Friday, October 09, 2009

Regular readers of this blog know that I hate to be a carping, negative, nit picking bitch (more or less), but I'm going to be a carping, negative, nitpicking bitch here and now. The lockout on the part of the Tembec Corporation in the Manitoba town of Pine Falls has been going on for about a month now. Finally, their union, the United Steel Workers, has deigned to publish an article on their website about this ongoing struggle. Not that you are going to have an easy time finding it. It's hardly front page news there. Go to the site, and then go to the 'Western Canadian Section' to find the following. Now, I know that Manitoba is hardly the centre of the universe. I also know that the USW are rather embattled now, fighting strikes and lockouts on many fronts, especially in Ontario. I also know, however, that the struggle of the people of Pine Falls has a lot to say to a great many other communities in Canada, and perhaps across the world. Molly has expressed her own opinion about 'what should be done' earlier on this blog, and I urge the reader to search it down. For now I am happy that the USW has finally expanded on this struggle that is important to at least the people of this province.

Pine Falls Paperworkers Determined to Win Scrap Against Tembec:
POWERVIEW-PINE FALLS, MB – After more than a month of being thrown onto picket lines by their employer, locked-out United Steelworkers Local 3-1375 members at Tembec Inc.’s Pine Falls Division here remain steadfast in their determination to prevail in their first-ever labour dispute at the mill.
Local 1-1375 president Cam Sokoloski (click for image) says 250 USW members are “rock solid” in their efforts to beat back the company’s demands for drastic concessions, which exceed 35 per cent of wages and benefits for most employees.
Tembec locked out the USW members, along with 15 members of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Local 216, on September 1.
“This is the first labour dispute that workers have ever faced at this mill site since operations began in 1929,” says Sokoloski. “We have always been able to negotiate agreements in good times and bad – some negotiations were tougher than others.”
But this year, after only 3-1/2 days of contract talks with Tembec, the company put an ultimatum to its employees: Take major concessions or the plant would be mothballed.
Tembec management is taking the current downturn in the economy to drive concessions from its workers. We say that is unjust and unfair,” comments the local union president. “Their executives get big bonuses and they want us to take rollbacks.”
Both the USW and COPE (click to see picket supporters with MGEU supporters) have offered to meet directly with Tembec anytime, any place to negotiate an agreement.
Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allen has appointed a mediator who has already met with both sides in an attempt to solve the dispute. Allen has asked for non-binding recommendations from the mediator by October 16. The first meeting with the mediator took place on September 24, three weeks into the lock out.
USW Area Supervisor Wayne Skrypynk says the union hopes that mediator Michael Weirer “will be able to help get negotiations back on track.”“We certainly hope Mr. Weirer’s work will get us back to the table as the Steelworkers union is ready and willing to negotiate,” says Skrypnyk.

“At the bargaining table Tembec would not tell us the dollars per tonne costs reductions that their demands will save,” says Skrypnyk. “They just expected everyone to roll over and take concessions. We said no.”
Sokoloski says the union has provided the mediator with records of negotiations this year and in past years.
“When the mediator reviews this information he will see that Tembec did not try to reach a collective agreement – that it was a rush to a lock out,” says Sokoloski. “Tembec did not want to negotiate, it wanted immediate concessions.”
That ultimatum-style of bargaining – where Tembec is treating its labour force as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution – has made workers more “pissed off” and determined to stay strong until a collective agreement is reached, says Sokoloski.
The union is digging in for a potentially lengthy dispute. It has set up three major picket gates (click for image) and is patrolling the mill site.
Tembec has hired a security firm to spy on the picketers, videotape them and audio tape them with parabolic microphones.
“Our guys are staying cool and are not reacting to provocations by Tembec,” says Sokoloski. “Our whole bargaining committee and union are proud of the job our members are doing on the picket line.”
Tembec tried to provoke the picketers by moving out rolls of newsprint from the shipping area. Two trucks owned by Bison Transport (click for image) had their semis leave with loads, with RCMP officers posted nearby.
Bison Transport has not been back since.
Now Tembec is contracting Paramount Transport, also a Manitoba-based firm, to do the same thing.
Paramount’s website says it strives to treat each of its employees “with the utmost respect and fairness.”
“It’s not fair for Paramount (click for image) to assign any driver to cross our picket line,” says Skyrpnyk. “That shows it has little respect for its drivers or our dispute with Tembec.”
“We say that the newsprint should stay exactly where it is until this thing is over,” says Sokoloski. “We want Paramount out of Pine Falls and are circulating information that they are crossing our picket line.”
The picket line has been visited by numerous friends, family members and citizens of Powerview-Pine Falls and outlying areas.
“Some fellow, who we don’t know is, dropped $100 off at the picket line – another made a donation of 10 dozen donuts, says Sokoloski.
Grass roots generosity has been greatly appreciated by both USW and COPE members.
This past Sunday the unions put on an afternoon of celebration outside the main plant gates to say thanks for all the community support.
In addition to support from other workers – retirees, family and other community members, including business owners – the locked-out union members are receiving political support from all parties: the NDP, the Conservatives and the Liberals.
Everyone knows that the future of a prosperous Powerview-Pine Falls revolves on settlement of the lockout.
Even non-labour ally Conservatives have slammed Tembec.
Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen told the media: “Tembec’s delivered a brutal ultimatum and hasn’t shown much willingness to bargain. These kinds of tactics are just ruthless.”
Says Skrypnyk: “Tembec does not have many friends left in Manitoba. They should get this message loud and clear. It does not bode well for their business in our communities.”
“Our union told Tembec it is willing to work with it to find as many areas as we can to be more efficient, but we will not let them gut the collective agreement that has taken the union decades to build,” adds Skyrpnyk.
The mill produces newsprint by thermo-mechanical means, which has in recent months been put at a greater economic disadvantage by federal government subsidies to pulp producers aimed at offsetting the advantage US mills get under the so-called “black liquor subsidy program.”
Pine Falls and other mills that use thermo-mechanical pulping processes don’t qualify.
The Steelworkers have offered to help Tembec get some sort of assistance under the federal program and federal Conservative Cabinet Minister Vic Toews has told the union that there is already potential assistance for the Central Manitoba Railway (CEMR) greenway which serves Powerview-Pine Falls’ industrial base, including the locked out operation.
“Minister Toews has posed the question to Tembec,” says Sokoloski. “Why should the federal government help the CEMR if Tembec does not want to run the mill?”
Good luck to the people in Pine Falls, but I have to note that while it may be 'encouraging' to pick out supportive statements from politicians that such statements are hardly to be relied upon. the same goes for the efforts of the mediator, no matter how strong the case of the workers is. If people want to win they have to exert more pressure on their own, and not depend on any political intermediary.

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