Mill strike date drawing near

Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. and its unionized employees don’t have much time to hammer out a collective agreement, with workers threatening to walk off the job June 15 if they don’t.
That decision came after a 95 percent strike vote was tallied last Wednesday in Ottawa.
Cecil Makowski, administrative vice-president for the Ontario Region of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, said a wage hike, benefits, and increases to the pension plan were key issues the union wanted to negotiate.
But so far, the two sides haven’t even met face-to-face. The CEP sent its demands to the company April 21 and said it hasn’t heard anything back yet.
“At this point, the company has failed to come to the bargaining table,” Makowski said from Ottawa last Thursday, noting they had gone through the conciliation process the week before.
Abitibi wants to negotiate on a mill-by-mill basis, the union said. But the union refuses to go at it individually, with CEP president Fred Pomeroy charging it was the company’s stubbornness that forced the strike vote.
Randy Robinson, a communications officer with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, noted the strike vote was standard practice–and good strategy on the union’s part.
“There is nothing weird about them holding a strike vote at this time,” he said Monday.
What it does, he said, is send a message to the employer that the union and its membership are serious about wanting to negotiate a collective agreement–and that its refusing to come to the table won’t be tolerated.
It also formally notifies the membership about what is going on with negotiations and prepares them for what might be happening.
Jim Gartshore, manager of Abitibi’s mill here, refused to comment on the negotiations last week.
“It’s way too early in the game and we’re not prepared to start talking about it,” he said Thursday, adding they had agreed to a media blackout while negotiations were ongoing.
Makowski said he knew nothing of that blackout.
The local contract expired April 30, with the 425 members in the two locals here casting their ballots at the Red Dog Inn that same day. Makowski said 70 percent of the workers turned out, which is what he considered to be an average turnout.
Despite the vote, Makowski was optimistic a deal could be reached before the strike deadline.
“We’re always optimistic that a deal can be worked out,” he said Thursday.
Robinson agreed, noting that 97 percent of all collective agreements are settled before they reach strike deadline.
“So the odds are in our favour,” Makowski added.
If there is a strike, Makowski noted there hasn’t been any discussion so far about whether replacement workers would be hired to keep the mills up and running.
“We’re not expecting it,” he said, explaining a mill was a very complicated structure to run.
If a collective agreement is reached, it will set the pattern for all other mill contract talks across the country.