Unionized employees at Covered Bridge Potato Chips near Hartland have walked out and are now on strike to back demands for a first contract with the company.

The 32 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1288P have been in a legal strike position since June.

Covered Bridge Chips

Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company in Hartland, New Brunswick. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

About 16 union members are picketing outside the company's factory in Hartland. The union said work at the plant is continuing and some employees have crossed the picket line.

Patrick Colford, the president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, said the main issues in the contract dispute are wages and seniority when it comes to scheduling, layoffs and call-backs. Most of the workers earn minimum wage.

"The wage issue would be minimum wage," said striking employee Betty Demerchant, whose job is cutting potatoes, but is also trained in most of the plant's jobs and fills in for other employees on their breaks.

 "I've got a 10-cent raise in almost five years," she said.

A New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board ruling from August 2015 reveals a bitter dispute between Covered Bridge president Ryan Albright and the union.

Unfair labour practices

The union filed an official complaint of unfair labour practices against the company and Albright.

After conciliation between the parties failed and the labour board dismissed the company's application to terminate bargaining, a mediator brought the parties together on June 23, 2015.

At that meeting, Albright asked to speak first and, among other things, made the following statements reading from two pages of prepared notes:

  • The company was taking its previous proposal off the table.
  • "We don't believe this union is in the best interest of the employees and the long-term sustainability of the company."
  • "I will give my employees the things they are looking for, but never in a union environment where I feel trapped to communicate to my employees on a daily basis for fear of unfair labour practice against myself and the company."

    Betty Demerchant is one of 32 striking workers at Covered Bridge Potato Chips in Hartland. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

  • "The union wants you to feel like they're your friend, they're here for you. It's bull--it."
  • The company had put in a heated smoking building for employees, had an optional Blue Cross plan as opposed to mandatory and plans for a new building with a bigger lunchroom, washroom and company gym.
  • "We will not … reverse everything by dealing with the negative effect of a union that will hurt all of the employees and careers we have built together."
  • "I will give my employees what they want for the increase of wages and the benefits they were looking for, but never ever, ever in a union environment."
  • "So I'm done. Carl [Flanagan, national UCFW representative], screw you and your f--king union."
storm chips

The supply of Storm Chips from Covered Bridge Potato Chips may be jeopardized if a strike by unionized employees that began Tuesday continues. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

After concluding his remarks, Albright stormed out of the meeting and then left the premises, according to the ruling from the labour and employment board.

The labour board found Albright and the company had violated five sections of the Labour and Employment Act.

Both were ordered to cease and desist from interfering with union representation of the employees and from trying to intimidate employees from participating in the union or trying to influence how they may vote in any vote taken under the act.

Flanagan said the union is calling for a boycott of Covered Bridge chips and members will be handing out leaflets outside stores that sell the company's products.

"We're not going to win this strike on a dead-end street in Hartland," said Flanagan.

"We've got to go out and try to stop people from buying this product until we can get a fair agreement."

Covered Bridge releases statement

The company released a statement Tuesday saying "a relatively small percentage of our production employees" were on strike.

"We want you, our loyal chip fans, customers and suppliers to know that this is just a small bump in the road that many family–run businesses encounter and we are motivated to getting past this," the statement said.

"All production and business operations will continue without a slip in quality or service."

The company said it has 90 employees and as it undergoes its fourth expansion, it expects to hit 100 employees by the spring of 2016.