest employer, would represent a sharp blow to the local economy. It is the latest stage in the protracted decline of Canada’s auto industry, still the country’s largest source of exports. The news from Windsor parallels the announced closure of the GM Oshawa plant, where thousands of workers similarly face the loss of their livelihoods.
Unifor Local 444 President Dave Cassidy reacted emotionally to the news at a press conference, stating that he had “no indication” that FCA would be eliminating the third shift. In expletive-laced remarks reported by the Windsor Star, Cassidy raged at Mayor Drew Dilkens: “I have reached out to Drew Dilkens so many times . . . Drew Dilkens needs to pay attention to this,” Cassidy said. “This is devastating for the City of Windsor and I hope that Drew Dilkens might reach out to me.” Cassidy suggested that FCA might build new products in the plant and pledged to keep up pressure on the company to do so. If FCA decides to build new products, he declared, “You’re going to build it in Windsor . . .Give us whatever they want, we will build it.”
The following day, Unifor Local 444 executives met with federal politicians including Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains; Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patricia Hadju; and Eglinton-Lawrence MP Marco Mendicino. Union leaders announced on Facebook that they had received a “commitment to work with all stakeholders in convincing FCA to look longer term in preserving the third shift at the Windsor Assembly Plant.” The federal government also recognized that a $5,000 rebate for electric vehicles would now apply to the Chrysler Pacifica, which had initially been excluded from the rebate.
On April 17, Unifor national president Jerry Dias met with FCA executives. Coming out of the meeting, Dias trumpeted news from company executives that FCA would be investing $355 million in the plant for future product. However, Dias himself admitted that this did not mean the third shift would be saved. In his public statements, Dias came off more as a spokesperson for FCA than for auto workers: “There’s no question Fiat Chrysler is committed to Windsor,” he said in one such example of positive spin. “The bottom line is they’re investing for future product. It doesn’t mean it’ll save the third shift, but that’s what we’ll work on now.”
“Ultimately it’s a good news message today,” he added. FCA executives “know what they want to do, but they’re finalizing a few things . . . They want to maximize their investment in Windsor. The Pacifica platform gives them all kinds of options.” Revealingly, FCA executives offered no comment on their meeting with Dias. As the company’s head of communications Lou Ann Gosselin told the Windsor Star, “We don’t comment on internal business meetings.” Fiat Chrysler was unwilling to make any public promises, suggesting that it was keeping its options open. Dias, on the other hand, stated that he would be reaching out to Hadju about possible ideas to save the third shift. Difficult to overlook was the fact that, as reported by the Star, the most prominent ideas would require major sacrifices from workers.
In one suggested plan, the company would run three shifts, four days per week while plant workers use Employment Insurance (EI) and their supplementary unemployment benefits (SUB) fund to “top up” the fifth day. In another variation, workers would rotate a week off for a different shift every three weeks, once again using EI and SUB to make up the difference. Such proposals leave workers entirely at the mercy of the company and amount to a major concession that would result in employees earning significantly less income. Furthermore, even if this plan were to save the third shift for a period, there is no guarantee that FCA would not choose to eliminate the shift once more at a later date.
If the proposed solutions put forward by labour leaders left FCA firmly in the driver’s seat, the responses of politicians amounted to open groveling before the company. At all levels of government, politicians sought to outdo each other in offering the most favourable conditions for private investment.
At the provincial level, Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested that he would actively reward companies such as FCA that put thousands of people out of work, by intensifying his “pro-business,” anti-worker agenda of austerity for workers and handouts to big business. “My message to Fiat Chrysler is this: do not make this decision based on the anti-business policies of the former government over the past 15 years,” Ford said, shifting blame from FCA to the former Liberal government. “Our government is lowering taxes, lowering electricity rates and slashing red tape. There has never been a better time for auto manufacturers to invest in the Province of Ontario.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the provincial government to “take action” to “keep Ontario on the cutting edge of the auto industry,” adding, “We need an auto strategy, we need investments.” She noted that Ontario had recently had a Green Vehicle Rebate designed to drive sales of the Chrysler Pacifica, a hybrid vehicle, but that this rebate had been cancelled by the Ford government. Dias, following his meeting with FCA executives, had also suggested the reinstatement of the hybrid rebate as a way to help the Windsor Assembly Plant.
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh criticized the Liberals for earmarking $300 million in purchase incentives that excluded the Pacifica, and continued calls for a national auto strategy. The NDP’s provincial and national auto strategies largely revolve around earmarking funds to promote manufacturing research and development and offering tax incentives to attract companies. The national auto strategy in the federal NDP’s 2015 election platform, for example, offered tax-free loans to automakers that invest in Canada, which it boasted would save companies up to $20 million per year.
At the municipal level, Windsor city councillors passed a motion on April 11 to investigate what the city might do to save the third shift. Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie expressed the need for the city to offer incentives to attract and retain business investment. The City of Windsor, he said, should “look at what tools we have in our toolbox to protect those jobs and to incentivize whatever investment might be needed to improve the sales of the Pacifica or introduce a new product into the facility.”
The focus on tax rebates and tax incentives overlooks the fact that the vast majority of Pacifica sales are not in Canada, but in the United States. As reported by the Windsor Star, Canadian sales of the Pacifica in 2018 were down by 186 vehicles for a total of 5,999. By contrast, in the United States, 118,322 vehicles were sold in 2018. To put these figures in perspective, Canadian sales of the Pacifica for that year represented only five per cent of the vehicle’s sales in the United States.
Tax rebates in Ontario and Canada will have no effect on prospective Pacifica buyers in the United States, where most of the minivans are sold. For this reason, though Unifor has long lobbied for the inclusion of the Pacifica in the electric vehicle rebate, the federal government’s acquiescence to this demand amounts to “too little, too late.” All the tax incentives in the world will not sway a company from reducing production of a commodity it has determined is unprofitable. From the perspective of Fiat Chrysler, maintaining current production levels for the Pacifica made no sense given the vehicle’s lower than expected sales. The cold logic of capitalism offers no alternative.
As with the announced closure of the GM Oshawa plant, politicians at all levels of government wring their hands, but offer no real way to save workers’ jobs. Under private ownership, control of the Windsor Assembly Plant lies with FCA and its shareholders. The workers who produce the cars, as well as the company’s profits, have no say. Put simply, you cannot control what you do not own. Therefore, as in Oshawa, the only solution lies with the workers themselves. In the last analysis, the only way to save these jobs is for the workers to occupy the plants and call for them to be nationalized under democratic workers’ control.
Windsor is no stranger to such militant tactics. In March 2009, workers at the city’s Aradco auto parts plant occupied the factory after they and workers at the neighbouring Aramco plant were told not to report to work. Appropriately enough in light of recent events, both Aradco and Aramco produced motor mounts and other metal parts exclusively for Chrysler. The factory occupation followed Chrysler’s announcement that it would terminate its contract with Catalina Precision Products, the parent company of Aradco and Aramco. Workers who were owed back pay, vacation pay, termination and severance pay received an insulting offer worth only a fraction of what they were entitled to.
When Chrysler received a court injunction allowing it to remove equipment from the plant, Aradco workers formed a blockade to prevent vehicles from entering, welded the plant doors shut, and occupied the factory, raising the flag of CAW Local 195 over the roof of the building. Unfortunately, a deal by the CAW leadership to end the occupation sold out their members and Aradco workers were ultimately left with less than the wages they were owed. Even so, this episode shows the willingness of workers in Windsor to fight to preserve their jobs, and offers a marvelous example for how FCA assembly plant workers can fight back today.
GM Oshawa workers occupy the plant
Plant occupations should be combined with a call for the nationalization of the auto industry under democratic workers’ control. If the bosses are unwilling to produce vehicles at the level the plant is capable of, workers can and should do it themselves. In this regard, workers at the Windsor Assembly Plant face a similar situation to workers at the GM Oshawa plant. There, the demand for nationalization has already won support from affected workers. A resolution put forward by Labour Fightback to nationalize GM under democratic workers’ control was recently adopted by the Unifor Local 222 Retired Workers’ Chapter, the general membership of Local 222, and the Durham Region Labour Council. A similar demand to nationalize FCA under democratic workers’ control could be put forward by Unifor Local 444.
Besides being the only way to save jobs, the case for nationalization is even stronger when one considers the billions of dollars that were given to these auto giants in the form of bailouts after the collapse of the financial sector in 2009. In 2018, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau quietly wrote off a $2.6-billion loan, including interest, made to Chrysler. As Fightback observed at the time, such corporate handouts reflect the fact that under capitalism, there is “one set of rules for the billionaires, and another for the rest of us.” Expropriation of the holdings of Fiat Chrysler, a company that has taken billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money and has not paid those loans back despite reporting $4.3 billion in profit in 2017, is more than fair for workers in order to preserve their jobs and their livelihoods.
By occupying the Windsor plant, demanding the nationalization of the auto sector under democratic workers’ control, and calling on GM workers in Oshawa to do the same, workers could save their jobs and help retool the auto industry. Rather than producing minivans, they could shift production towards public transportation such as buses, streetcars, and trains as part of a socialist plan of free public transit that would significantly reduce carbon emissions. Where the capitalists offer nothing but plant closures, layoffs, and the outmoded vehicle production of yesterday, socialist production under the control of the workers themselves could fuel job growth and significantly expand output by producing the sustainable transportation of tomorrow.