By Marty Warren is United Steelworkers Director for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, representing 74,000 working people.
With all the publicity focused on the Beer Store in recent weeks, there is another beer story with profound implications that has received little media coverage.
Crown Metal Packaging employees in Toronto, who make cans for all the major beer companies and many craft brewers, have entered the 17th month of a forced strike.
These 120 workers have endured a level of hardship and malice from their employer that they could not have anticipated nearly two years ago as they prepared to negotiate a new collective agreement.
U.S. based Crown had just given its Toronto employees a corporate award for operating the most productive and safest plant in its North American manufacturing empire. Crown almost doubled its profits in 2012, results for which the corporation’s CEO enjoyed a $12-million annual compensation package — getting paid more for two days’ work than his highly productive Toronto employees were earning over an entire year.
There was every reason for the Toronto employees to expect contract negotiations would go smoothly when the parties headed to the bargaining table in 2013. Instead, Crown demanded massive, take-it-or-leave-it concessions, including up to 42-per-cent wage cuts for a new generation of workers.
Crown forced its award-winning employees, including many long-serving and second- and third-generation workers, onto the horns of a dilemma. They could continue working and accept Crown’s draconian demands, including a two-tier, low-wage workplace that would eradicate decent jobs for young people. Or, at great personal sacrifice, they could take to the picket line and stand up for the next generation.
The strike began in September 2013. More than 16 months later, the workers and their families are mired in a dispute that could impact the future of labour relations in Ontario for years to come.
Crown has attempted to break the strike by recruiting replacement workers to operate the Toronto plant. It has also made new, objectionable proposals to the striking employees, most notably replacing many of them even if a settlement is negotiated.
In other words, many of the workers would have to agree to give away their jobs as a condition to settle the labour dispute.
Aside from the Toronto families directly affected by this dispute, the outcome may have a profound impact throughout Ontario.
The Toronto workers would argue the provincial government, by virtually ignoring their plight, is tacitly condoning, if not encouraging employers to provoke strikes, recruit replacement workers to prolong the disputes and ultimately replace longstanding employees as a condition of settlement.
This approach has been used often by powerful corporations against workers in the United States. If U.S.-based Crown, one of the world’s largest can manufacturers, is bringing this agenda to Ontario, it appears not to faze Premier Kathleen Wynne. The Crown workers and more than 1,200 of their supporters sent letters to Wynne, looking for some kind of support, but the premier did not respond.
Political support and progressive policies from our elected leaders are needed to defend working families from U.S.-style attacks on decent jobs.
Meanwhile, the striking Toronto workers are receiving widespread public support in communities throughout Ontario and across Canada.
Thousands of consumers have joined a growing boycott of beer sold in cans that Crown continues to produce for the major brewers. The boycott received a tremendous response when it was launched in December with leafleting of beer and liquor stores across Ontario. Similar actions are planned in coming days and weeks, including on January 24th.
The Bottles Not Cans boycott, supported by the Ontario Federation of Labour, asks consumers to buy their beer in bottles, not in cans produced by Crown. The message is simple — to urge a profitable U.S. corporation to deal fairly with Toronto workers who contributed to that success.