Safeway blockade deemed 'unlawful': Labour board issues restrictions on picketing workers at distribution plant

Numerous trucks and employee vehicles were kept out of the Safeway distribution centre by striking workers on Labour Day, an act the Alberta Labour Relations Board deemed "unlawful" late Monday night.

The board ordered the picketers to only detain those who approach the picket line for as long as they need to explain the nature of the dispute.

They also directed the union to keep watch on the traffic buildup outside the north Edmonton centre and adjust their delaying of traffic to quell any potential snarls like the one experienced on Monday.

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 started picketing Monday at 6 a. m., after they served strike notice and the company locked them out.

The 350 workers planned to picket in three shifts over each 24-hour period to keep traffic from getting to the distribution centre and Lucerne ice-cream plant at 14040 Yellowhead Trail.

Work at the company's frozen food warehouse, at 11528 160 St., was also affected. Picketers stood, and at times sat in lawn chairs, in front of arriving trucks.

Bob Behrens, Safeway's director of distribution for Alberta, said the company initially fenced off all but the main truck entrance to the facility.

But as vehicles started to line up, and threatened to stick out onto the Yellowhead, Safeway reopened the other entrances. The picketers then spread out to block all entrances. One truck was let through, as well as some employees, but most were kept out.

Safeway told the board that dozens of trucks come into the centre daily with produce that has limited shelf life.

The board was still hearing the arguments of Safeway management and the union's lawyers at press time Monday.

Employees have been without a contract since December 2008, but a deal seemed imminent after company and union negotiators reached a settlement Aug. 26.

However, more than 70 per cent of union members rejected the settlement their union leaders supported.

Several picketing workers who voted against the deal said Monday that benefits for workers in the physically demanding jobs are still in dispute. As well, full-time workers do not want to add three hours to their current 37-hour work week because they suspect the company plans to announce layoffs.

"I don't want to see guys lose their jobs," said Travis Ozechowski, who has worked full-time for three years in the produce section of the distribution warehouse. "I'm a shop steward, so I've got to look out for everybody."

Workers knew going into the vote that this could be a long strike, he added.

Safeway has started hiring temporary workers to keep operations going during the strike and lockout. The company has advertised the temporary warehouse jobs at $18.41 an hour.

Noor Afridi, 36, applied for one of those temporary jobs Monday. He has a job with a security company, but he hasn't been getting enough shifts to pay his bills.

Afridi said he does have concerns about crossing the picket line during a strike, "but when you have financial pressure, that can take you anywhere."

The wage the company is offering to temporary workers is a sore point for Laura, a union member on the picket line who does not want her last name printed. She was hired a week and a half ago.

"I was hired at$14.86 an hour," she said. "They're going to get$18.41 an hour to take my job."

Hourly wages for the 350 workers range from about $14 an hour for a part-time employee up to $20 an hour for full-time workers, the union has said.

While the first day of picketing shut down work inside Safeway's distribution centre, the effects of the strike and lockout were felt about eight kilometres down the road.

Organizers of an annual Labour Day barbecue were scrambling to buy enough oranges Monday morning to feed the city's unemployed, who lined up across Giovanni Caboto Park, near 95th Street and 109th Avenue.

"We're a little short on oranges because of the strike at the Safeway," said Tom Olenuk, president of the Edmonton and District Labour Council, which organized the barbecue for Edmonton's jobless.

"Usually we get about 4,000 oranges, but because of the strike we only got about 1,000."

Thousands of people were expected to visit the park for the barbecue that has been feeding unemployed people on Labour Day for 20 years now, Olenuk said. It's an event organizers hoped would fade away eventually, he noted.

"Instead of getting smaller, it's gotten bigger."

The situation for unemployed people in this province is particularly dire because of poor coverage from Canada's employment insurance program, according to a newly released analysis from the labour council and the Alberta Federation of Labour.

That analysis shows the number of unemployed people in Alberta has doubled since October 2008, to almost 154,000, the labour groups said in a news release.

Edmonton Journal, Tues Sept 8 2009
Byline: Andrea Sands and Ben Gelinas

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