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  • authored by Darryl Gehlen

D.I.Y. Banner Brigade

UFCW Local 1518 Secretary-Treasurer Ivan Limpright at the Harrison retail sector bargaining conference: "One of the most gratifying things I get to see on a regular basis is our union going to the wall and defending the rights and dignity of our members."

And Local 1518 President Brooke Sundin: "The company is just dismissing them like they don't matter, and we're all busting our butts fighting to save their jobs and right this wrong that the company is trying to jam down their throats."

In the beginning, as so often is the case, there were the words. They were cheap to produce, fun to say, and you get to look good. But with less than a month to go it looks like the only people busting their butts to save 250 jobs at Lomans warehouse have been the Loman workers themselves and they are headed for the wailing wall called the UFCW Local 777 agreement.

After 10 years of watching management at the Langley BC warehouse, that services Overwaitea Food Group stores in western Canada, run the operation into the ground the members have been through a grinder that is best described as psychological warfare. Conflict among workers was created. Effectiveness was minimized at every turn. Members gave up trying to be team players. Just about every conceivable way to get the labour costs as high as possible were thrust upon them. Apathy and demoralization set in.

Having to then deal with the realization that their union would mimic management was the last straw for many. The lack of money, cooperation, communication and effectiveness from the UFCW has all but destroyed the solidarity within the warehouse.

The spring of 2002 brought a rocky start. With the expiry of Local 1518's 10-year collective agreement in the fall, the warehouse would be closing. 250 workers, some with 30 years or more seniority would be losing their jobs. Members seeking to raise awareness of what was going on at the warehouse were asked to pay for their own leaflets despite assurances that money would not be a problem. An offer from the Loman Chief Shop Steward to give a personal accounting of their fight at the local's collective bargaining conference at Harrison Hot Springs Conference was tactfully declined. The conference was for retail sector members, he was told. What could he possibly contribute? Members made it clear that if he was not invited they would show up and get the message out themselves. The invitation came shortly thereafter.

Workers at Lomans have been suspicious that the Local 777 mentality has been an issue since that sell-out deal (which gave Loblaw Companies, Westfair Foods lower wages and flexible staffing) was brokered in 1989. The retail agreement of 97 (which brought lower wages and widespread use of part-timers to Overwaitea Foods Save-On stores) seemed to suggest that mentality was alive and well within Local 1518.

The rocky beginnings of this year at Lomans warehouse reinforced that suspicion among the workers. Part-time was king and UFCW were the Lords of Layback raking in the dues. It was their turn, simple as that.

But they are a mature and well-educated workforce. They saw this coming. They weren't going to take it lying down.

So one of the members got tired of waiting for UFCW to actually do something and began leafleting on his own. It caught on real fast as members saw an outlet for their frustration. Solidarity and a resistance campaign started to snowball. It became quite effective, perhaps too effective. Enter the MOU "I".

It was supposed to be the "big thing" that Secretary Treasurer Ivan Limpright had so craftily and secretly engineered years before. It would allow them to go on strike and end this bullshit. WRONG! The BC LRB was quick to rule that the mysterious MOU did not give the right to cancel the agreement. It turned out that the members learned more about it from the LRB ruling than they did prior to taking a strike vote. The short story is that it was a piece of shit that never had a chance of flying and it didn't.

UFCW implied that it was confusion over legal issues to offer the explanation that the workers had been screwed by the LRB. Some bought it, some didn't. It takes time to understand legal issues and these issues are not something that workers are invited to participate in. The focus on legal issues did however derail both the campaign and the solidarity behind it. 777 mentality in action. In the end the workers dropped the salvation through the LRB strategy. It cost them some precious time but that was now history.

They started once again to focus on leafleting. Once again their campaign gathered steam. Once again there were roadblocks to success. Just about every request or suggestion they put to their union was ignored. Still they plugged on. But there were fewer on side.

By this time the workplace was a poisoned environment. Many members were choosing not to work overtime for a variety of reasons. Some just wanted to get out of the place and away from the bullshit. Some had started their own businesses and wanted to work on them. Some were looking for other work, getting their resumes done and delivered. Many members were choosing not to go leafleting instead of working overtime. Management began to have difficulty getting workers to put in extra hours and so departure times were not met.

Needless to say this met with little sympathy from the members. Some members chose not to stay for that very reason, after all, the collective agreement clearly said it was voluntary:

"Overtime shall be voluntary regardless of notice".

In Section 5(h)(3) "required" shall be changed to "requested" in conjunction with this amendment.

The union clearly stated in print and speech that it did not condone an overtime ban now or ever. At this point most members really didn't care what the union had to say about it. Not staying became a choice more and more members made. Those who did inevitably faced some criticism. Arguments broke out and animosities developed. It did however lead to some stores not getting their delivery at all. Hoffa would be proud.

All this ended with the employer taking an illegal work practices argument to the LRB. The union caved like a Save-On rooftop following the LRB decision.

Although the ruling does not once use the word "overtime" the UFCW legal assessment addressed to Ivan Limpright does so 5 times:

In other words, if employees in the bargaining unit are refusing to work voluntary overtime, they are acting in contravention of the Order and could be found in contempt of this Order. Moreover, employees who act in contempt of the Order and refuse to work voluntary overtime, could be subject to an action for damages and be found liable for the damages suffered by their employer.

Many members saw this as bullshit. But once again, hiding behind the members' limited grasp of the legal issues, the UFCW destroyed what was working. Again solidarity and the leafleting campaign took a dive. This spineless stand on the issue was taken as another indicator of the 777 mentality, that the deal has been done and they don't want us messing it up.

They got over this setback and disappointment. Again they got back on the leafleting bandwagon and the campaign started to roll. Again there were fewer members on side. Again there were problems with the UFCW HQ. The members were not given the resources they needed to effectively leaflet. Getting money was next to impossible. After great results from an ad in the May 24 edition of the Langley Times they begged for more advertising in community weeklies. To date there have been none. They asked for radio time. There has been none. Changes they asked for in leaflet language were ignored. A member got tired of the "Econo-Fight" mentality and put up his own money to get leaflets inserted into a community weekly. It worked well but has not been repeated.

A group of members took UFCW-approved language from 3 previous leaflets and put them into one that they liked better. They paid to copy them and started handing them out. They figured since it was all UFCW sanctioned language there should be no problem. WRONG! The leaflet was faxed to Andy Neufeld, Local 1518 Media Relations Officer, at UFCW HQ in the hope that UFCW officials would appreciate the effort and start producing this new leaflet. Andy responded to the member with these comments:

I thought I was pretty clear in this morning's e-mail. The leaflet should not go out. Period. End of story. If there are copies out there among the other guys, I expect you to do everything you can to get them back and see that they do not go to the public.

It is unacceptable that a leaflet not authorized by the union goes out to the public with the union name/logo, let alone that anyone would have the nerve to think they could presume to attach Brooke and Ivan's name to such a leaflet when they don't have permission to do so. The consequences could potentially be enormous if the guys start getting the idea that they can run their own leaflets. No rational person could seriously state that there is a lack of support from the union. There's a ton of experience here at the union in fighting these fights, and a ton of money and resources that is going into this fight on behalf of every member at the warehouse.

As a result of this response the workers studied the law on leaflet language and a new leaflet created a new leaflet. Overwaitea Food Group CEO Jim Pattison's name was prominently displayed and there was no UFCW logo or mention of Brooke or Ivan. Mr. Pattison did not give the workers' his permission but they have not heard from him or the union yet. The guys like the leaflet very much and have been enthusiastic about handing it out. The problem is the money and they doubt the UFCW HQ will back such an effective leaflet.

Brooke Sundin wrote to the retail members on July 15, 2002 suggesting support for the campaign but not asking them to join in. Brooke then wrote to the B.C. Federation of Labour on July 26, 2002, stating that retail members would be invited to join the leafleting campaign. His August 08, 2002, letter requesting help from other members not employed at the warehouse is addressed only to the Industrial Sector. It does not give the direct line to the leafleting coordinators at the warehouse. So far retail seems to be in the dark about the invitation to join in the campaign and the workers can only assume that the UFCW likes it that way.

Still there is a steady core of guys who continue to pound away at the leaflet campaign. Only there are fewer of them now. They know it is a constitutional right and therefore will not be stopped.

A union-sanctioned road trip was coordinated up to the Prince George area with Tony Evangelista, UFCW Vice-president (Industrial Sector) in charge. They got a great response in these union towns and Tony made the decision to extend the trip by 3 days. They ran out of money when it was time to go home so they contacted Tom Fawkes, Local 1518 Communications Director, for more funding. The answer was NO. The workers understand the UFCW refused because of an alleged incident of misconduct and police intervention. UFCW cited a rumor that the workers had received 24 hour road side suspensions, as the reason for cutting the funding. A member had to contact family to get money sent so the workers could get home. The member was eventually reimbursed, and understandably livid.

According to Tom Smith, who attended the Prince George campaign, the workers were booked in at the Red Lion Hotel. The hotel, which is used by OFG corporate HQ's, had changed the workers booking without notice. When the workers returned to their rooms they found their luggage packed and on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

The workers then got into their cars and went to a gas station, where they were approached by a police officer. The officer requested the workers use a cab for the rest of the evening to prevent any other misunderstanding in small town Prince George. The workers co-operated with the officer.

Such is the state of affairs that led to the Banner Brigade. The brigade, 5 crews with 2 & 3 men in each, came up with the idea on their own. They paid for the materials themselves (about $200), they made the banners on their own time, communicated and organized it themselves and carried it out by themselves early in the morning on September 6th, 2002. They took 40 foot long banners with their message and stretched them out at certain over-passes, at the Pitt River Bridge in Maple Ridge, Highway 99 in Richmond, 216 and 152nd in Surrey, for rush hour traffic to see. They were very effective. They received radio coverage and thousands of people saw the message.

"They purposely did all of this on the QT." said Loman member Mike Halligan, "We saw what they did with the "MOU-I". And when the overtime issue got going, the biz agent came in and told people they could be sued. They were frightening people with these threats, and that effectively shut the whole thing down. Every time we got the ball rolling and seemed to be getting somewhere, the union shut us down. We didn't want that to happen this time so we didn't tell them about it. There were 5 crews at the different locations. Look for them at new locations near you soon. Can't tell you where. Gotta keep the union in the dark."

How did representation get to this point? That is a question for the Lords of Layback. Tom Fawkes statements in the August 22, 1997 Vancouver Sun article indicate the attitude and spin that the warehouse workers know only too well. The article was called Overwaitea Workers Oppose Union Over Two-Tier Agreement: Some employees feel the deal will eventually drive down wages for supermarket workers and create a rift between co-workers: and was written by Edward Alden.

Here's an excerpt:

The UFCW says its decision to negotiate the deal with Overwaitea simply acknowledged the new reality of the industry. "Overwaitea, Safeway and others have all said they are not interested in providing careers any more." Fawkes said. "I think not to tell people entering the retail grocery business today that there's no future here is wrong."

If the industry says it doesn't want careers then that must be the end of the story right? Tom forgot to mention that the UFCW created the very reason why there is no future here.

So where is Ivan "going to the wall and defending the rights and dignity of our members"? Where is Brooke "busting his butt"? Good questions but the workers at the warehouse have no answers. With less than a month to go it looks like the 777 deal has come for the warehouse members and the Lords of Layback just have to keep it quiet a little longer. Once the senior members at retail have been voted out of the picture, there should be little further complaint and a lot more money for those conventions and speeches.

The common employer argument begins this week at the LRB.

Darryl Gehlen has been a member of the UFCW for 26 years.

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