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VIEW: ‘Caterpillar closing is due to free trade’, says Walkom

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom writes, “The Caterpillar plant-closing saga is not simple. Yes, the company’s actions were odious. Caterpillar clearly had no intention of keeping its newly purchased London locomotive plant open — and closed it as soon as the company’s preferred location, Indiana, passed anti-union laws. And yes, Canada’s governments behaved shamefully. Ottawa said last week’s plant closing — with the loss of 450 middle-class jobs — was the Ontario government’s business. Queen’s Park blamed Ottawa. Neither did anything.”

“But the real villain is unrestrained globalization. As long as goods and capital are free to move unimpeded across national borders, companies — even nice ones — will locate where wages are cheap. All of this could be changed. But to do so would require the fundamental rethinking of belief in the unalloyed virtue of free trade, a belief that the country’s political and business classes accept on faith.”

“Should Caterpillar Inc., a notoriously anti-union company, have been better scrutinized in 2010 when it offered to buy all of Illinois-based Electro-Motive Diesel’s operations — including its London assembly plant? Perhaps. But even if this relatively small purchase had come under the purview of Canada’s foreign investment laws, it’s not clear that any government of any political stripe would have blocked the sale. When the Liberals were in government, they approved all foreign takeovers. The new New Democrats, meanwhile, are desperate to be seen as business-friendly.”

“More to the point, it wasn’t Caterpillar’s foreign ownership that was the problem. It was its ability, as a multinational, to locate production anywhere.”

“Ottawa could take a leaf from the U.S. and pass Buy Canadian legislation. The province (which is not tightly bound by international trade agreements) could penalize companies that purchase goods from jurisdictions with unfair labour laws. Governments could even copy the tactic of Trudeau-era trade minister Ed Lumley, who famously threatened to hold up the import of Japanese autos until companies like Honda built assembly plants here. But Canadian governments don’t do such things. To be seen as anything but avidly free-trade spooks both politicians and business.”

“As a result, Ottawa focuses on selling oil to the Chinese. Queen’s Park at least encourages windmill manufacturers. Neither does much else.”

Walkom’s column can be read at http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1128113–walkom-the-real-villain-of-caterpillar-shutdown-mindless-free-trade.

On January 21, the Council of Canadians London and Hamilton chapters joined with thousands of others to support the then-locked-out Electro-Motive Diesel workers. On February 5, the London Free Press reported, “Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians said the Harper government is allowing companies like Caterpillar to run roughshod over Canadian workers and families. ‘The Council of Canadians is calling on the Harper government to impose tariffs on imports of equipment from Caterpillar on the grounds that their actions will have dire fiscal and social consequences for the London community and by their use of unfairly subsidized labour in Mexico and right-to-work Indiana.’” On February 7, the Council of Canadians joined the ‘Boycott CAT in Canada’ Facebook page.