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Lafarge Lockout Tearing Texada Island Apart

Union picketing for 14 weeks while friends and neighbours cross the line.

By Andrew MacLeod 23 Jan 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

A 14-week lockout of quarry workers on Texada Island has brought division and tensions to their small community, say some local residents.

“There are 70 families affected by this lockout, more if you count the office staff that are put in the predicament of crossing the picket line to do more than their described job or face repercussions (we assume) from the company,” said an email from Deidre Braak, who identified herself as the spouse of a locked-out worker who has been with the company 27 years.

Texada, between Courtenay on Vancouver Island and Powell River on the Sunshine Coast in the Salish Sea, has a population of about 1,200.

“There are situations where one spouse crosses the line while the other is locked out, or a sister crosses the line as her brother is locked out,” she wrote. “How about a husband and wife that cross the line to work as their son is locked out. This is happening!”

The lockout at Lafarge Texada Quarrying Ltd.’s limestone mine began Oct. 17 when owner LafargeHolcim locked out members of United Steelworkers Local 816 who had been working without a collective agreement since May.

About 60 employees are locked out, while the 65-year-old quarry continues to operate using managers and non-union employees.

Lafarge Canada’s Calgary-based director of communications, Jennifer Lewis, responded to a phone message Wednesday by sending a prepared statement dated Jan. 9.

“In response to feedback from Local 816 regarding seniority and in an effort to bring the work stoppage to an end, Lafarge tabled an offer before Christmas that removed language around assignment of work which the Steelworkers felt was an attack on seniority,” the company statement said. “Also included in the offer, once again, were significant improvements in benefits, plus annual cost of living increases to wages for each year of the contract. Despite the major concession on work assignment, the Steelworkers have yet to vote on the offer.”

B.C. media contacts for the Steelworkers did not return calls by publication time.

In a Jan. 7 statement, the union blamed management for starting and prolonging the dispute, including a delay since Christmas. “The union and management had recently returned to the bargaining table and made progress, but management reneged and talks fell apart,” it said. Seniority remains an issue, the union said.

Lafarge had proposed reducing the number of job classifications from 22 to three, with managers free to assign work within each classification to any employee they considered qualified, according to an Oct. 28 statement. “This allows us to assign work more efficiently, increase our productivity and supports our sustainability initiatives.”

The proposal protected “the fundamental benefits that seniority provides,” the statement said, including job security during layoffs, overtime allocation and vacation scheduling.

The company said it locked out the employees after the union’s bargaining committee rejected the final offer reached through mediation without a membership vote. “Instead, we received 72 hours strike notice,” the statement said. “Although our employees never did officially go on strike the Union implemented an overtime ban which, combined with the uncertainty of whether or not our employees would walk out at anytime, led to our decision to lock our employees out.”

The Steelworkers local says its goal is “a fair and balanced contract that ensures the dignity and respect of every employee.”

“Respect for seniority is a long-standing principle that most companies respect, including Lafarge until now,” it said.

The release quoted USW staff representative Earl Graham. “Steelworkers and their families are Texada,” he said. “We are the heart and soul of the community. If management wants to respect their employees and the community they should return to the bargaining table to reach a fair settlement.”

The quarry’s continued operation during the lockout has increased tensions.

Business in Vancouver reported that on Jan. 3 Lafarge Texada Quarrying Ltd. filed a civil claim in B.C. Supreme Court against Steelworkers Local 816 seeking an injunction to stop alleged unlawful picketing activity.

The claim said, “locked-out employees have been hurling profanities and physically blocking a van carrying management employees who have been working the mine since the lockout began,” the story said. The allegations have not been tested or proven in court. The union’s response was unavailable from Court Services Online.

The court granted a temporary injunction Jan. 5 “restraining the Defendants and anyone with knowledge of the order... from physically preventing, impeding, restraining, intimidating, or in an other way delaying access” to the mine.  [Tyee]

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