End of the line for Navistar’s Chatham plant

The end has finally come.

Nearly a decade after it was first announced Chatham’s Navistar plant would close, it has become a reality.

The final death knell came Tuesday — more than two years after the Richmond Street truck assembly facility has sat idled — when Navistar International Corporation issued a news release announcing its plans to close the plant.

The company blamed the inability to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the Canadian Auto Workers union as the reason operations were halted since June of 2009.

However, the union has continually stated it couldn’t get the company to the bargaining table.

CAW Local 127 president Aaron Neaves said, “it’s hard to negotiate, quite frankly, with yourself.”

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It’s another body shot to southwestern Ontario, the province’s manufacturing engine that has been decimated over the past couple of years with the loss of several thousand jobs alone in St. Thomas/ Elgin – which is bracing for the closure of Ford Canada’s St. Thomas Assembly Plant this fall.

The announced closure of Navistar International Truck’s Chatham facility today is a devastating blow to the workers, their families and the entire community, said CAW President Ken Lewenza.

“Despite our relentless efforts since 2009 to reopen the idled facility and get our members back to work, Navistar has remained rigid and is now moving ahead with plans to shutter the plant,” Lewenza said, following the company’s formal announcement.

“This remains a world-class facility with a hugely productive and skilled workforce, delivering top-quality products and there’s no good reason for it to be closing,” said Cathy Wiebenga, CAW plant chairperson at Navistar.

The facility has been in the Chatham community for over 60 years and was one of the largest employers in the area.

Over the years, Navistar has benefited from over $60 million in federal and provincial funding, as well as $40 million in contract savings from union members, in exchange for job commitments and the long term viability of the Chatham facility. Lewenza said the decision to up and leave is a slap in the face to the workers as well as to the Canadian tax-paying public and a black mark on government for refusing to take stronger action and hold this corporation accountable.

The CAW Local 127 and 35 bargaining committees, alongside CAW national leadership, will be scheduling meetings with the corporation in an attempt to bargain a fair and decent closure agreement on behalf of the laid-off members.

“As is always the case when bargaining with Navistar, I’m expecting that these talks will be unnecessarily difficult and challenging,” Lewenza said. Negotiations are set to take place over the coming weeks.

Navistar issued lay off notices to 300 office (Local 35) and plant (Local 127) workers in June 2009, in coordination with the expiry of the collective agreement. Over 800 plant and office workers were already on layoff at the time.

“Since 2009 this company has held our members’ jobs for ransom and then, adding insult to injury, forced them to endure two full years of fear, insecurity and uncertainty,” said Aaron Neaves, president of Local 127. “We’re even on the cusp of a market turnaround for big trucks in North America, with sales up by over a third from last year. Ironically, it’s at the same time that our factory is closing. We should be adding jobs now, not taking them away. It simply doesn’t add up.”

The closing of the Chatham truck facility is the latest in a long-list of major manufacturing plant shutdowns in Ontario since 2002. The persistently high Canadian dollar, lax restrictions on capital mobility, corporate-friendly free trade deals – like the NAFTA – and governments unwilling to take strong action to defend good jobs have created the conditions for situations like this to happen, Lewenza said.

Despite modest provincial employment over recent months, Ontario has still not recouped over 325,000 manufacturing jobs lost since 2002.

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