Many times when leaders of the CAW, now Unifor, came to Chatham, it was to rally former Navistar workers in their long, ongoing battle with the company.
However, Saturday’s visit to Chatham by Unifor national president Jerry Dias was to lead them in celebrating a long, hard-fought victory achieved earlier this year to secure $35 million in pension and severance owed by Navistar after closing – and since demolishing – its Richmond Street truck assembly plant that operated for more than half a century.
“Today is about justice and it’s about fairness,” Dias told those gathered at the former CAW Hall for a family barbecue.
He told The Daily News in an interview, this day was several years in the making that resulted in Navistar having to pay $35 million to workers, “our members, basically for the severance and pension shortfalls that Navistar stole from them so many years ago.”
Cathy Wiebenga, former Local 127 plant chair at Navistar, told the crowd: “After six years of legal action, the union winning all of them, we are here today . . . to recognize the struggles of the former workers and the victories of the union.”
She also called for a moment of silence for their union sisters and brothers who have passed away and not able “to enjoy the satisfaction of the final result.”
While the fight for severance and pension battle began in earnest after the plant was officially closed on July 28, 2011, Wiebenga pointed out the acrimonious relationship with the company began a decade earlier.
“Since 2001, the Navistar corporation has dragged this membership through turmoil, locked us out, hired goons and attempted to bring in scab labour,” she said.
Through the media, she added the company “threw mud in our faces and had our friends and neighbours questioning us, not the corporation.”
In 2009, Wiebenga said workers found themselves again on the street with no collective agreement, no closure agreement, no severance and very little pension when the company locked the doors to the plant.
“This was a planned, calculated action against the very people who took great pride in building Navistar trucks,” she said. “It became clear to us that Navistar was not only unwilling to negotiate, they felt they had the power to change Canadian law.”
Through all these ordeals over the years, she said, “our national union stood with us. Today, we celebrate what solidarity truly means.”
Joe Lucier, chair of Local 35 that represented office staff at the plant, said it is a relief this battle is finally over.
“It’s too bad that it took this long, but I’m happy that people finally got what they deserved,” he said.
Lucier admits up until this year, he feared this outcome wouldn’t be achieved.
“It always felt like it was never going to end.”
However, former assistant to the union president, Bob Chernecki never doubted and never gave up, even continuing to fight this battle while in retirement.
“We were determined and we knew we were right all along,” Chernecki said.
Ever since the plant shut down in 2009 and officially closed in 2011, he said, “we were determined to make sure these workers got what they rightly deserved.”
He said he can’t remember another corporation that would go to these lengths, despite the fact the union was continually right and supported by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) or arbitrators.
Chernecki said this battle shows how important it is to be part of a union, because workers could have never secured this victory on their own.
He cited, as example, what’s happening at Sears Canada, as the retail giant winds down it’s operations without any intention of providing severance to store employees.
Chatham-Kent-Essex MPP Rick Nicholls, who attended the celebration, recalled questioning Minister of Finance Charles Sousa, who heads up FSCO, about the fact Navistar was ready to sit down with this provincial organization until it discovered FSCO didn’t have enough members, despite the fact this issue was coming up.
“I was furious,” Nicholls said.
However, he added once the matter went to court, as an MPP he is required to back away to avoid any perception that he could be meddling in the judicial system.
He recalled some former workers had come to his office over the years at their wits end facing a personal crisis such as their marriage breaking up or having spent their savings.
“This is a victory for Navistar employees . . . I’m so glad to see that finally they’ll get the money they deserve,” Nicholls said. “It’s unfortunate many had to go through the pain that they did.”
Dias said the message other corporations need to heed with what happened with Navistar is: “You can’t hide.”
However, he predicts the union will be fighting pension battles with other companies for its members in the coming years.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate, but it’s also a message to people that, if in fact, you want to mess with our members and their pensions, then we’re not going anywhere . . . even if it takes eight or nine years,” Dias said.