Texada steelworkers returning to work

LafargeHolcim lockout sting lingers for United Steelworkers Local 816

/ Powell River Peak

March 15, 2017 08:00 AM

After a harsh winter and a fight even more bitter, Texada Quarrying employees are headed back to work after standing on a picket line for the past 20 weeks.

Powell River Regional District Texada Island director Sandy McCormick said the dispute tore a rift through the small island community and much work is needed to repair the damage.

“For the good of the island, I’m glad it’s over,” said McCormick. “Everybody knows everybody and people were being pitted against each other. Families suffered.”

United Steelworkers Local 816 members voted Wednesday, March 8, to ratify the offer that LafargeHolcim and union negotiators hammered out the week prior in a marathon 26-hour bargaining session.

The union secured an agreement with no concessions, maintained seniority rights and secured wage and benefit increases similar to other collective agreements in the sector. The ratification vote was a narrow victory for those in favour of the offer, with 34 voting in favour and 33 voting against.

In a statement from the union on March 10 announcing the results, Steelworkers Western Canada director Stephen Hunt said the narrow victory was a reflection of the damage the unnecessary lockout had done to employees.

“Lafarge’s mean-spirited and irrational lockout has done tremendous harm to its employees, their families and the entire Texada community,” stated Hunt. “The actions of Lafarge management have shattered confidence in the company.”

United Steelworkers Local 816 spokesperson Earl Graham said that despite the close results the deal was made because the company finally backed down from its demands on lumping job classifications and removing seniority protections.

“It’s obviously been a very contentious lockout,” said Graham. “We did maintain what we were trying to get back in September.”

The lockout began October 17, but roots of the dispute stretch back to the spring of 2016 when the contract for 70 unionized workers expired and negotiations began.

Lafarge had proposed reducing the number of job classifications from 22 to three and giving managers the ability to assign work within each classification to anyone a manager deemed qualified. At the time, the company stated the move would allow for an increase in productivity and efficiency, measures that would improve the sustainability of the quarry.

While the union viewed the changes as incremental attacks on longstanding workers’ rights, the company stated in October, after the lockout began, that employees would still have job security during layoffs, overtime allocation and vacation scheduling.

The company said the lockout was a response to uncertainty that was created after the union issued 72-hour strike notice and imposed an overtime ban in September.

The new contract will provide nine per cent wage increases over the four-year span of the agreement, as well as a six per cent increase into the pension plan, other improvements and benefits.

Local 816 president Mickey Pancich said it has been a long fight.

“It was a hard battle, but it would have been harder without the community behind us,” said Pancich. “We stuck to our guns on the seniority issue and they finally relented.”

Even though the union local voted to accept the deal, a clear timeline for going back to work has not yet been established, said Graham.

Included in the agreement is a back-to-work protocol for workers that will help them integrate back into their jobs and deal with working again beside people who only a month ago were seen to be scab workers.

“No one is going to walk back in there and start high-fiving and hugging each other,” said Graham. “That’s not the reality of what has gone on here.”

Part of the protocol includes workers meeting together, reviewing worker safety and speaking with counsellors who will help them deal with the anger many still have over the lockout.

“This was a nasty set of circumstances and it’s a small community that has depended on that quarry for many years,” said Graham.

Bitterness still exists from watching the company van pull up each day with management employees inside, serving as replacement staff to run the quarry as a skeleton crew during the lockout, he added.

Graham said he did not know if the company was going to do anything to try to rebuild relations with the community, but added if the company thinks anyone will soon forget about what the dispute did to Texada, they are mistaken.

With no set back-to-work date, Graham said when the workers do start back up they will be willing to work with management and be professional about it.

LafargeHolcim spokesperson Jennifer Lewis said the company is pleased that the employees voted for the contract ratification.

“Our goal is to safely restart full production,” said Lewis, “and shipping schedules to support customer requirements by month end.”

Lewis added that the process of bringing production back up at the quarry will take some time and she confirmed that Lafarge will be bringing in consultants to focus on health and safety, teamwork and environment issues.

Meanwhile, the island community at large is pleased to have the ordeal behind it, according to McCormick.

“Life on Texada as we know it,” she said, “can carry on.”


Copyright © 2017 Powell River Peak

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