I am one of 32 workers who were locked out a few days before Christmas last year by my American employer, D-J Composites, which operates an aerospace manufacturing plant in Gander.
It has been a tough year for all of us and our families. Many of my coworkers have burned through their savings in order to keep the wolf from the door. Our children and grandchildren have felt the impact of this dispute. It is like a giant weight on our shoulders. And yet, as a group, we are stronger. We are now friends, not just coworkers.
We have lost loved ones and grieved together. We also shared moments of joy, such as the birth of a grandchild. And we have been shown incredible warmth and solidarity of union brothers and sisters from all across this country and even the United States. They tell us we have inspired them with our courage. Yet it is they who have humbled us with their messages, financial support and profound solidarity.
It has been a tough year for all of us and our families. Many of my coworkers have burned through their savings in order to keep the wolf from the door.
What choice did we have? The position of our employer from the start has been to attack our fundamental Canadian right to belong to a union and to negotiate fairly and freely. Its position from the start was to divide the workforce with egregious demands of wage cuts, wage freezes and proposals to destroy seniority protections.
It’s clear that D-J Composites, from the so-called right-to-work state of Kansas, just doesn’t want a union in the plant, even though we were unionized long before this employer purchased it in 2012.
In March, the employer finally came back to the bargaining table with, if you can believe it, an even worse offer than when they locked us out in the cold. Instead of wage freezes, the company demanded a pay cut and they wanted to wipe out all of our years of seniority.
They had to know this would not result in a negotiated settlement.
We complained to the Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Relations Board, which found this employer guilty of bad faith bargaining in May. Such a violation is rare. And while the board ordered the employer to remove some of their proposals and make a new offer, it was not much different, merely wrapped in new packaging.
To understand our frustration, you need to look at the history of this aerospace company in Gander.
D-J Composites used to be CHC Composites.
CHC Composites received $9.5 million in provincial taxpayers’ dollars on the condition it would create aerospace jobs in Gander.
Five years later, the province was again asked to invest another $1 million in the aerospace manufacturing company, and it did.
The company was supposed to create 1,100 person years of employment. I don’t think they lived up to that deal.
The plant then changed hands twice. And the workforce continued to dwindle.
The fact that the company changed owners does not change the fact that Newfoundland and Labrador should be demanding a return on this investment. At the very least, the government should be demanding that the labour rights of the workers be respected.
How can the American company get away with violating our rights? They broke our labour laws, and there were no consequences. It is something my co-workers and I don’t understand. Why isn’t our own provincial government not as outraged as we are? And shouldn’t the people we elect do something about this?
They could start by fixing our labour laws so there are real consequences for companies that behave as this one has. When an employer behaves as egregiously as this one the solution is to send the matter to binding arbitration.
As we face another Christmas and another long winter on the picket line, I demand our government step in and send a message to employers who think they can bust unions and keep people on the street, in an attempt to starve us into submission.
This year has been financially and emotionally brutal on us. But our spirits will not be broken.
We have each other, we have our families and friends, and our union brothers and sisters from across this great country.
What we need is a government who stands with us.
Ignatius Oram, Unifor member
Unit chair of Local 597