Crown Holdings strikers call on Ontario government for help

Photo: flickr/Phil Tomlinson

After watching another winter come and go on the picket line, striking workers at Crown Holdings Inc. are appealing to the Ontario government to help them reach a fair resolution in their 21-month long strike.

"The strike has been very difficult for all of us. A lot of people have had to make deals with the bank to try to keep their homes, try to keep their kids going to school," said striking Crown worker Steve McHugh. "We really need the government to step up and protect workers rights here in Ontario."

Backed by some of labour's most prominent figures, the striking Crown workers held a press conference at Queen's Park on Monday to demand that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn enact binding arbitration legislation to settle the dispute.

"This dispute has been going on for over 21 months, and with a vicious employer we believe is trying to destroy the union rather than reach a collective bargaining settlement with the workers," said Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff.   

"We are here, of course, calling on the minister for the government to intervene, to order the parties to binding arbitration so that the workers can go back to work to do what they love to do most, which is work in a productive facility that they have been committed to for many, many decades," he added.

The 120 workers at Crown Holdings Inc.'s Toronto plant have been on strike since September 6, 2013, after voting almost unanimously to reject a two-tiered collective agreement that included no increases to the pension plan and major wage cuts for new hires. The strikers are members of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9176, and many of them have been working at Crown Holdings for over two decades.

"In the beginning when we went to go on strike we didn't ask for a lot, we just really wanted to keep what we had. But we couldn't accept what they wanted -- to cut wages for future people as well as us," said McHugh, who has worked at the plant for 29 years.

With about 140 plants in 40 countries, Crown Holdings Inc. is one of the world's largest manufacturers of food and beverage cans. One out of every five cans in North America is made by Crown Holdings employees, of whom only roughly half are unionized. 

"There is evidence around of their union-breaking habits in other countries in the world. And it would seem that that is alive and well here," said Patrick Dillon, Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.

The Union says that the company provoked the strike by offering major concessions, in hopes of busting the union. Since the beginning of the strike, Crown has fired 34 workers without cause and replaced 75 per cent of the unionized workforce with replacement workers. 

The two parties have gone to the bargaining table intermittently since the beginning of the strike. However, the union says that the talks are stalled because Crown has consistently tabled worse offers, leaving the union and company farther from a resolution than when the strike started.   

"In my 28 years of being a Steelworker and negotiating collective agreements, I've never seen such a comedy of errors from the company as I've seen in this set of negations. It's clear to me and clear to my colleagues, and the negotiating committee that the agenda this company has is to bust the union," said assistant Director for United Steelworkers District 6, Tony DePaulo. "Every time over the last 21 months when we thought we were close to an agreement they would move the yardstick back further, change their proposals."

"This is the most productive plant, the best health and safety record in North America, and it's shameful what they are doing," added DePaulo.

In September of 2014, the union filed an unfair labour practice complaint against the company over the 34 workers that were fired without just cause. The complaint was put on hold when Crown agreed to not fire those workers, but the union says that the company has not kept its word on this issue and many others.

"This dispute at Crown Holdings is about fundamental rights and fairness for those workers, but it is now a pivotal issue for the labour relations in this province," said Unifor's Ontario Director Katha Fortier, who spoke at Monday's press conference as a show of solidarity with the striking USW members. "What is going on in Ontario when strikes come to an end by a foreign company turning good middle-class jobs into low-wage jobs."

In March, Ontario's Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn ordered an industrial inquiry to investigate the dispute. That intervention initiated a mediation process as well as an inquiry which was led by experienced mediator-arbitrator Morton Mitchnik. Since then there have been six rounds of mediation talks.

With the provincial legislature breaking for the summer at the end of this week, the labour movement is urging the Ontario government to act fast and enact legislation that would order the parties into binding arbitration.

Through the arbitration process, a mutually agreed upon third-party arbitrator would be appointed to review evidence submitted by both sides and impose a legally binding decision.

The industrial inquiry into the dispute is set to resume in mid-June after the legislature has closed.

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.

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