As this article is being written, workers at Moosehead Breweries in Saint John have been locked out since 20th February. The central issue in this dispute are the workers’ retirement, health, and dental benefits plan. Under the previous, expired collective agreement signed with Local 362 of the New Brunswick Union (NBU), the company paid 100% of the costs of the benefits programs. Moosehead workers fought hard for this gain and have enjoyed it for 30 years. Now, the company is demanding that workers pay 30 percent of these costs after retirement.
Moosehead Breweries Inc. is the third largest brewing company in Canada. The company is wholly owned by the Oland family, and has been for six generations. Like many other “family owned” businesses, Moosehead employs the paternalistic rhetoric that the workers and bosses are one big family, and not part of a larger class struggle. The proverbial Christmas turkey is dangled before the workers to create a sense of mutual interests. In an article in the Saint John Telegraph Journal, Moosehead’s vice-president of communications, Joel Levesque, said, “Let’s be honest. We are not a huge, big company. This is more like a family…. And when it comes down to it, it is like a little family spat.”
The Oland family likes to cast Moosehead as family-owned “independent” brewery. However, New Brunswick workers knows all too well that privately-owned and family-owned capitalist enterprise can be just as ruthless in labour disputes as any other type of company. After all, they live in the shadow of the family-owned and operated behemoth, the Irving group of companies, controlled by the Irving family. The Irving family is consistently ranked among the top-five wealthiest families in Canada, is viciously anti-worker, and dominates the political and economic life of the province.
Politically, the Oland family has a track record of supporting policies that attack workers’ rights and social benefits. Andrew Oland, the current president of Moosehead Breweries, sits on the board of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, which advocates for the destruction of all of the gains workers have made under capitalism. Their brain trust, Brian Lee Crowley, conjured up the half baked “Atlantica” initiative which proposed a whole host of right-wing policies, such as eliminating minimum wage legislation and collective bargaining rights, gutting environmental legislation, and privatizing public services such as health care and education.
Moosehead’s attacks on the workers of NBU Local 362 are not unique or an isolated incident. In response to the global crisis of capitalism, the ruling class is attacking pension and retirement benefits that have been won by workers across the Western world. In France, French president Nicolas Sarkozy raised the age of retirement, while in Hamilton, ON, workers at the US Steel plant have been locked out for months over their refusal to accept cuts to their retirement package. Workers at Moosehead Breweries are not alone in suffering attacks on their standard of living at the hands of the bosses. In this current epoch of capitalism, the bosses have made it very clear that they are going to attempt to claw back all of the gains and victories made by workers over the past 50 years.
In the lead up to the lockout, the union leadership had already conceded that retired Moosehead workers would have to start paying into the benefits program; the only question that remained was how much workers would have to pay. While the union leaders were holding out hope for a settlement, the company was shipping out all of its stock and erecting an eight foot cordon around the plant, a clear sign they had been preparing to play hard ball for some time.
As Leon Trotsky explained decades ago, the crisis of the workers’ movement can be summed up as a crisis of leadership. Everywhere, workers are prepared to fight back against the bosses’ agenda of cuts and austerity, but their leadership are constantly wavering. In a video posted on the NBU website, one Moosehead worker, Jeff, says, “One of the problems in the world today is a world wide shortage of good leadership… and until we address these things, well, look around, it’s not pretty…” In the video, you can hear NBU communications officer, Denis Atchison (who shot the clip), audibly cringing when Jeff criticized management for not caring about the community and not appreciating the workers they manage.
While the workers of local 362 are demonstrating their militancy and determination on the line, the union leadership have used the bosses’ rhetoric of patriotism and family to appeal for a return to good relations. Tom Mann, executive director of the NBU, stated in an interview with gonzo blogger Charles Leblanc that Moosehead was a “good New Brunswick company,” and that workers should “buy New Brunswick.” Later on in the video clip posted on Leblanc’s blog (oldmaison.blogspot.com), Mann goes on to chastise all New Brunswickers for buying beer brands from places other than New Brunswick and appeals to their patriotic duty to buy more Moosehead beer.
This type of timidity constitutes a betrayal of the militant workers on the line who are fighting to keep their hard-fought gains from being stripped or negotiated away. Any sort of weakness displayed by the union leadership will only invite further aggression! As a first step, the NBU leadership should organize a strike vote; in this way, workers will not be forced back to work without a deal if management calls off the lockout. The NBU leadership should also call for broad working-class solidarity, rooted in the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.
The union cannot afford to give any more concessions to Moosehead. In the last round of bargaining, the NBU negotiated a two-tiered benefits program, which required new hires to pay to pay for a portion of their health benefits during retirement, a classic divide-and-conquer strategy by the bosses. Workers in New Brunswick have been under attack from all sides over the past five years. The previous Liberal government tried to close down universities, sell off the public power utility, and put the government into a deficit through a host of corporate and income tax cuts. Now, the current Conservative government is looking to consolidate these roll backs in the social wage by, among other things, cutting healthcare. Struggles like the lockout at Moosehead Breweries should be used as a rallying point to galvanize workers in New Brunswick into open class struggle in concert with uprisings taking place around the globe. This is the only way for workers to emancipate themselves from capitalist exploitation, gain their freedom and exercise self-determination.