GODERICH, ONT.—A rural community is rallying around salt mine workers who have been embroiled in a strike since April, a disagreement that has involved wooden pallet barricades, demonstrations and busloads of replacement workers.
Goderich, home to just under 8,000 people, sits on top of a massive underground salt mine that spans around 7 square kilometres, stretching underneath the eastern shore of Lake Huron. At 549 metres below the lake, mine owner Compass Minerals says it’s the largest mine of its kind in the world.
But the activity in the past few months hasn’t been down in the mine; it’s been above ground on the picket line, as 370 striking workers face off against the American company.
The workers at the Goderich mine have been off the job since April 27.
Unifor Local 16-O represents the workers, and alleges Compass Minerals has been flying in replacement workers from New Brunswick to break the strike while demanding concessions that include mandatory overtime, reduced benefits and a weakening of contracting-out provisions.
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In a letter to the community on June 28, Compass Minerals said it has used contractors to produce salt to fill long-term orders, and had little choice to do so in a competitive market.
The company also said it had modernized its production process “to reduce the ebbs and flows of production that leads to layoffs and recalls” and finding shifts that allow for continuous production.
Compass Minerals said it presented an offer April 27 to address all outstanding issues, with wage increases and benefit improvements, to avoid a strike, but Unifor’s bargaining committee “abruptly left negotiations and took their members out on strike.
“We would like our employees back to work,” they said in the letter.
The strike ramped up when workers blockaded an access road to the mining site this past week to express their frustration over the use of replacement workers. Photos posted on Unifor Canada’s Twitter showed wooden pallets stacked high in a barricade on the road. Videos also showed Unifor national president Jerry Dias walking out the replacement workers from the mine as onlookers chanted “Don’t come back!”
On Saturday, Unifor Canada tweeted that there would be a “street fest family barbecue” down by the picket line, and members of the community came out to support the workers’ strike. The wooden barricade has been removed, but Unifor Canada’s Twitter posted video of local farmers’ driving their tractors to park on the picket line itself.
Unifor Canada published an emotional video on their youtube channel Saturday, in which union members spoke about the details of their struggle thus far. They say that the company is asking them to do 12-hour shifts that may have up to four hours of mandatory overtime assigned whenever the company decides to. This means that some days, workers could be working in the mine for 16 hours before they could go home. According to the striking Goderich miners, other Compass Minerals workers in their sister mine in Louisiana have been made to work those hours.
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Gary Lynch, president of Unifor Local 16-O, said in the video they were also being asked to work 60-hour work weeks, with every fourth week being a 72-hour one.
Representatives from local Unifor unions across the country have rallied at the picket line with the Goderich workers and flooded social media with solidarity. Lana Payne, Unifor Atlantic Regional Director, shared an open letter on Twitter that had been written to Laura Araneda, CEO of Vic Drilling, the company Payne says has been allegedly flying the replacement workers from New Brunswick to the Goderich mine.
“By crossing the strike line and doing the work of striking miners, Laura Araneda’s replacement workers are undermining the bargaining power of fellow miners,” she wrote. “The fact is, there is always somebody willing to do your job for a lower wage in more dangerous conditions.
“My heart goes out to any unemployed worker, but we shouldn’t stab other workers in the back to make a quick buck.”
“Crossing a picket line is shameful behaviour that cannot be tolerated,” said Dias in a statement, adding “no job is worth stealing food from another worker’s family.”
Glenn Sonier, Unifor national respresentative responsible for Local 16-O, had strong words for Compass Minerals in the union’s video.
“Yeah, you’re an American company, but you’re working in Canada. And Canada doesn’t have the same rules as America,” he said. “And in Canada, we’re sometimes somewhat reserved. But you push us in a corner, we’re going to come out swinging. And employers like that deserve a fight.”
With files from The Canadian Press