By Robert Devet
Striking Covered Bridge workers in Hartland, New Brunswick, are making little headway with their employer, a staunch union buster. An all-out effort to persuade consumers to boycott the potato chips he makes may bring him to his senses.
Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW) Local 1288P have been out since early January. Some of their co-workers have crossed the picket line, scabs have been hired.
Wages and seniority are among the top demands.
Most workers make the New Brunswick minimum wage of $10.65. One picketer told a CBC reporter that she received a single 10-cents per hour raise in the five years that she has worked there, only to see it disappear when the province raised the minimum wage by a couple of dimes.
Managers’ favouritism is a big problem on the floor, hence the need to get rules in place around seniority.
“We’re doing great,” says Betty Demerchant, one of the workers. “After the long cold winter we are in high spirits now that the warmer weather is here. It is frustrating, but we are fighting to show the owner that we are sticking with it right through, we are staying right here.”
The workers voted to join the UFCW in late 2013. They’re still trying to get their first contract.
“Screw you and your fucking union,” Albright famously told Carl Flanagan, a UFCW representative early on in the strike.
Albright was called out five times by the provincial Labour and Employment Board for employee intimidation and other violations of the Employment Standards Act. His appeal of a Labour Board refusal to decertify the union was rejected in February by Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Terrence Morrison.
That’s the sort of fellow the union is dealing with.
“Albright feels that he is above the law,” says Flanagan “He’s been telling the people who crossed, and even the people outside, that if there is a union than he isn’t going to run the plant, so he is intimidating folks really badly.”
“When you have an employer who downright doesn’t want to come to the table, than it is going to be a long strike,” Flanagan says.
Combine a stubborn anti-union owner with the absence of any first contract legislation in New Brunswick and boycotts become the only other option available to the workers on the picket line.
The call for a boycott is not made lightly, says Patrick Colford, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour.
“Boycotts and strikes over first contracts can actually ruin a business. The stakes are crazy high,” says Colford. “We have a history in New Brunswick with bitter labour disputes, business can actually close their doors. All we want is get back to the table and get people back to work.”
That said, the boycott is beginning to be felt.
The Fredericton District Labour Council (FDLC) has been instrumental in the success of the boycott movement in and around Fredericton, a city about an hour’s drive away from Hartland.
Solidarity is in their DNA. “We would help anybody, but the Covered Bridge workers especially need our help,” says Alex Bailey, president of the FDLC.
“A boycott takes relatively little effort on our part. We built capacity over the last five years to be able to do these kinds of actions fairly quickly. It just takes a few people to get together and leaflet, and then leverage social media,” Bailey says.
Ninety-nine percent of the people that are approached say that they are not going to buy the chips because they support the workers, says Bailey, who calls such a success rate astounding, especially for a white collar town like Fredericton.
The University of New Brunswick Grad House, a bar run by the student union, was the first to stop selling Covered Bridge chips. Memorial University in Newfoundland and St. Thomas University in Fredericton followed suit.
Other stores in the Fredericton area also no longer carry the chips. One store didn’t want to pull the chips, but agreed to display the Labour Council’s information flyers, Bailey says.
So far the biggest outlet to no longer carry the chips is Circle K, a convenience store chain co-located with Irving gas stations in New Brunswick, says Bailey.
But credit where credit is due.
“The owner pretty much responsible for the public taking the side of the workers. People here follow the news carefully, and the thing people hate even more than a strike is rudeness. It’s almost funny how many people tell us that they heard Albright’s rants,” Bailey says.
In March the Canadian Labour Congress sanctioned the boycott. Some leafletting and social media activities have occurred in other provinces. Just last weekend picketers handed out leaflets at the Saltscapes East Coast Expo in Halifax, while Albright himself was attending the Covered Bridge booth.
“Positive messaging is best. For the general public it’s about fairness in the workplace. We found that message really effective,” says Bailey. “It has to be a conversation, in order to win people over you have to listen more than talk.”
It’s important for the strikers to witness the solidarity from fellow workers.
“Last week we had a rally here here with some 300+ people on the streets in front of the plant,” says Flanagan. “People giving speeches, a really big boost for the picketers.”
Flanagan, like Bailey, mentions the many favourable responses from people who come up and get a leaflet. They tell us that they like those chips but they are not buying them until the strike is over, he says.
“That’s good for us, encouraging for the folks on the line to hear it,” says Flanagan. “It helps them realize it is not just 15 people or so on a dead-end street in Hartland.”
“We are really proud of all the support we are getting,” says Demerchant. “The rally and the boycott, it gives us hope and it really helps pick up our spirits, and it shows the owner we really do have a lot of support.
“We’re here until the end . We’re not going anywhere.”
Send a message to the owner and let him know Covered Bridge Potato Chips are off your shopping list.