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The Sugar War Gets Stickier

Ten weeks into a strike over longer shifts, the union opens a new front against Rogers in Vancouver.

Zak Vescera 4 Dec 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Doughnut shops, home cooks and multinational corporations have all been caught in the crossfire of a bitter labour battle in a sweet place.

Workers at the Rogers Sugar refinery in Vancouver have been on strike for 10 weeks after their employer, Lantic Inc., demanded longer shifts and 24-7 operations during contract negotiations.

But the refinery — a grey monolith that is the oldest workplace on Vancouver’s docks — has continued to run, thanks to a skeleton crew of managers.

The plant has struggled to keep up with demand. Shoppers hoping to get a start on their holiday baking have found empty shelves. Confectioners are reporting shortages.

Now, striking workers are trying a new tactic: threatening to target their employer’s biggest customers.

Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 8 president Adrian Soldera filed an application with the BC Labour Relations Board for the right to picket beverage maker Coca-Cola and wholesale giant Costco.

The union alleged that both companies had supported Lantic through the strike by buying sugar from a separate refinery operated by the company in Alberta. In B.C., unions can apply to the board for permission to picket “allies” helping an employer resist a strike.

Soldera said that rather than face that prospect, both companies had instead agreed to stop buying sugar from Lantic Inc. while the strike continues.

“We have consent orders with these companies that we made the declarations against that they would take action and not deal with Rogers while the dispute is going on to avoid having picketing outside their businesses,” said Soldera, whose union represents about 140 union refinery workers.

It’s the latest turn in the sugar war, which has seen allegations of espionage and verbal abuse on the picket line.

The union has now begun mediation with Lantic Inc., something Soldera believes the company consented to in part because of the pressure they placed on its customers.

Will that be enough to end it?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Soldera said. “I’m certainly hoping now by doing this that it opens up the lines of communication again.”

The start of the battle

Tom Cameron and his colleagues walked off the job in late September. Their last collective agreement with Lantic Inc. expired in February.

Soldera said the sticking point in negotiations was a company request to move to change the workweek and introduce 12-hour shifts for some workers, part of a plan to operate the refinery 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It now runs around the clock on weekdays.

Lantic Inc. chief financial officer Jean-Sébastien Couillard said the shift changes would affect only a quarter of its Vancouver workforce and that they are needed to fill a growing demand for sugar. The company did not say how many more workers, if any, it would hire.

But Cameron, a painter who has worked at Rogers Sugar for 19 years, said workers don’t want the mandatory 12-hour shifts, which Lantic Inc. has pushed for unsuccessfully in previous rounds of bargaining.

Workers already routinely pick up overtime shifts, Cameron said, but don’t want long shifts to become status quo.

“When we all got hired, we weren’t hired to work 12-hour shifts on a continuous basis,” Cameron said.

“A lot of the guys here have families or are single dads. With a continuous shift, it always messes with the family life.”

Picket lines went up, and have been staffed 24 hours a day since the strike began. Brad Ancelet, a union member and photographer, has put his lens to use by photographing everyone who comes and goes.

“It makes me happy,” said Ancelet, who normally shoots landscapes and birds. “It makes me feel more part of the solidarity and the team.”

Those photos show the long hours some managers have worked to keep the plant running.

The massive refinery is now operated by a few dozen managers and non-union staff, some of whom union members say are working shifts of 14 and 16 hours to keep the sugar coming.

Union members believe one engineer — who is legally required to be in the refinery while it runs — does not appear to have left the building since the strike began.

The company, workers say, responded by putting security cameras outside the building. The workers responded by renting a massive steel pole, atop which they affixed a big black square to block the camera.

Food deliveries from Uber and SkipTheDishes couriers come several times a day, and picketers say they’ve seen managers bring cots into the factory.

Meanwhile, workers on the picket line have gone more than two months without paycheques. Cameron said some have sought part-time jobs. And at times, tensions have boiled over.

A photo taken through a chain-link fence shows a long one-storey brick industrial building. Behind it rises a taller building with a painted section on top that says "The British Columbia Sugar Refinery Company Ltd."
Workers at the Rogers Vancouver sugar plant have been on strike for 10 weeks. Supermarkets as far as Winnipeg and bakeries in the Lower Mainland reportedly are experiencing sugar shortages. Photo for The Tyee by Zak Vescera.

Earlier this month, Lantic Inc. sought an injunction against the picketers, alleging they’d engaged in “tortious activities.” One employee said a striking worker entered the premises in early October and called her obscenities. Workers also yelled other insults at truck drivers, including calling them “scabs,” which the company’s lawyers argued was a form of intimidation.

The judge granted the injunction in part, making it clear union members could not use obscenities against managers and that they could not block or delay people entering the refinery.

Ancelet, the photographer, acknowledged tensions were high. But he said the picketing had been largely peaceful. Workers, for the most part, had been chatting, throwing around a Frisbee or reading. Some have struck up a friendship with a resident injured Canada goose they have named “Reginald Striker.” They keep a small cache of duck food for Striker for when he visits the picket line.

“There’s no mob mentality,” Ancelet said. “We’re just here trying to get what we want.”

“I think the company made it sound a lot worse than it really was,” Cameron added. “It’s a picket line. People yell ‘scab.’”

The sugar spill

But the shrapnel from the dispute has flown much farther than this small corner of Vancouver’s industrial waterfront.

In a given year, Soldera said, the Rogers refinery pumps out between 150,000 and 225,000 tonnes of sugar a year, making it the second-largest refinery in the country.

Much of that is liquid sugar, which goes to major manufacturers, but they also produce sugar products found in stores.

And across Western Canada, shoppers and sweet makers alike say they’re struggling to find supplies. News reports indicate supermarkets as far as Winnipeg have shortages, and bakeries in the Lower Mainland have said orders are going unfilled.

Couillard, Lantic’s CFO, said that while there have been “localized” shortages of some sugar products, there was an “ample supply” of the liquid and bulk sugars that made up 90 per cent of the sugar market.

“Since the beginning of the strike, the Vancouver sugar refinery has continued to operate at a reduced level, and we have used our other facilities to support our valued customers in Western Canada,” Couillard said.

But Soldera believes the shortage is far worse than the company claims.

“We figure it’s about 20 per cent of what it could do, because obviously they’re not as trained as well as we are,” Soldera said.

The union has tried to hamper the company’s business to push it back to the bargaining table. In early October, Soldera declared Rogers Sugar was a “hot good.”

In theory, that means other union workers at supermarkets and trucking companies refuse to handle or transport it.

Soldera said it didn’t work, however, because many of those workers have contract clauses that force them to handle “hot goods.”

But Soldera said the union found another angle: picketing the company’s biggest business partners.

In British Columbia, unions aren’t allowed to picket locations where their members don’t actually work. But there’s an exception if it’s an “allied business” that in some way is helping their employer during the strike.

In this case, Soldera said, the union learned Lantic arranged to deliver sugar from one of its other refineries in Alberta to Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Richmond, usually supplied by the Vancouver refinery.

Soldera said he made an application to the BC Labour Relations Board to picket Coca-Cola, whose workers are represented by Teamsters Local 213.

Had that happened, Teamsters 213 business representative Jim Loyst confirmed in an email, members would have refused to cross the picket line.

Instead, Coca-Cola signed a consent order with Lantic Inc. and the union in exchange for the latter withdrawing its application.

Soldera said a condition of that deal was that Coca-Cola would no longer buy sugar from Lantic Inc. during the strike. A spokesperson from Coca-Cola said they could not comment on where they sourced sugar from, but confirmed they had signed the consent order.

The union later did the same thing with Costco, a wholesale company with nearly a dozen stores across the province. Soldera said he’s filed applications against other companies, too.

“This is definitely going to hurt their bottom line,” Soldera said.*

Representatives for Costco did not respond to requests for comment for this article. A representative for Coca-Cola Canada, when asked about Soldera’s comments, said only that their agreements with suppliers were confidential.

Couillard did not address Soldera’s claims in his comments to The Tyee, saying the company was limited in what it could say because it was in mediation.

Soldera believes the company wanted to return to the table specifically because of the union’s pressure campaign. He says they otherwise haven’t been in communication since Nov. 6, when the court injunction decision was made.

Union members say they want to be back on the job. And they believe managers, many of whom they used to work alongside, are tired of the long, hard shifts in the plant.

But some worry compromise may not be on the table.

“I think they’re in it to win it,” Cameron said. “I think they might try to force this continuous shift. But it’s hard to know.”

* Story updated on Dec. 6 at 4:17 p.m. to clarify the agreement between Coca-Cola, Lantic Inc. and the union.  [Tyee]

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