While the workers pushed back many of the concession demands, the contract allows the company to institute a permanent two-tier wage structure, to force 170 workers to take a "buyout" and a wage cut if they want to continue to work, and imposes a wage freeze during the five-year life of the agreement. The pact was proposed by a government mediator and supported by union officials. The lockout began August 19 after the workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1518, rejected the company's last offer by a 96 percent margin.
At a February 18 meeting union members received a letter from Ross Bremner, executive vice president of the union, arguing that "the reason for the concept of a buyout is an effort to create room for new employees to come in at the new second tier rate of pay. If there are enough people that take the offer of a buyout this will assist in protecting the current rates of pay for those employees who do not take the buyout and return to work."
Following the April 8–9 vote, Sam Uppal, who works in packaging, said that the two-tier wage scale "splits us in two. We will have two classes of people doing the same job with one getting significantly less than the other. Everywhere there are people fighting for pay equity. This is pay inequity. It will weaken the union."
Julio Caballero, who has two years in the plant, said that compared to the company's original wage proposal, the new contract "offer is much better. Like the union said, choices have to be made. It does protect the more senior group."
Some workers were influenced in their vote by the company's threat to close the plant. During the strike the company sold its facility in Red Deer, Alberta, which is Fletcher's biggest plant and the only one that kills hogs. Alejo Bie, who has 20 years at the plant and works in the pork cut, asked, "What is your choice? Some people are scared they might close."
Pushed back some concessions
Among the concessions demanded by the company not in the contract are the lowering of the base wage by 40 percent, from $16.50 to $10.00; reducing the maximum vacation time to four weeks from the present seven; lengthening the probationary period from 60 to 90 working days; reducing the shift premium; and limiting use of the washrooms while on the job to 20 minutes a week, one of the most humiliating measures rejected by the workers.
The union's fight against concessions at the Fletcher's plant here came amidst a major attack by packing companies on workers and their union. In 1998 Fletcher's cut wages of workers at its kill operation in Red Deer by 40 percent following a 10-week strike. And despite a four-month walkout at Maple Leaf's plant in Burlington, Ontario, the company imposed similar wage cuts there and closed its plant in Edmonton, Alberta. Two years ago bosses at Quality Meats in Toronto carried out a wage cut after a two-month strike by workers.
Under the new contract workers not forced to take the buyout will retain their current wages and receive a $1,000 signing bonus. For new hires, the starting rate will go up to $9.50 an hour from $8. After about a year, the wage will increase to $10.75 an hour and remain there until 2006. Under the old contract a new employee would receive $16.50 an hour in three years. Meat cutters who used to start at $16.50 an hour will now make $13.25.
More than half of the current union members will be affected by the buyout scheme. The buyout formula is $5,000 per employee plus $73 per complete month of service up to the date of ratification. If 170 workers do not volunteer for the plan, the company will start at the bottom of the seniority list with mandatory buyouts. These workers will go into the two-tier wage structure but retain their seniority.
Manuel Medeiros, who has 17 years in the plant, said, "At Maple Leaf, they took cutbacks. Compared to the rest we did gain. We showed the people of Canada that if you fight you get results." He added, "I'm really proud of our people on the picket line. We put up one hell of a fight. People are stronger. We've come closer. We're more a family now because of what happened in the last eight months."
Coming out of the ratification meeting, Nancy Darlington, who has five years seniority, objected to the mandatory buyout. "I don't agree with forcing people to take a buyout. People should have a choice." Commenting on the fact that workers only got to see the mediator's proposal one hour before the meeting, she stated, "We shouldn't have just had it shoved at us with a threat to vote yes or the company was going to close. I don't see what was so secret that we couldn't have had a week to think and to discuss something so important. We need to be able to discuss things as a group, because that's what we are."
Coming out of the meeting to discuss the mediator's proposal on April 8, Rhonda Weber, who works in the kitchen, commented, "We've made our mark. Across Canada we showed that we were willing to take a stand for what we felt was right." Nancy Darlington, who opposed the mediator's proposal, said the workers' most important accomplishment was that "we stood up to them and said no" to the demand for a 40 percent wage cut.
Annette Kouri and Steve Penner, both meat packers, contributed to this article.
British Columbia workers keep bus system shut down
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