Source: Sarah Jama/Facebook

In Hamilton, 1,450 railcar workers organized with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7135 at National Steel Car (NSC) are on strike against wage cuts, intimidation, and unsafe work, after multiple workplace deaths.

Deadly work

The workers are facing threats, not only to their livelihoods, but to their lives themselves. NSC has an absolutely horrendous record on workplace safety, which has directly resulted in the tragic and avoidable deaths of three workers in the span of 21 months. It also led to a mass walkout, in June 2022.

That month, welder Quoc Le was crushed by a poorly-secured 2,000lb bulkhead, leading to criminal charges against the company. Previously, Collin Grayley, a painter, was found without vital signs at work; and crane operator Fraser Cowan was killed when a device he was moving slipped off the crane hook and fell on him. In 2019, the company also faced charges for a “critical injury” suffered by one of their workers.

At the time, Le’s death sparked a rally outside of the East Hamilton plant, shutting it down for two days. The workers wore shirts saying “Stop the killing,” and demanded the Ontario government investigate the company for complicity in the deaths. 

Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton refused to meet with USW representatives, instead using the media to highlight increased fines the Ford government has implemented for companies that violate safety regulations. However, even after killing three workers in two years, NSC has only been fined $140,000 to date.

Still, as USW Ontario and Atlantic director Myles Sullivan has pointed out, even a million-dollar fine is a flimsy way to “punish” a company worth multiple billions. Another contributing factor in the unsafe conditions of the plant is that the union has been forced to share an office with the company’s human resources department. According to Crowder, this allows management to intimidate workers into staying silent about their health and safety concerns. 

While it has been a year since the last incident, eventually the machinery will begin to deteriorate, requiring repairs or replacements, and the process will in all likelihood repeat itself. NSC management has shown that they cannot be trusted. The workers need to be able to raise concerns through the union as they arise, without enduring corporate meddling and government bureaucracy. To this end, a new office and more full-time representatives are included in the union’s list of demands. 

Fight against inflation

Despite saying its workers produce vital goods for the country’s rail line, NSC is adamant that the members of United Steelworkers Local 7135 not only continue to work in dangerous conditions, but that they take a pay cut as well. The company’s offer is an overall wage increase of 10 per cent over three years—well behind the current and cumulative impact of rising inflation over the past few years. The company also wants to maintain its two-tier pension system.

As Local President Frank Crowder pointed out, the wage offer is not only below inflation, but is also worse than what other USW locals have been offered. All told, a contract on these terms would only serve to push workers out of the industry. Crowder says that, with wages so low and inflation having such a significant impact on gas prices, workers with long commutes would be better off working minimum wage jobs in their own towns. 

Strikes across Canada 

The strike at National Steel Car is just one in a string of strikes sweeping through Canada right now, alongside the SEIU Molson workers in BC, the recently-ended strike of ILWU longshore workers, and others. The crisis of capitalism is forcing the working class into increasingly intolerable living conditions, to the point where some face potentially life-threatening conditions in their workplace—and for very little pay, at that. The only way forward is through organised struggle, with workers fighting for real concessions from the bosses. Only then can we hope to defend ourselves against the constant cuts and attacks of the capitalists. 

Strike to win!

Victory to the steelworkers!