Covered Bridge Potato Chip Workers have been on strike since January 5, spending most of the coldest winter months outside their workplace in Hartland. “It has been over 80 days,” says Carl Flanagan, UFCW national representative, who is representing the Covered Bridge workers.
Despite the chilly attitude towards their union by the employer, workers have held their line. Support from the province’s labour movement and its people have enabled them to continue.
The striking workers are members of UFCW Canada Local 1288P. They have been without a first contract for over two years. The workers are seeking a living wage, rather than the minimum that many earn. Starting pay at Covered Bridge is $10.30. In comparison, starting pay at Old Dutch, the other Hartland potato chip company, is $14.50.
The workers are also seeking seniority rights, a common provision in employment relationships. “The people who have been there for five years deserve to have seniority over those who start work tomorrow,” says Flanagan.
“It is shamefully unacceptable that a successful, expanding company that has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money through government grants, so blatantly refuses to respect its workers, its neighbours, and the community,” said UFCW Canada National President Paul Meinema to the striking workers at a visit to the picket on March 3.
The company has received more than $700,000 in funding from the provincial government. This money has helped the company expand, yet the workers have not reaped benefits accordingly.
“While you are undergoing your fourth expansion please remember that your employees need to make a decent living,” said the United Campus Labour Council of the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University in a letter to company president Ryan Albright in January.
Albright has pointedly refused to deal with unionized workers. At a June 23 mediation meeting with the union, Albright made a speech, saying, “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… I will tell you this: the employees do not want this. We at Covered Bridge do not want this… Carl, screw you and your fucking Union.”
He repeated the speech at the workplace the same day, and again the next day, June 24. That was the day of a strike vote, where the workers voted in favour.
Albright’s statement to his workers was found to be an unfair labour practice by the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board in August 2015 because he used, “intimidation, threat, or promise to induce,” to discourage support for the union.
Since the strike began, the employer has had its treatment of unionized workers rebuked again. In early February, the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench refused to overturn the decision of the Labour Board, which ruled that “statements of desire” from employees, who allegedly no longer wanted to be union members, were involuntary statements induced by the employer.
“After the decision, we approached the government, saying that we’re still the union. We also sent a message to the employer to come to the bargaining table, but he refused,” says Flanagan
The resolve of the striking workers has been strengthened by support received by other workers and the general public, including visits to the picket line. On February 11, unions from around the province brought members and community supporters to the picket line for a solidarity rally.
The same day the strike began, the union also began a boycott of Covered Bridge Potato Chips products until the employer agrees to bargain in good faith. Much of the public support has come through this avenue.
In Fredericton, volunteers with the Fredericton and District Labour Council have been distributing the leaflet at retail locations where Covered Bridge Potato Chips are sold, and at other busy locations, such as the Boyce Farmers’ Market in Fredericton.
“We’re getting lots of people saying they won’t be buying the chips,” says Flanagan.
Support has also come from campuses. In January, Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union (MUNSU) stopped carrying Covered Bridge Potato Chips at their convenience store, The Attic, sending Albright the message that the boycott would continue until the workers “are valued and respected” through a fair resolution.
At the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas Universities, the United Campus Labour Council, made up of unions at both campuses, sent a notice to Albright that they are supporting the boycott. At UNB, the Graduate Students Association’s Grad House bar also stopped carrying the chips until there is a fair resolution to the labour dispute.
The primary message of the workers to the company is that the employer must return to the bargaining table. The company is responsible by law for negotiating in good faith with the union.
In addition, Flanagan points out that the provincial government ought to show more responsibility. “There is no first contract legislation in New Brunswick. It’s just PEI, NB and Alberta that don’t have it. First contract legislation would have avoided a labour dispute altogether. It would have established a collective agreement in the middle of the road between what we were looking for and what the employer was asking for.”
Asaf Rashid is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op and law student at the University of New Brunswick.