Ontario Unionists End Six-Week Walkout

By Roger Annis, The Militant, Vol.59 no.19, 15 May 1995

MONTREAL—They didn't walk over us like they thought they would. We're going back to work with our heads up. That's how Ernest Raposso summed up the six-week strike at the MacMillan Bathurst Inc. (MBI) cardboard packaging factory in Rexdale, a suburb of Toronto.

The strike ended April 4. Seven days earlier, the company said it would close the factory if the strike wasn't over by April 2.

One hundred forty-eight members of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) Local 1497 struck February 21 against MBI's demand for a seven-day, 12-hour shift operation. Workers are refusing the schedule in negotiations at three other plants in Ontario organized by the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), and at two CEP-organized plants in Mount Royal and St. Laurent, Quebec. Contracts at all six plants have expired. An independent union at the MBI plant in Guelph, Ontario, accepted the schedule in 1994.

Several weeks after the strike at Rexdale, the company withdrew the demand from the negotiating table at the Mount Royal and St. Laurent plants. Both cities are located in metropolitan Montreal.

The plant manager was telling his higher-ups that we were pushovers, that we would accept the shift, said one worker at Rexdale. He was shocked when we went out.

Several votes by the workers against the shift demand and to mandate strike action sent a clear message to the company. Workers walked out after it became clear the company was preparing a lockout.

The union members gave the company another shock six weeks later on April 2 when they voted 70 to 55 to refuse a company ultimatum to end the strike. MBI said it would close the plant that day if workers didn't end the strike.

The bosses are going to kill us with this 12-hour shift, said striker Gerry Ford while going into the April 2 union meeting. It's no good for our health.

I don't care if they close the plant, said Linda Hartmann, who has 20 years' seniority. The company wants to take us back to the days of slavery. We won't stand for it.

There was growing solidarity with the strike from workers at the five other CEP- and IWA-organized plants. Soon after the Rexdale walkout, unionists at the other factories launched a ban on all overtime work. The strike and the overtime ban created a huge backlog of orders. Factory operations of several customers in Toronto were disrupted for lack of boxes.

On March 26, workers at the St. Laurent factory voted 130 to 12 to strike if the company didn't withdraw the shift demand. Several weeks earlier, the union launched a campaign to wear T-shirts at work bearing the slogan, We Say No To 7 Days. The vast majority of workers took part. Workers at the Mount Royal plant joined the T-shirt wearing campaign the next day.

In the end, however, more solidarity was needed to win the strike. The new contract at Rexdale gives MBI the right to impose the new schedule Jan. 1, 1997.

We were counting on the other factories to join the strike, especially after the threat to close our plant, explained Local 1497 member Denis Gauthier. When we heard about the vote in St. Laurent, we thought for sure it would happen. We were very disappointed that it didn't.

Union officials at the other plants actively discouraged the idea of joining the Rexdale strike.

When it was clear that the other plants wouldn't join the strike, said Ernest Raposso, we decided we had gone as far as we could by ourselves. That's the only reason we returned to work.

The company's withdrawal of the shift demand at the Quebec factories is seen as a victory by most workers at the Mount Royal plant. Many credit the strike in Rexdale as well as the total opposition to the shift demand by the workers at the St. Laurent plant throughout negotiations.