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Workers with Unifor Local 252 continued their strike action on the picket line on Friday in front of the Nestlé factory in Toronto’s west end. Workers have been on strike since Saturday, May 1. Local 252 represents 470 workers at the factory in Toronto. Spirits were high on the line, with music, dancing and guest speakers, including FoodShare Toronto’s Paul Taylor and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
During the ongoing pandemic, Nestlé has taken away workers’ access to health benefits, effective immediately after they announced the strike last week. Nestlé, the world’s largest food conglomerate, has achieved record sales over the past year. Workers at the factory produce popular candy products like Kit Kats and Smarties, as well as performing regular factory upkeep.
“We cannot go to the dentist, we cannot get medicines, we cannot cover any medical charge, coverage is stopped,” said Maksud Bhanapatel, a worker at the factory. Employee Family Assistance Program rep Barb Quintanilha, who has been working at the factory for 35 years, said this is the first time that the company has taken away their benefits during a contract dispute.
Prior to the strike, benefits offered to some workers were already falling short. “If someone has a family they cannot manage with those benefits. It’s really, really hard,” said Anjum Shaheen, a worker in the P-0 Unit for over two years. P-0 is one of the units (P-0 through P-7) in the factory producing food for Nestlé, and is where new hires are placed. This unit is classified as “part time” by the employer, and as such the wages and benefits are much lower than the other units.
“They cannot apply for internal full time positions until permanent members apply first,” said Quintanilha. She added that this makes it almost impossible for P-0s to get full time status and seniority. “Very unfair to this predominantly immigrant classification who work just as hard as anyone else,” she said.
“What disgusts me the most is that in all the years of our strikes with Nestlé they chose the pandemic to cancel all medical benefits for the members,” said Quintanilha. “And during a pandemic! This is a company that makes baby formula and food. They have always been ruthless,” she added.
According to several workers on the picket line, throughout the pandemic, Nesltlé management has often assigned tasks to P-0 workers that are originally assigned to workers in units with more seniority. Workers in senior units can refuse jobs that they find unsafe or otherwise problematic, leaving management to assign the job to P-0 members. P-0 workers are often doing the exact same job as the “full time” unit at half of the wage of their more senior coworkers.
Further, P-0 is not in effect a part time unit. They are classified as “supplemental employees” despite their real working hours. All of the P-0 unit members interviewed for this story confirmed that they actually work full time hours.
“We work in a factory. There are some odd jobs that people refuse. Because the senior people, they have seniority, they say they can’t do that if they don’t feel safe or comfortable,” said Shaheen. “Then, the supervisors come to us. ‘Oh, you guys are juniors.’ We are not their slaves, we are also workers. They have to treat us equally.”
Shaheen explained that instead of receiving CERB pandemic payouts from the federal government, workers in the factory like herself kept coming back to work.
“It’s a food company. We have a lot of physical work to do,” said Upjinder Sran, a co-worker of Shaheen in unit P-0. “Cleaning is the hardest job. You have to put all your effort in, for eight hours. You’re working so hard, you have to bend your body, push your muscles, your shoulders. Our whole energy is spent.” Sran, Shaheen, and the others said that because their unit is classified as part time, they only get $700 per year of healthcare benefits for things like physical therapy.
“We are paid less than 50 per cent as much as our senior colleagues,” said Sran, often for people on the same factory line, doing the same task.
When these workers were hired two years ago, they said that they’d hoped to move from P-0 to P-1 within three years under the existing contract. They say under the company’s new proposal, it would take six to eight years.
P-0 workers want equal pay for equal work in the new contract. They also want to be moved into the next unit, P-1, changing them to “full time” status to reflect their real work hours. This would also raise their health insurance benefits. Further, the local is fighting to get all workers access to the general pension plan, as opposed to the lesser plan offered to P-0s.
Spirits were high at the picket line on Friday. The Nestlé workers got support from OPSEU college instructor and union organizer Pam Johnson and executive director of Foodshare Toronto Paul Taylor, among others.
Bhanapatel and a large group of his coworkers met with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh upon his arrival around 2pm, explaining the ongoing problems inside Nestlé. Singh was introduced on stage by Local 252 Financial Secretary John Harte, who worked on Singh’s election campaign for the ONDP in Brampton.
After Singh’s speech, workers continued playing several pop songs from the speakers on stage, including some international hits. “Oh, Punjabi?” one worker said across the street to his co-workers. Moments after, most of the crowd joined Singh and danced in the streets for over 20 minutes.
Unifor Local 252 workers dance with Jagmeet Singh in front of the Nestlé factory. Video by Kevin Taghabon
The dancing and music caught the attention of Mishel Schwartz and Jacob Goldstein, recent founders of a pastry company called Schwartz & Brandt Food Incorporated. Schwartz and Goldstein were doing a delivery at a nearby coffee shop when they saw the picket line and decided to hand out dozens of packages of Baklava to the workers. “We figured we should stand with the community, stand in solidarity, and support everyone,” said Goldstein.
Harte confirmed to The Hoser that Local 252 President Eammon Clarke did not make the picket line on Friday because he is now with the bargaining committee preparing for tomorrow. Nestlé has agreed to go back to the bargaining table with the union on Saturday May 8.