By Emily Leedham
Supreme Steel CEO John Leder always encouraged his employees to donate gifts to the Salvation Army at company holiday parties. This year, however, he’s left nearly 50 of his workers out in the cold after shutting down Winnipeg’s steel plant several weeks before Christmas and offering severance of $950.00 per employee.
United Steel Workers Local 9074 President Paul Lussier, who represents Supreme Steel employees, has been through several plant closures at other companies, and says he’s never seen a severance offer this disrespectful.
“We’ve been trying to get some dental benefits out of them, health and dental benefits, we were looking for extra life insurance, and mainly we were looking for a severance package – where they’ve more or less just told us to go pound salt,” he tells RankandFile.ca.
Lussier recalls a previous plant closure with a different company that resulted in workers’ marriages breaking up and several suicides. He doesn’t want to see any of his members endure any traumatic experiences through the holidays and the harsh Winnipeg winter.
“I made sure, when I had meetings with people there, I said, “Listen, if anybody needs help, let me know – we’ll get you whatever help you need, cause we don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks, right?”
Steel Workers have built Winnipeg’s major infrastructure
USW members at Supreme Steel have built much of Winnipeg’s major infrastructure. In the past 10 years alone, Supreme Steel has brought in 114 million dollars of revenue working on projects like the Investors Group Field, Manitoba Hydro’s Keewatinohk Station, BBE Hydro’s Spillway Gates, IKEA, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre which is still under construction.
The Supreme Steel logo is featured prominently at the construction site for the Inuit Art Centre. RankandFile.ca reached out to the Winnipeg Art Gallery for comment. We received this statement from Engagement Officer Amber O’Reilly November 21, 2019:
“Supreme Steel is a sub-contractor to PCL Construction Ltd. and as such there is no direct contractual relationship between Supreme Steel and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Therefore we would like to politely decline providing a comment at this time.”
Workers suspect plant closure as Supreme delays bargaining
Lussier says the trouble started earlier this year when Supreme Steel kept delaying bargaining after the last agreement expired April 30, 2019. When the Supreme finally came to the table, the company said nothing to indicate a plant closure. Then, as soon as the parties started talking finances, the company delayed bargaining again.
The union and the company always had a good relationship, he explains, so these delays became red flags. Eventually, speculation about a plant closure circulated among workers. Then, in late August, Supreme Group President Kevin Guile called up Lussier, delaying bargaining yet again, and told him to come to the plant that day for an announcement:
The plant would begin shutting down on September 30, 2019, with the final closure date set for December 13, 2019.
Despite offering a robust severance package for its managers. the company offered nothing to its unionized workers. When the union pushed back, the company offered workers $500 each as backpay from the collective agreement’s April 30 expiration, with an additional $450.00 for “retraining” to help workers transition into new employment.
According to Lussier, his members were furious at the offer, saying, “If that’s all they have to offer, and if that’s the way they want to treat us, they can shove it, cause we’re ready for the fight. We’re more than willing to take the fight on.”
The previous collective agreement said employees can continue to collect health and dental benefits for 60 days in case of a layoff – which the company has also refused to honour.
Lussier says the company is also trying to circumvent Employment Standards Section 61 by treating the plant closure as layoffs, instead of layoffs and a plant closure. These are two separate issues that must be addressed, but Supreme is treating it like one.
“We’ve filed 46 grievances as per their interpretation of health and benefits, another 46 based upon their interpretation of what they think the employment standards code means,” he explains.
Many of the plant workers are older immigrants who are highly skilled welders, and some have worked at the plant for decades, even before Supreme bought the plant ten years ago.
“They had the highest quality of work in all of their plants in Western Canada,” Lussier points out, “Their defects were so small compared to most plants. Then, when some of their other plants were not able to do the work, what did they do? They shipped it to Winnipeg.”
After years of highly skilled work and dedication, Supreme Steel’s stingy severance stings.
Despite sending out a press release, USW 9074’s concerns have not received any mainstream media attention. Lussier says the union is considering running information pickets at sites that have used Supreme Steel to draw attention to the workers’ plight.
“They’re depressed,” Lussier says of his members, “but more than being depressed, they’re pissed.”