AB-InBev St. John's Newfoundland Canada strike Escalates

Cory Collins
July 08, 2013

A union representing workers at a Labatt brewery in St. John's has launched a boycott campaign, asking the public to refrain from buying a large number of brands manufactured at the site. About fifty employees (NAPE Local 7004) have been on a legal strike since April, following a brief wildcat strike that was prompted by the company's request for the unionized workers to train their replacements. The request was made days before the expiration date of the workers' collective agreement.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) president Carol Furlong was joined by Newfoundland Federation of Labour president Lana Payne at a press conference on June 7 to announce the campaign, three weeks after talks broke off in May.

Prior to the legal strike action, a court injunction was issued against workers by the province's supreme court, with Judge Donald Burrage ruling that workers may not block access to the brewery, citing traffic concerns, as well as incidents where nails and other objects were placed in front of its entrance. In late May, Labatt erected a fence around the brewery property to keep out striking workers. Labatt spokesperson Wade Keller has said that the fence is also in place to protect strikebreakers, saying that workers had been "putting up signs with [their] names and home addresses[.]"

Neither side is revealing details about the concessions sought, but Keller has been reported as saying the deal is similar to those struck at other plants.

Highly concessionary deal sought by company Chris Henley, an employment relations officer with NAPE and the local's lead negotiator, told rabble.ca that to call the deal similar is inaccurate and instead called it "highly concessionary." He said that the agreement is "not really similar [and] it's a lot more concessionary than any other group in Canada."

Henley also expressed concern that the deal will set a precedent for other breweries. "Once Newfoundland agrees to it, they're going to shove it down everyone else's throat. That's why we're getting so much international support," he said.

The Canadian Brewery Workers Alliance (CBWA), a group of locals representing workers at seven Labatt breweries, has asked its members to boycott Labatt imports across Canada, while support has also been reported from AB InBev workers in Ontario, Argentina, the United Kingdom and Belgium. AB InBev owns Labatt and over a dozen other brands and is the world's largest brewing company.

Fred Linton, a Labatt employee and communications officer with the CBWA, also told rabble.ca that the agreement offered "is worse than the deals signed in other plants.

There has been one offer and it is take it or leave it." Linton also disclosed that a letter has been sent to Carlos Brito, the CEO of AB InBev, asking him to make Labatt resume talks.

Neither Labatt or NAPE is discussing the details of concessions being sought, though NAPE representative Bert Blundon has previously said that Labatt is seeking changes to insurance and retirement benefits.

Henley also said that the workers have always been under threat of closure, but that the brewery has survived due to a provision in Canada's Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT), wherein Newfoundland "reserves the right to deny beer and beer products of any other Party access to outlets of brewers' agents[.]"

Henley did not offer details about specific concessions being sought, but noted the introduction of two-tier wages for new employees that has been pursued at other plants, and a desire by Labatt to change benefits for existing retirees. He also criticized Labatt for a failure to negotiate. "The reality is three days prior to these workers going on stike, this company settled with Edmonton. ...In Newfoundland, they're saying our first offer is our only offer. ...They're not bargaining."

"[There was] a conference call on Monday with the conciliator [and] someone from Labatt from Montreal. We haven't gotten any response. They keep up with this foolish rhetoric that the union isn't prepared to sit down and negotiate. The reality is the opposite," he said.

Security and alleged surveillance

In addition to the fence Labatt has erected, Henley said that Labatt has also been using other security measures. Henley told rabble.ca that Labatt has hired a private company to monitor and film workers, identifying the company as AFIMAC Security. The company's Canadian branch is headquartered in Milton, Ontario, but its website advertises the availability of services outside North America, and it expanded into South America in August 2012 through its acquisition of Mena International.

"They're following our members around the city. Trying to provoke argument, continuously. Trying to goad our members into violating the court injunction," Henley said. "They spend all their time, two people in a van ... Consistently in their faces, filming them. The police come and talk to workers, they'll try to get the names of the workers and even the police officers. But it's all from the perspective of intimidation. They won't use that video for anything."

A call to AFIMAC Canada has not yet been returned, though an AFIMAC staff person said she was not able to confirm outright whether Labatt had hired the company.

Strikebreakers and the law

The use of strikebreakers, or persons who work despite a strike, has a long and controversial history. The notorious Mohawk Valley formula, for instance, outlines tactics to guide strikebreaking, including purposeful discrediting of union leaders, barricading site properties, and the heavy use of police and outside security to demoralize workers. The formula is thought to have been written by the head of Remington Rand during its strike in the late 1930s, but its authenticity and authorship is disputed.

The use of temporary replacement workers has been banned in Quebec since 1978 and in British Columbia since 1993. Anti-scab legislation was also in place in Ontario during much of the Rae government, but was abolished in 1996. Legislation banning replacement workers remains part of the platform of Newfoundland's New Democratic Party.

Despite the security measures, Chris Henley said that morale is high and has improved since the boycott, while workers have been passing out campaign flyers at intersections and events in St. John's. The campaign asks that consumers in Newfoundland and Labrador boycott Labatt Blue, Labatt Lite, Blue Star, Alexander Keith's, Budweiser, Stella Artois and several other brands.

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