CANADA

Costly labor decisions

CINDY BARRETT December 29 1986
CANADA

Costly labor decisions

CINDY BARRETT December 29 1986

Costly labor decisions

Union leaders declared the settlement a victory. But their followers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), were not celebrating wage increases or better working conditions. Indeed, the contract offer that 60.8 per cent of the 846 employees of the Gainers Inc. meat-packing plant in Edmonton voted to accept last week included a wage freeze for the next two years. But after a bitter—and sometimes violent—6 */2 -month strike in Alberta’s inhospitable labor climate, the union claimed that just surviving to sign a contract amounted to a victory. Deborah Gunville, 33, a single mother who packs sausages at Gainers, acknowledged that she voted reluctantly in favor of the offer. Said Gunville: “It’s nothing to jump up and down about.”

In fact, both sides had suffered steep losses since the strike—widely regarded as the most divisive ever in Alberta—began on June 1. Those involved estimated the cost in lost wages, union strike pay, legal bills, police costs and production losses at more than $20 million. The human cost was also high, as police arrested 460 strikers on the picket line. And last week, after signing the four-year contract, many of the workers who returned to the red brick plant—owned by industrialist Peter Pocklington —in Edmonton’s bleak northeast end said that they wondered if the settlement was worth the price.

Their original demand was for wage parity with such other meat-packers as Canada Packers Inc. and Burns Foods Ltd. That would have involved an hourly wage increase of $1.03—about five per cent—over two years. UFCW members also wanted control over a company pension fund surplus estimated at $6 million to $10 million. But company spokesmen said that Gainers could not afford to raise hourly wages from their current range of $7.50 to $12.50 (the lowest starting rates of any major Canadian meat-packing plant). Said Pocklington: “I am not prepared to pay more money in tough times. People are lucky to have a job.”

The contract freezes wages until 1988 —extending an existing wage freeze introduced in 1983—but provides for a three-per-cent increase in each of the next two years. The company kept the pension fund surplus, but Gainers lost its attempt to retain the replacement workers whom it hired during the strike and take back the strikers only when positions became vacant. Instead, the strikers returned to their jobs, and company officials will give top priority to the 850 re-

placements when there are job openings. One of them, David Ashton, said that he planned to go back to Gainers despite hostility from former strikers. “I’ll be back in six months,” declared Ashton. “I can swing a wrench up the side of their heads just as soon as they

put one up against my head.”

The acrimony began last May when Gainers advertised for workers willing to cross picket lines—even before the union’s strike deadline. Alberta’s labor laws allow employers to replace striking workers during a dispute. Hundreds of people answered the ads, but those hired were the targets of taunts, rocks and bottles hurled by pickets as they were bussed into the plant.

The UFCW and labor leaders across the country charged that Pocklington wanted to see the union crushed. In-

deed, the bitterness grew as negotiations stalled several times before Premier Don Getty intervened and called both sides back to the bargaining table earlier this month. Said University of Alberta political scientist Alain Noël: “What Pocklington wanted to do is destroy the union. The workers lost personally, but they won what every other labor union in the country takes for granted. Now they have also sent a message to all Canadian employers: you can’t destroy unions.” For his ' part, Pocklington said he had been prepared to operate the plant without the strikers “until hell froze over.”

"" x Not all Albertans welcomed the end of the strike. Twenty-two employees of Lakeside Packers in Brooks, Alta., 190 km east of Calgary, have been on strike since their wages were cut by 30 per cent—as much as $3.80 an hour—in mid-1984. The strikers, who have been replaced by Lakeside, had hoped that the national publicity from the Gainers dispute would force the province to change its labor laws and help them. Said local union leader Kathy Kennedy: “If we’d had the attention the Gainers strike has had since it started, we would have settled ours a long time ago—and not for a Mickey Mouse deal.” Others shared misgivings about the settlement. In the midst of the ugly confrontation, a government committee began a review of the § province’s labor laws.

0 The committee has heard

1 repeated requests at public meetings for laws that would outlaw replacing strikers after contracts expire. Now that Gainers has settled, warned Edmonton labor lawyer Susan Edge, the committee might take a softer approach in its recommendations. “They could now point to the fact that one of the most controversial disputes was resolved under the existing laws,” she said. The committee’s views should be known by the end of January, when it is to report to the government.

CINDY BARRETT

KERRY DIOTTE