Nfld. & Labrador

Lockout over for D-J Composites workers, but not everyone gets to return to work

After nearly two years of being locked out of their jobs, workers at D-J Composites in Gander have a new collective agreement.

Unifor wants to ensure 'smooth return-to-work process' for its workers

Ignatius Oram is the plant chair of Unifor Local 597 at D-J Composites in Gander. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

While the lockout for D-J Composites workers is over, only half of the 30 employees have a job to return to after spending two years on the picket line.

"The downfall of [the arbitrator's decision] is that not everyone is going to be returning to work," says Ignatius Oram, plant chair of Unifor 597, the union that represents the workers.

Oram said he first found out about the arbitrator's decision Nov. 29. The new, three-year agreement effectively ends one of the longest lockouts in Newfoundland and Labrador's history.

He said it's a relief, of sorts, but there are mixed feelings since some people don't get to come back on the job.

"Spending two winters on a picket line with a possible third coming up, to finally come to that realization that this labour dispute is finally over is what we were looking for," Oram said.

But for those employees leaving, "it's very disappointing, it has to be. You spend two years out fighting for your rights."

Several hundred people rallied earlier this year in support of D-J Composite workers who were locked out since December 2016. (CBC News)

Workers at the aerospace manufacturing plant voted to strike in December 2016, with union leaders saying workers had been without a collective agreement for 21 months, but the company locked them out first.

The situation picked up steam in September of this year, when union members from across the country converged in Gander to block access to the plant, saying it was an effort to turn up the pressure on both the company and the Newfoundland and Labrador government in the dispute.

Arbitrator 'picked the employer's side'

Oram explained that each side — the union and the company — had to put forward their "best case possible" when it came to the outstanding issues, to be decided by an arbitrator.

He said that meant the company took some of its most "severe proposals" off the table — like merit-based pay. The decision didn't go in the favour of the workers.

Lana Payne is Unifor’s Atlantic regional director. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

And while the company accepted some of the union's demands, including annual step increases for wages, Unifor said in a media release, ultimately the decision didn't go the way Oram had hoped.

"The arbitrator picked the employer's side," he said.

A media release issued by Unifor Monday morning touting that the lockout was over made no reference to the fact that some members would not be returning to the job.

"After two years on a picket line, defending their rights, and fighting for a collective agreement, our members can hold their heads high," said Lana Payne, Unifor's Atlantic regional director, in a statement released Monday.

Locked-out workers lead a crowd at a union rally at DJ Composites on Thursday. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Oram said the workers not returning to a job know who they are. Meanwhile, the first wave of employees returning to work will do so by Dec. 13.

"Our goal as a union right now is we gotta work now and try and get some work in this building," Oram said.

"When you can get to a situation where there are more contracts coming in, well hopefully that's more people that we can get back to work from our membership."

'Pick up and move on'

The dispute at times grew heated, including when Unifor made a video that identified so-called "scab" or replacement workers. The union denied it was bullying, saying the people chose to cross the picket lines.

It was three weeks after that furor that Premier Dwight Ball agreed to a meeting with Unifor, something the union had long called for.

D-J Composites had also been cited by the Labour Relations Board for bad-faith bargaining — twice.

But for Oram, now is the time to try and move past the last two years of labour strife.

"Long-term labour disputes obviously put a sour taste in your mouth and that's coming from both sides," he said. 

"Both sides have to put it behind them. If we want a future there for everybody, you gotta pick up and move on."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

with files from Garrett Barry and Sarah Smellie

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