BRACEBRIDGE, Ontario—Going on four months now, 60 workers with United Steelworkers Local 7949 at a Fenner Dunlop mining supply branch due north of Toronto have been locked out by the conveyor belt supplier.
And after a May 20 virtual meeting mediated by the Canadian Ministry of Labor, neither side is any closer to agreeing to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The last CBA between Fenner Dunlop and USW Local 7949 expired Oct. 31, 2020, a three-year agreement.
"We've been locked out since Feb. 12, and there are no further meetings set through the mediation officer or ministry of labor," said Dale Hogg, staff representative for USW District 6, which oversees Local 7949. "Both sides met May 20, and the last proposal that (Fenner Dunlop) made was less than the one that was turned down initially. We remain under lockdown rules."
Calls seeking comment to Fenner Dunlop in Ontario and Fenner Dunlop Engineered Conveyor Solutions Americas, based in Pittsburgh, were not returned by press time.
Fenner Dunlop unilaterally broke off talks to request a Ministry of Labour-sponsored contract vote in February. That last proposal later was rejected by 79 percent of USW Local 7949 workers. Prior to that, 95 percent of USW members voted in favor of strike action in such a case, considered a strong demonstration of support for their bargaining committee, Hogg said.
The major issues preventing a new CBA continue to be paid sick days in the short-term disability plan; shift premiums that provide additional compensation for irregular shifts, like undesirable 12-hour shifts; and pay rates for a five-year CBA, the length and terms to which the USW Local 7949 is opposed.
"As governments are being pushed to legislate paid sick days, it is unacceptable that this company is trying to whittle away the time that workers need, if they get sick," said Marty Warren, USW District 6 Director (Ontario and Atlantic provinces). "This is especially galling in the context of a global pandemic."
According to Hogg, reduction of short-term disability terms by the company, where workers do not have a set number of days they can bank for when they need them, are such that the first two sick days are unpaid, the next two weeks are paid at 100 percent and anything after that is reduced to 75 percent.
Fenner Dunlop, in its current contract iteration, proposed that workers be transferred to employment insurance, where the Canadian government pays for sick time.
"At the beginning of negotiations, the company came with seven pages of concessions that would affect nearly every area of life at work, including repercussions for workers' families," Hogg said. "Reducing sick time in the time of COVID is not a real wise choice."
A second area of disagreement, he said, surrounds the proposed shift premiums for extended shifts, which Hogg said the company proposed reducing by 4 percent for 12-hour shifts. What had been set at a 16.5 percent premium in the previous CBA was proposed by Fenner Dunlop in the new CBA at 12.5 percent.
Finally, the company has proposed the next CBA be five years rather than three years in length, with reduced percentage pay increases. During initial talks for the new CBA, Hogg said, Fenner Dunlop proposed pay increases at 1.5 percent in the first two years; 2 percent in the third year; and 3 percent in the final two years.
In their newest proposal made in May, Fenner Dunlop reduced those terms to 1.5 percent in the first two years; 2 percent in the third year; and 2 percent in years four and five.
The USW representative said that "if push came to shove, we would accept a five-year agreement, even though that is a long way to look out right now."
"But not under these current reductive terms. Every worker is very adamant about these concessions," Hogg said. "Over the years, we have given up concessions. But they have drawn a line in the sand on this."
He added that an acrimonious working relationship with management since it was installed anew in 2011 has not helped matters.
"They don't have a good working relationship with management in the facility, and that has caused a lot of issues as well," Hogg said. "These workers are absolutely keen on getting back to work at this point. With seven pages of concessions, we were able to beat back most of what was presented to us, and we compromised on others.
"But enough is enough. They are frustrated and want to get back to work."
According to previous news reports, the Bracebridge plant remains open, though USW Local 7949 President Melissa Puccini Lott has said that Fenner Dunlop is trying to move product to its sister plant in Port Clinton, Ohio, along Lake Erie.
Picketers in late March held up Fenner Dunlop trucks for the allotted 15 minutes they are allowed, but other trucks have gotten through since then.
Periodic picket lines have been set up outside the facility at 700 Ecclestone Drive in Bracebridge since workers were escorted out of the plant in late February, and lines continue to be organized at the plant, Hogg said.
In a Feb. 15 press release, Puccini Lott said that community support for USW members has been strong and the locked-out workers have appreciated it.
"This situation is relatable for many people," she said. "Our members work hard, often at strange hours, and expect a fair contract and to be able to provide for themselves and their families. Fenner Dunlop has been chipping away at morale for years and this is just the latest issue. The company needs to end this lockout and get back to the table."
Hogg echoed both the community support and internal USW backing.
"I think the best thing is that membership is strong," he said. "They are standing shoulder to shoulder with each other. And we appreciate the support of the community of Bracebridge—we can't thank the businesses and people of Bracebridge enough."
Hogg said workers across Canada and the U.S. have been coming together to show their support, including a group of Steelworkers from Texarkana and Little Rock, Ark., represented by USW District 13.
Members from USW Locals 9308, 752L and 752L-03 conducted an action at a distributor of Fenner Dunlop products in early May in Arkansas, and delivered a letter urging the distributor to contact the company and express concerns over the quality and availability of their products while the lockout continues.
Fenner Dunlop Conveyor Belting is a division of Fenner P.L.C., which was acquired in 2018 by Michelin.