Unionized workers at Canada’s only tractor plant have won a moral victory in their bitter and protracted labor dispute with the owner of Buhler Versatile Industries in Winnipeg.
But the union and the company owner admit that everyone, including farmers, will end up a loser no matter who “wins” the dispute.
“It’s a sad, sad story,” said Canadian Auto Workers union official Scott McLaren.
“We don’t think (the factory) can be saved.”
Factory owner John Buhler agreed.
The Manitoba labor relations board ruled June 7 that Buhler Versatile Industries acted in bad faith before and during the strike and lockout that began Nov. 3.
Buhler was outraged by the ruling, which is only the third time in 20 years that the board has found an employer guilty of bargaining in bad faith.
“The message is very clear: in the province of Manitoba … if you don’t give the union what they want, the labor board will get it for you,” said Buhler. “Who would want to build a factory in that climate?”
The board has not revealed its detailed reasoning and has given Buhler and the union until June 25 to come up with a way to resolve the dispute or it will impose its own penalty on Buhler Versatile Industries.
The union is asking for more than $20 million in severance for workers, lost wages during the strike and lockout, lost pension contributions and legal costs. It accused Buhler of bargaining in bad faith after concluding he intended to permanently close the plant.
During 12 days of labor board hearings, union representatives described a conspiracy in which Buhler took over the Versatile plant, which had been owned by New Holland, transferred its assets to other companies owned by Buhler, then set about provoking a strike so that he could shut down the factory without having to pay severance or being responsible for its liabilities.
Buhler demanded seniority and job security rollbacks that no workers would accept, McLaren said.
But Buhler said he was trying to save the plant, which no other buyer had been interested in, and needed to reduce costs and increase production. He was wrong to think the union would allow that to happen, he said.
“That’s why I was the only idiot dumb enough to buy it,” said Buhler.
He said he asked for binding arbitration a few weeks into the strike and was willing to make a deal with the union. But after the company lost a vital contract, the factory had no future.
The plant now produces about four tractors per day, using strikebreakers. Buhler has threatened to move the plant to Fargo, North Dakota, to take advantage of different labor laws, but said he will not do that until the economy improves.
Buhler said he couldn’t give the union what it wanted, because he couldn’t pass the cost along to farmers in higher tractor prices. The result of the dispute is that Canadian farmers will no longer be able to buy a Canadian-built tractor.
Buhler said he doesn’t plan to appeal the ruling. He may give up on Manitoba altogether.
“Ten years from now people will totally forget that I ever existed and everybody will be happy and the union will say that’s just the way it is Ð we showed him,” said Buhler.
McLaren said the workers believe that Buhler always intended to kill their jobs, but they’re elated that the labor relations board has publicly recognized that Buhler bargained in bad faith.
“This was not something that was easy to prove,” said McLaren.
“It’s easy to know it … It’s a different story to get the documentation to prove it.”