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Union fuming over Quebec mill’s dissension

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The Communications, Energy and Papermakers union is contemplating what to do with members at Abitibi-Consolidated’s Wayagamack mill in Trois-Rivieres after the two striking locals there voted to go back to work before a new contract was negotiated.

That could mean denying them access to the joint bargaining pact as CEP locals at Abitibi’s 10 other mills in Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland continue their seven-week strike.

“We’ll be looking at what other alternatives are available to people,” CEP spokesperson Cecil Makowski said late yesterday. “It’s angered people. We still have to go and fight their fight for them.”

Makowski charged this “divide and conquer” strategy has been one the company adopted from the start. Wayagamack was one of two Quebec mills Abitibi had threatened might be shut down if the strike continued.

“It’s not a surprise. We’re disappointed,” he added, calling the company’s tactics “extreme” and “disgusting.” And he warned those tactics could damage the relationship built with the company at each of its mills.

“We wanted this mill back up and running to prevent further loss of customers,” Susan Rogers, Abitibi’s vice-president of corporate communications in Montreal, said yesterday on why Abitibi asked the Wayagamack workers to go back, noting their directory customers need guaranteed orders.

“Once you lose those guys, it’s hard to get them back,” she reasoned. “They’re coming back on good faith to keep their customers.”

Rogers said the workers returned under the conditions of their former contract. In return, that mill wouldn’t be targeted to do negotiations but it would get the same “common items” as the 10 other striking mills.

After the other mills negotiate their contracts, local items will be negotiated with the two CEP locals at Wayagamack, she said.

One CEP local there cast ballots two weeks ago, with those members cut off from their strike pay at that time for taking the vote. The union announced the results of the vote after members of the second local cast their ballots Monday.

The mill is expected to be fully operational by the end of the week.

Rogers added workers at Chandler, the other higher-cost mill in Quebec the company warned may face a shutdown if the strike dragged on, haven’t indicated that they are considering a similar return to work.

She also wouldn’t speculate if this return to work without a contract would set a precedent for the 10 other striking CEP locals.

“Clearly, it was a unique situation,” Rogers noted.

“Is it likely to snowball? I don’t think so,” Makowski said, noting if anything, it bonded the other striking workers together more firmly.

“I can speak for the locals in Ontario. They will not be divided,” he pledged.

And Makowski stressed Wayagamack wouldn’t affect the union’s ability to negotiate. While “the lines of communication are open,” no new talks are slated.

Talks broke off Monday at the Iroquois Falls mill after a few hours.

“I think this whole strike by Abitibi is just a ploy to get their price hike,” Makowski charged.

In related news, the Newfoundland Labour Relations Board is still deliberating on whether it has jurisdiction to rule on the company’s bad faith bargaining charge against the union.

A ruling is expected sometime this week.

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