Unionized workers employed by New Brunswick company, Covered Bridge Potato Chips, have taken strike and boycott actions to press demands for a first contract. The majority of the 32 striking workers are earning minimum wage, and are aiming for higher wages through a new contract.
While increased wages are important, the main demand is seniority. “The company does not want to have seniority rights within the collective agreement,” says Carl Flanagan, national representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW). Flanagan is representing the striking Covered Bridge employees.
“Seniority clause we’re looking for is for job security. So, if I worked there for five years and the employer hires his brother-in-law tomorrow to work there and there’s no restriction on seniority, his brother-in-law could get 40 hours a week and he could cut me back to 25 hours per week. The people who have been there for five years deserve to have seniority over those who start work tomorrow,” explains Flanagan.
The workers have been in a legal strike position since June. They have been unable to come to satisfactory contract terms over the course of the last several months. A major stumbling block has been the attitude of the company president Ryan Albright towards the union.
There was a meeting in mediation on (June 23). He came in and (read out) a two-page spiel and stormed out of the room,” says Flanagan. This statement, and the circumstances surrounding it, were the subject of a successful unfair labour practice complaint by the union.
In the statement (reproduced in the unfair labour practice decision), Albright says that he would not deal with his company’s workers through a union.
“I will give to my employees the things they are looking for, but never in a union environment where I feel trapped to communicate to my employees on a daily basis for fear of unfair labour practice against myself and the company (…) The union wants you to feel like they’re your friend, they’re here for you. It’s bullshit.”
The same statement was repeated later that day at the Waterville work site, after Albright stopped production to make the speech. It was read again the following day, June 24.
June 24 was also the date of a planned strike vote, making the timing of Albright’s statement more problematic. On that date, despite the statement, workers voted in favour of a strike.
The New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board concluded that Albright did commit an unfair labour practice, violating the New Brunswick Industrial Relations Act: “Albright himself and on behalf of Covered Bridge sought by intimidation, threat, or promise to induce its employees to refrain from or cease to be a member of the Complainant Union.”
Flanagan emphasizes the importance of the decision. “People have a right to organize. They have a right to belong to a union of their choice. They voted to belong to a union, and (Albright) refuses to recognize the union … and that’s an unfair labour practice.”
The rebuke by the Labour Board did not deter the position of the employer.
The Board forced the employer back to the table. “He had to be back at the table by September 27. We met on September 25. He presented us with a company offer with no seniority and less wages than in the first offer. We tried again on December 30. He basically said it was his final offer, take it or leave it,” says Flanagan.
The response to the final offer was a walkout and a boycott.
“The strike is not going to be won on a dead end street in Hartland, NB. There’s not much that goes on on that street after the employees on the picket line. So, we plan to be doing secondary leafletting, which is our right under the Industrial Relations Act. The Supreme Court has ruled that we can do secondary picketing. So, we plan to leaflet at stores that are selling covered Bridge potato chips,” says Flanagan.
Flanagan is hopeful that the boycott will apply needed pressure to bring the employer back to the bargaining table. “Once he sees that there is a boycott in place, and that we’ll be leafletting in front of his customers, I’m hoping that he wants to meet.”
Asaf Rashid is a member of the NB Media Co-op.