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Labour + Industry

The Solved Sugar Strike Has a Hero: Striker the Goose

‘Honk to support’ took on new meaning at the Rogers picket line.

Zak Vescera 12 Feb 2024The Tyee

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

Reginald Striker walked the picket line on two webbed feet.

Striker, as he was christened, is a Canada goose and labour activist who became the unlikely symbol of striking workers at the Rogers Sugar refinery in Vancouver in an acrimonious four-month strike.

Striker’s routine visits to the picket line became a balm for weary workers. At one point, Striker blocked a company truck from exiting the refinery, something that would violate the province’s labour codes were geese subject to such laws.

“He was the dude of dudes,” said Dan Hardie, a 22-year employee of the plant and one of Striker’s unofficial caregivers.

But now, Striker’s time on the line is done and this sticky labour dispute has come to a bittersweet end.

Members of Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 8 voted to sign a new deal this month, ending an acrimonious strike that caused sugar shortages across Western Canada.

Roughly 140 union members walked off the job in September over a proposed contract that would have required them to work longer shifts, including on weekends. Their last deal had expired in February 2023.

Adrian Soldera, the union’s president, says the new agreement lets employees keep their work schedule while still increasing sugar production. Members voted 94 per cent in favour.

But the company and union alike will still need to reckon with the fallout of a tense, long strike that pitted striking workers against a skeleton crew of managers.

The union and employer were deadlocked over a company proposal to move to a “continuous operations” model at the Vancouver site, one of few large sugar refineries in the country.

Soldera said that model would have involved mandatory 12-hour shifts and weekend work for employees. The company said its changes were to meet growing demand for sugar and were in line with working standards at other facilities.

Workers voted unanimously to strike.

Hardie, whose job involves scooping raw cane sugar out of massive barges along Vancouver’s docks, said he had a feeling the strike would be long.

“I originally thought it would go a couple months,” Hardie said. “And a couple months in, I started realizing it was going to be a lot longer.”

Hardie and his colleagues picketed the refinery around the clock through sleet and snow as a skeleton crew of managers tried to keep the refinery running.

Confectioners and grocery stores across British Columbia and beyond began to report troubles sourcing sugar, even though the company insisted overall supply was stable.

Meanwhile, tensions on the picket line spilled over. In December, the company sought an injunction after a union member allegedly hurled obscenities at one manager and after members delayed trucks seeking to enter the refinery to pick up orders.

The union, meanwhile, tried to tighten the screws on the company by threatening to picket its customers, including Coca-Cola and major grocery chains.

The long strike took its toll. Some workers had to take new jobs, Soldera said, to pay their bills. Hardie said long hours on the line were spent passing around a football or a Frisbee and fostering new friendships.

“Every single person did their part,” Hardie said. “We banded together and we did what we needed to do.”

They also found an unlikely hero in Striker, the goose who became a much-needed source of morale.

Striker visited the line constantly, Hardie said, even before union members began keeping special bird feed on hand.

“It’s almost like that goose’s purpose was to just show up there,” Hardie said.

“Everybody wanted to know if Reggie was there that day or not. And if Reggie wasn’t there, we’d go looking and make sure that Reggie is OK.”

Soldera said the union and Lantic Inc., the Rogers subsidiary that owns the refinery, came to a deal soon after the company took their new working model off the table.

Under the union’s new contract, Soldera said, workers will keep their current routine working hours.

The plant will run on weekends, Soldera said, but only for 12 weekends per year, and workers will still be paid overtime for those shifts. Soldera said the company can schedule more weekend shifts, but those will be voluntary for workers.

If the company doesn’t meet production targets, Soldera said, it would have the option to hire a weekend crew of workers or make capital improvements that might increase sugar production.

Soldera said the deal also includes pay increases that add up to more than 18 per cent over five years.

In a brief statement, Roger Sugar CEO and president Mike Walton said the agreement “meets the needs of the employees and the organization, and it enables us to serve our customers, increase output and meet growing demand for our product.”

Soldera said he is hopeful union members who took other jobs to make ends meet during the strike will come back.

He acknowledged some members were feeling “leery” about returning, given how bitter the strike became, but said management had arranged to meet with groups of workers starting this week to clear the air.

Striker, meanwhile, won’t walk a picket line for some time. Hardie said union members phoned wildlife services shortly after the strike wrapped up. They had noticed a slight limp in one of Striker’s legs. The bird’s feathers, Hardie added, also seemed to be improperly oiled, causing rain to stick to its wings.

There is talk now of putting Striker on T-shirts. Hardie recalls the day the bird walked up to the truck. It is not clear whether Striker understood the tenets of trade unionism. But Hardie said the moment was inspiring for workers.

“He got there and stopped and stood at that truck and was not moving for it,” Hardie said. “I don’t know if he did it for an absolute reason. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. But I tell you, he did his part.”  [Tyee]

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