Locked gates

BWS Manufacturing of Centreville, N.B., is accused of union-busting. A hearing began Monday before the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board. (CBC)

A union organizer told the province’s labour board on Monday that a New Brunswick manufacturer of heavy duty trailers axed nearly a quarter of its workforce after some signed up with the union.

BWS Manufacturing of Centreville, N.B., is accused of union busting.

The first witness to take the stand is warning that if left unchecked, the company's move will produce a ripple effect that will discourage workers elsewhere from unionizing.

Mario Fortunato, an organizer with the United Steelworkers, told the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board he had 42 workers at BWS sign union cards shortly after a recruitment drive began in September. BWS employed about 85 people.

Fortunato said he began the drive after the union received a complaint about low wages and poor working conditions.

But shortly after recruiting workers, Fortunato said the company laid off 26 people — 24 of them had signed on to the union.

“If they aren't reinstated, there will be no way to put a union in Carleton County again, in anywhere in western New Brunswick,” Fortunato said. “The people will turn to me and they will say, 'If I join the union I’m going to be fired.' And they’ll be right.”

BWS told CBC News in September the layoffs had nothing to do with the union drive. The company said it had lost three significant contracts and had to cut staff.

During questioning by BWS lawyers, Fortunato admitted about 18 employees who signed union cards are still with the company.  

BWS is scheduled to appear before the board Tuesday.

Last May, BWS received $1.5 million in government funding to expand its facility, and there were plans to hire 30 more workers.