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RED DEER, Alberta - Dozens of members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1118 picketed in front of Fletcher's Fine Foods hog kill and cut plant here in the early morning hours May 8. The plant is surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire, which the company hastily erected before locking out more than 600 union workers May 4. Newly hired guards stomped around inside in their combat boots, holding back growling dogs. By 7:00 a.m., the picketers' ranks had swollen to around 200.
As three school buses with boarded up windows approached the lines, the strikers moved to the two sides of the road and begin to chant, "Strike! Strike! Strike! Scab! Scab! Scab!" as the buses rolled through. "Fletcher's has only a dozen or so scabs in there," said Stan Brown. "When we are working we kill about 6,000 pigs a day. That's over the two shifts. They say they are killing 250 now. They are having trouble getting scabs. They have advertised widely, but not many people want to do it."
The unionists rejected the company's "last minute proposal" May 3, affirming by 98.3 percent their April 22 vote to strike, even though the company had floated threats in the press to bring in replacement workers or sell the plant. Then, five hours before the union strike deadline, the company locked out the workers.
Fletcher's has begun making clear its intention to follow the lead of Maple Leaf Foods. In March, Maple Leaf imposed wage cuts of 40 percent along with benefit cuts, following the defeat of a four-month strike by UFCW members in Burlington, Ontario. The April 11 Red Deer Advocate quoted Fletcher's chief financial officer, George Paleologou, threatening to sell Fletcher's to Maple Leaf.
Jamie Giles has worked in the plant for more than six years. She explained what the company offer would mean for her; "My pay is $15.65 an hour [US$10.89]. They would cut that to $10.25 [US$7.13]. I would lose my seniority and go down to two weeks vacation. And the company wants the right to hire and fire as they see fit."
Fletcher's proposal calls for immediate wage cuts of one third on average and a three-year wage freeze in a six-year contract. In addition, the proposal would reduce workers' vacation time and chop the number of paid holidays from 11 to 9. They would wipe out seniority, having it start again with the contract signing. Duc Nguyen cuts out hog guts on the kill floor. She has worked for Fletcher's for more than seven years. "We can't go with the $10," she said. She then rubbed her aching shoulders and arms, showing where they are strained from the work. "And we need our vacation time," she added.
In order to entice the unionists to accept concessions, Fletcher's has offered a CAN$10,000 signing bonus, plus $50 for each month of service. "They offered us a bone and we spit it back at them," declared striker Ed Michael.
Fletcher's Fine Foods operates the only hog kill operation in Alberta since Maple Leaf closed its Edmonton plant after workers struck it last November.
"Contrary to what the media portrays, we're getting a lot of community support," Ed Michael told the Militant. Members of the Canadian Union of Public, the Alberta Nurses Association, and UFCW Local 401 at Safeway have all been out to the picket lines to express their support.
"Workers need to be treated like human beings, not animals and robots," said Omar Hernández Meléndez, who has worked in the plant for 11 years, as he described how the company has pushed workers for more production and harassed workers who spend more than five minutes in the washroom.
Fighting workers head May Day in Montreal
MONTREAL - More than 1,500 workers and students participated in the May Day demonstration here organized jointly by the main trade union federations and two Quebec student organizations. The mood was confident. "It feels like in the '70s," said Patrick Salesse, one of 24 locked- out workers at Montréal-Recherches. "The summer will be hot."
Workers currently involved in labor battles opened the march. The most visible were more than 30 workers dressed like nuns who are among 180 locked out since January by the owners of a old nuns home. One hundred were then laid off after the lockout. "Before we used to be victims of harassment, in particular those of us who are immigrants. Today, we are discovering a great solidarity among us," said Lise Chouinard.
Other strikers included hotel and restaurant workers, employees of funeral homes trying to get their first collective agreement, and several of the 40 members of the United Steelworkers of America at Tecton, who have been on strike since January. There was also a small contingent of McDonald's workers trying to get a union in the restaurant where they work. "We are fighting for better working conditions, but also for respect," said Frédérick, one of the McDonald's employees.
The march through the streets of a Quebecois working- class neighborhood was followed by a celebration.
UK care workers walk out over pay cuts
MANCHESTER, England - A march by striking care workers and their supporters April 25 protested pay cuts in eleven Elderly Persons' Homes in Tameside, Manchester. Of the 400 workers hit, more than 300 have been on strike for five weeks, said Pat Quinn, Helen Graham, and Lyn Woolley, interviewed at the demonstration. They work at the Sunnyside Eldery People's Home, and now picket it from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., they said.
The employer, Tameside Care Group, demands a cut in wages to 4 an hour for nights and 3.75 an hour for day work, from 5.65 and 4.50 respectively. From December 1998, the homes will cease to receive a grant from the national government.
In addition, in April 1998 the Tameside borough council will reduce the payments it makes for each resident to a standard rate, regardless of the level of care they require. "Labour council votes for a cut in fees - so a cut in wages for carers" said one hand-lettered sign at the demonstration.
The strikers are reaching out for support, including at a conference of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Perth, Scotland.
Marietta steelworkers hold one-week strike
MARIETTA, Ohio - After a one-week strike, members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 4387 voted 69 to 11 accept a three year contract with The Airolite Company on May 3. Workers will get $.25 per hour wage increases the next three years, but will also have to make contributions to the insurance plan. "There is also a subcontracting clause," under certain circumstances, said Dale Wolfert, a 29-year-old tank room helper. Only about half of the workers were called back to work on May 4. The company says the remaining workers will be called back when production gets back to normal.
The big issue, according to several strikers, was subcontracting. "The company wants to be able to move work and equipment anywhere at any time. That would be the end of the union," said Wolfert, on the fifth day of the strike.
Workers at Airolite make components for building construction, especially louvers for ventilation systems. The plant is located on a hill above the Muskingum River, near where fellow members of the USWA have been on strike against Magnetic Specialty, Inc. since March 2, 1997.
On April 24 the Airolite workers voted 70 to 4 to strike at midnight, when their contract expired. Airolite president Leight Murray has threatened to move the plant in order to lower labor costs. He complains about having to compete against Construction Specialties, Inc. which makes louvers in Mexico.
"Two days or two years. Look at MSI," said Chris Smith, a 20-year-old Airolite worker. Several strikers said the resolve of MSI workers and the solidarity they have won from other workers influenced their decision to strike. Some of the Airolite workers have participated in rallies to support the MSI workers.
Beverly Bernardo, a member of the Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and Jacquie
Henderson, a member of the International Association of
Machinists, in British Columbia; Michel Dugré, a member of
UNITE, and Elssa Martinez, a member of the Communication,
Energy and Paperworkers Union, in Montreal; Chris Morris, a
member of the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union
in Manchester; and Mike Fitzsimmons, member of the USWA in
Cleveland, contributed to this column.
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