This past February in Ontario, there were three separate lockouts of workers, all within the span of eight days and all of which are still ongoing. Workers at the Fenner Dunlop facility in Bracebridge were locked out on Feb. 14, Security officers at the Elements Casino Flamboro were locked out on Feb. 18, and finally, workers at the Molson Brewery in Toronto were locked out on Feb. 20. As we enter the seventh week of struggle it is important to take a close look at how we got here and the next steps to ensure victory across the board.
It has been over 40 days since workers at Fenner Dunlop, a company that supplies mining conveyor belts, rejected the company’s final contract offer with a vote of 79 per cent against. The 60 or so workers are organized under United Steel Workers (USW) Local 7949. Talks originally began in November 2020 but quickly broke down as management put seven pages of concessions on the table. After a month of negotiations, the conflict came down to three main points: shift premiums, contract length, and short-term disability.
The attacks on short-term disability, essentially paid sick days, are particularly important. Short-term disability has been in their contract since 1987. When workers need time off due to illness for the first two days off, they receive no pay, the following two weeks they receive their full amount and after that a reduction to 75 per cent. Now the company wants to take it all away and shift the workers over to employment insurance through the government. This is not the first time their short-term disability has come under attack In 2017 the company implemented a two-tier system where anyone hired after that contract wouldn’t receive any paid time off. There is a saying that if you give a mouse a cookie, it is not long after that they’re going to ask for a glass of milk, and this is especially true with management. Any concessions accepted today, do not slow the tide but only serve to invite more vicious attacks.
On top of all of this, these attacks on sick days are coming during a global pandemic. With the working class taking the biggest hit during the pandemic many are forced to choose between staying home and not being able to make rent or afford food, or take the risk and continue to go to work. Paid sick days are one of the most effective weapons to combat COVID-19 and keep workers safe. It should also be noted that currently there is a large campaign around the need for paid sick days, which culminated with the New Democratic Party tabling a bill that would amend the Employment Standards Act to guarantee seven paid sick days and 14 during the pandemic. This was voted down by the Ford Conservatives, but the fight is not over. The struggle of the workers at Fenner Dunlop as well as Elements Casino, who are also fighting to protect paid sick days, could serve as a spark for the labour movement to begin escalating action until paid sick days are won for all workers in Ontario.
Tactics of the bosses
On March 26 and 27 a series of trucks were brought into the Fenner Dunlop site for the first time since the lockout began. They were there to not only move the finished product out of the facility but also raw materials down to a sister plant in Ohio. Here we can see that divide and conquer is the name of the game, or as one worker put it, “They have been playing us against [the Ohio Plant] for years, threatening to move all the work down there if we don’t play right with them up here. And same with them down there, they’ll move all the work up here.” This has also been an issue with the Molson lockout in Toronto as it has a sister plant in Montreal. These types of tactics from the bosses make solidarity all the more important. An attack on one is an attack on all. It is not just a moral question of standing with your brothers and sisters on the line but the only way to defeat the bosses.
The other noteworthy thing is that since the lockout began management has gone into hiding. They have not only been refusing to meet with the union but with the press as well. In 2006 the union and management found themselves in a very similar position, where a supervised vote turned down the company’s offer. The difference then however was that there was no lockout and instead everyone returned to the bargaining table. What changed? For one it is becoming abundantly clear that the struggle here as well as at the Molson plant are not just the result of lack of profits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the bosses are taking advantage of what they see as an opportunity to break the unions. Why would the bosses come back to the table? They know that before the lockout most workers were already in an unstable situation. As the lockout and the pandemic drag on the bosses’ bargaining position only improves. Marty Warren , USW director for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, commented on the Elements Casino Lockout, saying “This corporation is deliberately exploiting the upheaval caused by the pandemic. It is provoking a labour dispute to try and impose cuts to sick leave and other benefits on workers.” This could be said of all current lockouts. As working-class people die on the front lines the bosses see the pandemic as a bargaining chip to extract greater profits from the workers. There really is one pandemic for the working and poor and another for the rich. The only way to bring the bosses back to the table is to up the pressure. International solidarity from the labour movement, a mass campaign to bolster the picket lines, work refusals at the Ohio plant and solidarity from truck drivers to ensure nothing comes in or out. That will be the only way to push back these attacks and ensure the longevity of strong union jobs, decent wages and good benefits.
End the Lockout
Victory to USW Local 7949