The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 22           June 30, 2003  
Machinists at Fleet end
long strike in Ontario
TORONTO—About 200 of the 335 workers in Fort Erie, Ontario, who went on strike against Fleet Industries on October 1 are now back to work without a union contract, alongside scabs that were hired by the company during the strike. On March 22, the aerospace workers and office staff, members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) locals 939 and 171, voted by a two-thirds majority to ratify the company’s “final offer,” which they had rejected in February and January by near unanimous votes.

Fleet, owned by Magellan Aerospace, one of the largest unionized employers in Fort Erie, produces components for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

The 300 production workers and 50 office workers had walked out in response to Fleet’s demands to gut seniority rights and replace the plant-wide seniority system with seniority by job classification.

On January 19, the workers rejected by a vote of 255 to 1 essentially the same demands they had turned down last fall. Accepting these offers would have meant an immediate layoff of all employees and recall based on favoritism, not seniority. The company proposal stated, “For the first six weeks following the resumption of operations, which will be a date specified by the Company following ratification, the Company has the right to recall employees out of seniority based on the company’s need, as determined by the Company.”

Strikers organized to win solidarity throughout the region for their fight. The unionists reached out to workers on strike against Anagram in St. Catherines and Niagara-on-the-Lake; to Steelworkers picketing at Washington Mills in Niagara Falls; and to members of the Canadian Auto Workers union who were locked out by Ronal Canada in Stevensville. There have been nine strikes and lockouts in the Niagara region over the last year.

On January 22, 100 strikers prevented replacement workers, escorted by police, from entering the factory in school buses with blacked-out windows. Strikers succeeded in stopping the scabs again the following day, with help from members of other unions in the region. This union solidarity pushed back company attempts to use scabs for several weeks.

Production workers rejected another company offer on February 8—a proposal that was practically identical to the earlier ones—by a vote of 221 to 6. The following day office workers rejected these offers by a vote of 24 to 20. During the week that followed, Fleet strikers and their supporters successfully blocked buses carrying scabs from entering the plant, in spite of a court injunction that limited picketing.

On February 13, faced with the fact that not one worker on strike had crossed the picket line, Magellan bosses announced that they were going to close the plant. William Matthews, the vice-president of marketing at Magellan, said “when the group went on strike, we ran the plant with management and non-union. But we knew we couldn’t do that forever. We exercised our legal right to bring in replacement workers and we were unable to do that.”

The company said that there was enough work in the plant for a few months and offered strikers their jobs if they would cross the picket line and go back to work.

Local and national IAM officials on March 22 told the workers at Fleet that the best option to get severance pay from the company, given the announcement that the plant would be closing, would be to get back in the plant. The union leadership recommended that workers ratify the company’s “final offer,” which they had rejected in February, and apply for severance benefits under section 80 of the Labor Relations Act.

In a phone interview with the Militant in late May, IAM member Julius Antal reported that the company refused to recognize the vote and immediately began recalling workers out of seniority. Workers report that the company sent out a letter to each employee stating that they did not recognize the March 22 vote. Upon returning to work, each worker was made to sign an individual contract with the company that specifies that no union activity is allowed in the plant.

In addition, Antal reported that two people were fired by the company, allegedly for “just cause” in relation to incidents that occurred during the strike. Over a dozen people never made applications under Section 80, because they did not want to return to work without a union contract and continue to picket outside the plant. While about 25 of the office workers who participated in the strike are back at work, about 20 office workers continue to picket.

Workers who have not been called back to work or who did not sign an individual contract with Fleet receive no severance pay and no unemployment benefits. One worker who is still picketing reported that workers in the plant had signed their first paychecks over to those still on the picket line.

The union has lodged an unfair labor practice complaint before the labor board, and is pursuing getting a severance package from Fleet.

As of the end of May, production in the plant is now running seven days a week, with the workers putting in a 48-hour workweek. On May 28, Fleet CEO Richard Neill sent a letter to the IAM stating that Fleet has “no intention” of reconsidering the decision to close the plant.

Despite Fleet’s success in restarting production without a union contract, some workers told this reporter that they are proud of the fight they waged. “I told everyone at a union meeting we had recently that we should all be proud of what we did and hold our heads up high, because we stood together,” said one worker, who is still on the picket line. “But we didn’t feel we could go any further in these conditions.”

Patricia O’Beirne is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in Toronto.  
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