When Caterpillar laid off 460 people in 2012 and shuttered their London locomotive factory, politicians of all stripes decried the blow to the province’s important manufacturing sector. When Heinz announced the closure of its tomato processing plant in Leamington last year, public outcry was so intense that it prompted a manager to help buy the plant to keep it open.
But in the nearly 17 months since 120 workers at the Crown can factory in North York walked out on strike, there has been a distinct lack of interest from politicians and the press.
“It’s pretty lonely out here,” said John Beechey through his balaclava, a cloud of frozen breath emerging.
As the strikers bundle up for a second winter on the picket line, they say this is how Ontario’s manufacturing sector is being gutted: one plant at a time; one strike at a time. And no one speaks out until it’s too late.
At 6:30 a.m. one recent day, the snow is blowing and the wind chill makes it feel like -18 C, Toronto is about to announce an extreme weather warning and two dozen picketers are here for a shift change, lining up to confront the bus carrying replacement workers, or as they call them, scabs.
“In the beginning, scabs would hold their paycheques up to the windows,” said Calvin Gillard, vice-president of United Steel Workers Local 9176. “Now they just sit there quietly.”
Crown makes cans for more than 120 kinds of beer, ranging from Molson, Labatt and Coors to Steam Whistle, Budweiser and Creemore. They also produce cans for PC Cola and Cott foods.
In September 2013, things were looking up. After a decade of tough times that led to plant closures and pension and wage freezes, Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings, Inc. was turning a billion-dollar profit, and the plant on Fenmar Dr., near Highway 400 and Finch Ave. W., had just been awarded one of the company’s highest honours. It was named Crown’s safest and most productive plant in North America.
This, reasoned Union Staff representative Lawrence Hay, meant it was time to ask for the first salary increase in nine years. But when the workers sat down with management to negotiate a new contract, not only were they told their salaries and pensions would remain frozen, they say Crown wanted to eliminate their annual cost-of-living wage increases and hire new workers at salaries up to 42 per cent lower than existing ones.
Crown Holding’s media spokesperson, Thomas T. Fischer, did not return calls and emails for comment.
“If you don’t hear back, it means we have no comment,” his secretary, who declined to identify herself, said by telephone from Philadelphia last week.
The workers walked out, figuring the strike would last a few weeks or a few months at most. But strikes are stretching out much longer than they used to, Hay says, and big American companies like Crown Holdings now budget for strikes, hoping to drag them out to get the union to abandon its demands.
“They came to the table from the beginning knowing they would put us out,” said Beechey, a third-generation maintenance mechanic, whose grandfather worked at the plant during the Second World War, before his parents met on the job. “Now, with no anti-scab laws, they hire scabs and keep the plant running through the strike.”
The strikers say production has slowed down. The replacement workers don’t know the job as well as the unionized employees, and the picketers — who work in shifts, 24 hours a day — have the right to stop all incoming and outgoing trucks for 15 minutes.
“At 6.5 million cans per day, it wasn’t like we weren’t producing for them. We met their numbers every time,” said Cheryle Dollimore, who worked in quality assurance. “We did good by them. They’re making a big profit. So what about us? They told us, ‘You’re getting nothing’ and turned their backs on us. It’d be easier to understand if the plant was closing.”
For strikers who are coming up on retirement and have kids in college and university, a year and a half out of work has been difficult. Many now hold down other jobs to make ends meet. Each is responsible for 28 hours of picketing per week, and it’s a tough, cold slog.
“They’re trying to starve us out,” said Rob DiPippo, a forklift driver with 29 years at the plant. “All your luxuries in life are put on hold. You can’t go on vacation. You just try and keep your car running.”
Union local vice president Gillard has two young daughters and says he was saving up for a down payment on a house when the strike started. Almost a year and a half later, he’s almost burned through it all.
“It’s not just us,” said DiPippo. “How’s the young generation going to survive on 12 bucks an hour?”
Last summer, Crown made a new offer that did away with the two-tiered wage proposal, Hay said, instead demanding a 30 per cent pay cut across the board. This means an experienced machine operator who was making $24 an hour would have to accept $16 an hour when they return to work, Gillard said. The strikers voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer: 117-1.
Now they say the company has made it known some of the replacement workers will stay when the strike is over, taking jobs from some of the strikers. Hay says Crown provided the union with a list of employees who will be replaced. It includes the names of 34 of the most dedicated picketers.
“These are bully tactics from an American conglomerate that doesn’t seem to have any willingness to come to a reasonable approach to negotiating,” said NDP MPP Taras Natyshak. “Despite the workers having received accolades, that obviously has no bearing on how the company treats them.”
In an effort to get word out about their plight, the strikers have started leafletting at Beer Stores across the province, calling on beer drinkers to buy bottles and not the cans produced at their plant. It’s a beer-can boycott of sorts, but it’s also a way of talking to people face to face, instead of facing down trucks and buses at the snow-swept factory entrance.
“We’re not a radical union. We helped the company. We made sacrifices,” said DiPippo.
“People think you go on strike because you want the moon,” said Dollimore. “But we just want to keep what we had.”