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  • Parmalat talks hit impasse
    By Nelson Zandbergen - AgriNews Staff

    WINCHESTER -- The Parmalat cheese plant in the village remained idle as several hours of talks aimed at ending the facility's first labour strike in a century hit a sudden impasse late last month.

    No further contact between the two sides was scheduled.

    One hundred and sixty-two employees belonging to the Canadian Auto Workers walked off the job just after midnight May 19.

    The May 26 meeting at an undisclosed Ottawa hotel was the first contact since bargaining broke off two weeks earlier, when the company tabled a final contract offer that was subsequently rejected by 94 percent of the union membership.

    "I'm not sure what to expect today," said Steve Crowder, unit chairperson for Local 462, on his way to the meeting that afternoon. "It could be a clarification of the company's position -- or we could sit down and hash out the issues."

    The hashing between seven union and three management representatives began at 2 p.m. and ended at 4 a.m. the next morning without resolution. A conciliator from the Ontario Labour Relations board also attended.

    According to the plant's director of operations, Stephen Wilson, the impasse continues to hinge on the number of hours worked by part-time employees. "All of the issues except one were resolved."

    Both sides agree that money is not the issue.

    A disagreement over the use of part-time employees at the plant emerged last fall. The union says management began reinterpreting the old contract to allow part-time employees 40 hours a week in October. The union maintained that part-timers were limited to 24 hours a week. Eight part-time employees at the plant earn as low as $9 per hour; the hourly wage for full-time employees, depending on position and seniority, is $15 to $23.

    At least two grievances were filed with the Ontario Labour Board on the issue before the old contract expired April 30 this year.

    "I want to stress that it was never our intent to replace full-time employees with part-time employees," Wilson told The AgriNews. He said the company remained open to resuming negotiations.

    He said the company needs additional flexibility in its workforce because of competitive pressures in the industry.

    "We still think our current position is fair and reasonable."

    The union had also opposed a company proposal to create a new class of "utility" worker, unencumbered by strict job descriptions. It feared the idea could make it more difficult for regular employees to schedule holidays during the summer.

    Forty-eight management employees who continue to work at the plant are allowed past the picket lines after a 15 minute wait.

    Spirits are "soggy but good" on the line, Crowder reported. Strikers receive between $150 and $175 a week in strike pay.

    The Winchester plant makes cheese, butter, powders and concentrated dairy blends from 700,000 litres of milk every day, enough to fill 39 tandem-axle milk trucks.

    The company says it has no plans to operate the plant during the strike. Production has been shifted to other Parmalat facilities in the province, and the company is promising minimal disruption to its customers.

    According to Wray Krompart, marketing manager for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Parmalat's other plants are taking some, but not all, of the displaced litres of milk that would otherwise have gone to Winchester each day.

    Krompart refused to reveal exact figures, saying the information was proprietary. He would only disclose that Parmalat plants are among 40 processing sites in Ontario receiving the reallocated milk and that the company isn't using its full quota from Winchester.

    "They could request that, if they could handle it."

    Some of the milk processed at the Winchester plant actually comes from Quebec, he pointed out. And because of the integration in the supply chain, it's virtually impossible to say if milk from any particular county or farm is now travelling further because of the strike.

    DFO isn't yet sure how much the strike is costing in extra transportation. Parmalat will receive the bill. "That is the normal procedure. Those costs are generally charged to the company," he said.

    He said DFO faces strike-related disruptions "fortunately" only once or twice a year.

    Unions have had their run-ins with Parmalat in the past couple of years. The CAW in a press release accuses it of being a "European based company ... apparently taking an anti-union stance in Canada."

    Approximately 600 CAW members work at the company's plants in Ontario.

    A four-day strike at Parmalat's Black Diamond plant in Belleville, involving the Teamsters, concluded in April.

    Charles Redden, president of the union local in Winchester, said a strike also occurred at Parmalat's Brampton facility two years ago and another was "narrowly avoided" in Mitchell, Ontario, recently.

    The company also shut down a plant in Kingston.

    Crowder, a 29-year employee in Winchester, said things haven't been the same since Parmalat took over from Ault Foods a few years ago. "There's no respect whatsoever. With Ault's, there were never major grievances and everything was always dealt with in house."

    The lack of labour peace is "all new to me," he said, adding unhappily, "I've negotiated a lot of contracts but I've never seen an offer like this."

    The plant's director of operations defended the multi-national's labour relations record, saying Parmalat enjoys "good relations" with unions elsewhere.

    Wilson said the strike hasn't prompted the company to consider permanent plant closure in Winchester. "That's not something currently being decided; that's not a current thought. We continue to hope we can solve this quickly."

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