Potato chip workers fight for first collective agreement

Employer says ‘screw you’ to union representative

Labour relations at Covered Bridge Potato Chip have become saltier than the business’s kettle-cooked chips.

About one-half of the 32 employees represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1288P are on strike to back demands for the union’s first collective agreement with the employer. Production at the Hartland, N.B.-based factory continues as employees have crossed the picket line.

The local first certified at Covered Bridge in 2013 and bargaining began in 2014. The main issues in dispute include pay and seniority relating to scheduling, layoffs and call-backs.

“We were just looking for some fairness and a living wage,” said Carl Flanagan, national representative for UFCW Local 1288P. “People feel that they should be respected for the amount of time they’ve put in here to help the owner grow his business. He’s only grown his business because of the employees.”

Covered Bridge was conceived in 2006 and in 2009, president Ryan Albright and his two employees drove around the Hartland area selling the traditional-style kettle chips to local retailers. It has since grown to a reported 90 employees with further expansion currently underway.

The employer strongly objected to the organization of its employees and in 2013, the union filed a number of unfair labour practice complaints against the employer. Following the union’s certification, it withdrew the complaints and in 2014 applied for conciliation. When the appointed conciliation officer was unable to assist the parties in negotiating an agreement, a mediator was appointed.

In April 2015, the union requested, through the mediator, that the employer return to the bargaining table. While representatives for Covered Bridge did not respond to requests for an interview, Albright spoke as the principal representative for the company in negotiations.

He requested that he speak first when negotiations resumed in June 2015, reading from two pages of prepared notes. In his statement Albright said the employer’s previous offer — which addressed the issue of seniority — was no longer on the table. He stated he would work with employees to give them what they wanted but “never, ever, ever in a union environment.”

In conclusion, Albright said, “Carl, screw you and your fucking union,” before exiting the meeting and leaving the premises. He then returned to Covered Bridge where he shut down the production line during scheduled work hours and assembled the employees so he could read the same comments from his prepared notes.

The New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board found Albright and the company violated five sections of the Labour and Employment Act, concluding Albright himself, on behalf of Covered Bridge, sought by intimidation, threat or promise to induce employees to refrain from or cease to be a member of the union.

The board ordered Albright and the company to cease and desist from interfering with union representation of the employees.
“I’ve been asked if it was a problem because of Ryan’s personality and mine,” Flanagan said. “I’ve already offered to have somebody outside sit in on bargaining if he’d come back to the table. It comes down to respect. People are looking for a little bit of respect and some job security.”

The striking employees are also calling on residents of Hartland (which has a population of less than 1,000) and its surrounding communities to boycott Covered Bridge until a collective agreement can be reached.

Opposition common
A strong opposition to unionization is common among smaller, independent owner-operators, according to Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

“When the employer is literally an owner-operator of one establishment and the union that is negotiating with them has sophisticated negotiating and bargaining tactics, you can see how the employer could be at a huge disadvantage in that regard,” Gomez said.

“And they have no exit option like a big operation to shut down and open up somewhere else.”

However, these smaller organizations are often the most in need of the structure a union can provide, said Gomez.

“As the owner-operator grows in size, that necessitates a different form of managing, a more sophisticated way of managing."

Very small companies almost have an implicit management relationship because the employer and its few employees work very closely together, Gomez said. Employers are almost forced to be aware of employee wants and needs because they interact with them on a daily basis. As an organization grows, however, the ability to manage labour relations in that way ends.

“You have to create a new system,” Gomez said. “Before you were just doing the work, now you have to direct some of your managerial effort not to meeting market needs but to meeting employee needs. That often means hiring a manager whose only task is to manage the employees. That’s a hard thing for a small, independently owned operation to get their head around because they see it as pure cost. Large firms still see it as a pure cost, as not delivering anything to the bottom line. It doesn’t directly, but it does indirectly.”

When employers fail to develop that management relationship in pace with the growth of the organization, Gomez said, unions step into the vacuum and provide that structure instead.

It was this type of vacuum UFCW 1288P is attempting to fill, Flanagan said.

“That was the reason people sought for a union — they were looking for structure and job security,” he said. “That’s the big issue.”

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