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Waterloo Region Record By Greg Mercer KITCHENER
Dennis Lesperance didn't intend to be the last president of the Schneider Employee Association. But he saw what was happening at factories across Waterloo Region. And he understood, deep down, the big Schneiders meat packing plant on Courtland Avenue had an expiry date, too. "I knew this wasn't going to last forever," said Lesperance, 55. "There's been talk for 15 years. This is an old, tired building and it's outdated. And we saw what was going on around us." Click here for more stories in our Schneiders series Still, that didn't ease the sting on Oct. 19, 2011, when employees hung from the rafters in the cafeteria and heard the plant that employed 1,200 was closing in three years. And it doesn't make it any easier now as he packs up his office and 70 years of union history. His job at the plant is the only one he's had since he was 18. And with the plant closing, the employee association he's led for the past 15 years will disappear, too. Down the hall, the cafeteria sits nearly empty. Most of the goodbyes have already been said. Many of the production lines have been shipped out, too. All that's left are a few dozen lines making sliced luncheon meats. "Each week it gets quieter in here," Lesperance said. "On a lot of the Fridays, it's just hugs and tears." As the closure looms, the plant is a sombre place, although the remaining workers were given an early Christmas gift this week. The final stages of layoffs have been pushed back, as production is slowly transferred to other Maple Leaf-owned plants. That means people who thought they'd be out of work in December will now be working into at least January. After another 40 expected layoffs Dec. 5, some 270 workers will still be at the plant in the new year. Lesperance, the union's longest-serving president, joined Schneiders in 1977 in the freezer storage department. Like so many others here, he had a family bond to the plant both of his parents and five siblings collected Schneiders paycheques at one time or another. It was so much more than a job for him. Schneiders was also about summer picnics, slo-pitch tournaments and company hockey teams. After 20 years on the production floor, Lesperance joined the union executive, and was brought up through the ranks. Working in the union gave him a chance to look after his co-workers. "Over the years I've had the support of the membership and pleasure of working with a lot of really good people and I appreciate that. I've enjoyed my job," he said. But an employee association can't exist without employees. Soon, his office in the heart of the plant will be empty, and his focus will be on an action centre trying to find work for laid-off workers. Lesperance says more than just jobs are being lost at Schneiders. This is also a plant where the employee association is a central part of factory life, where the company and its workers have co-operated remarkably amicably since the Second World War. In all that time, there's been only one strike at the plant in 1988, when a dispute over pensions caused workers to walk out for three weeks. They've had their fights, grievances and arbitration battles, like any place. But both sides say it was more like bickering between family. "It's a special relationship," Lesperance said. "I'm not sure that's ever going to happen again." A look back It started with a push, and was sealed with a kick. In late 1945, the United Packinghouse Workers of America was trying to organize workers at Schneiders' big meat packing plant on Courtland Avenue. Activists plastered the plant with pamphlets, touting the benefits of joining a big, international union. But employees of the Kitchener company had other ideas. Convinced no one could represent them better than themselves, they formed their own independent association and pushed out the UPWA organizers. They worried an outside union would bring strikes and more animosity with the family-run company. For five cents a weeks, any hourly worker could become a member. It wasn't until a foreman kicked an employee a few months later that the association finally had a cause to rally workers around and earn their respect. The union pressed the company to suspend the foreman, and the company, realizing it needed to co-operate with this new group, agreed. The message was sent the Schneider Employee Association was looking out for workers. "We had to do something about it, since the UPWA was just waiting for the association to blow a situation like this," then-union president John Albrecht told Terry Marr, in a written history of the employee association. Slowly, and with incremental changes, the employee association began to get agreements from the company that improved the lives of Schneiders workers. One of their first moves was to push for a reduction in their work week, from 48 down to 45 hours, and a 12 cent per hour pay raise. Eventually, new collective agreements brought profit sharing, medical and sick benefits, a pension plan, more vacation, overtime pay and more wage increases. By the 1950s, a Schneiders job was considered one of the best factory jobs in town. That's a big reason why many workers never left once they were hired on. "I don't know where you could go in the meat industry and be treated equal or better," Lesperance said. "The people have a voice here, and the company has always respected that." Rick Larose, the plant manager, said many in management also once worked on the shop floor, and have an approachable relationship with the union. Those connections helped ensure co-operation through the years. "People have a respect for each other," Larose said. "We've all come up through the ranks. On the union side, it was all homegrown. They're hands-on, they're approachable, and they know the pulse of the plant." Plenty of outside unions tried to get established at Schneiders, but none could ever convince enough workers they'd do a better job than the employee association. The closest anyone came was probably in 1956, when the United Packinghouse Workers of America took 232 out of 653 ballots in a unionization vote. It didn't hurt that the employee association charged dues noticeably less than an external union would. Today, those dues are $5 a week. The cost to run the association was low, too, since the company gave it office space, rent-free, right in the middle of the plant. "I really feel our members got their best bang for their buck," Lesperance said. Eventually, the Schneider Employee Association became the largest independent union in the meat industry in Canada, representing workers at a network of Schneiders plants in Kitchener, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ayr, Wellesley and Toronto by the 1990s. One of the biggest battles the employee association fought at the Kitchener plant was over a ban on facial hair in 1975. Twenty-six employees who defied the rules were suspended, and 19 shaved by the end of the week and were allowed to return to work. The employee association took the fight over sideburns, moustaches and beards to the Ontario Superior Court, but lost their request for an injunction against Schneiders. The employee association quietly gave grocery money to the last hairy holdouts, too. "I would walk into the lunchroom and sit down at a table where members of the management were sitting. As soon as I would do that, they would get up and go sit at another table," union president Bill Van Heughten said at the time. Slowly, relations between management and the union defrosted over the facial hair issue. Eventually, the union executives could walk into offices of the plant's upper management and talk, just as they always had. "The union has gone to bat for their members. They really took care of their people," said Stewart Campbell, the plant's manager of human resources. "That was well-recognized. Outside of a few rebellious pockets, there was never a need (for an outside union)." Since the plant's closure was announced three years ago, the company and the employee association say they've tried to be as open and transparent with workers as they could. Many employees are understandably upset by the closure, but there's not a lot of obvious disgruntlement. When more than 700 packed a thank-you dinner for workers at Bingemans last month, Larose was given an emotional standing ovation. When Michael McCain, chief executive of Maple Leaf and the man who ultimately approved the closure of the plant, spoke to the gathering, no one heckled, either. Instead, they respectfully listened and politely applauded. He said the Schneiders workers ought to be proud of the company they helped build. "Behind those really good sausages was a hard-working, unpretentious family with strongly held beliefs that surfaced in the way they treated employees and in the way they felt about their duties and obligations to their community," McCain told the crowd. "Nothing is dying here. The Schneider legacy will live in our hearts." 'No winners' "In a closure, there are no winners," said Paul Hauck, 53, a maintenance man at the plant since 1981. "It's trying on both sides. The only thing you can do is treat people fairly." Hauck can't retire until August 2016, so he's trying to figure out what he'll do to get himself there. For now, he's focusing on spending Christmas with his family, since it's difficult to think about life after Schneiders in the new year. "I'm trying to focus on the positive, and my family is a big support," he said. "I don't think people realize how much a company means to a community until it's gone." No one is happy the plant is closing, but as far as the employee association is concerned, workers have been treated fairly. After the closure was announced, the company agreed to a series of bonuses, early exit packages, extended benefits, long service awards and severance deals for workers. Many employees say they'd like to stay Schneiders workers as long as possible. "I want to stay in this plant. I didn't want it to close in the first place. I want to stay here as long as I can," said Kim Karges, a product line operator who has a layoff notice for Dec. 26, but is among many who have volunteered to work beyond that. Dave Bauer, spokesperson for Maple Leaf, said the plant's closure remains a "fluid situation," and is now expected sometime in the first quarter of 2015. Signs posted in the plant's entrance last week asked employees to sign up for one- to four-month contracts at the new Hamilton plant replacing the Courtland Avenue facility. Maple Leaf is even offering to shuttle workers to and from Hamilton until the new plant is running smoothly. After waiting three years, the reality of the impending closure is starting to hit a lot of Schneiders employees, Karges said. "It's getting pretty scary. You see your bills at home coming in, your mortgage. You're thinking, 'I'm not going to have a full-time job soon,' " she said. "We all built our homes around being in Kitchener. But now you've got to start thinking, what am I going to end up doing?" Julie Brown, who's "worked from one end of the plant to the other," is still a long time away from retirement and facing an uncertain future after a job she's held for 26 years. She's thinking about going back to school, possibly in a new career working with children. A Schneiders job brought her family to Kitchener after immigrating from Scotland in the 1960s. Her father, Alex Morris, worked as a foreman and electrician at the plant for 32 years. Brown is proof of the Schneiders hiring philosophy employees who took pride in their work and had family connections to the plant were less likely to be disgruntled. Instead, they rewarded the company with their loyalty. "My dad was very proud of Schneiders, and the people he worked with and the work they did," said Brown, who raised two boys on a Schneiders salary. "He had a lot of love for that plant, and I guess that grew on me. I'm pretty proud of it, too." A new start Lesperance knows that life will go on after Schneiders. He lived through the deep cuts of 1997, when about 500 workers lost their jobs after the pork-cutting and hog-killing operations were closed. "What I took away from that experience is, doors close and new ones open," he said. "This is sad. But it could have been a lot worse. We've had three years to plan." As the union prepares for the end, the employee association plans to transfer some of its historical records to local archives. It also wants to establish a community fund in its name with the Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation. The plant may soon be gone, but the union leader says the impact of Schneiders workers on Waterloo Region will continue for a long time after that. "The legacy we have been part of in our community will live on forever," Lesperance said. "We can take that with us."
gmercer@therecord.com , Twitter: @MercerRecord
From the Kitchener Post
Thursday, December, 04, 2014 - 2:02:33 PM
By Laurie Snell       Kitchener Post staff
Workers leave the Courtland Avenue Schneiders plant in 2011, after the closure of the plant was announced. Production at the plant has been winding down since and the plant is expected to be closed in early 2015. Production winds down at Courtland Avenue Schneiders plant, as former employees move on and help each other When John Metz Schneider started making pork sausages and selling them door- to-door in the late 1800s, he probably didn't realize he was on the verge of something big - for himself and the local economy. In 1924, the company moved into its first production facility on Courtland Avenue in Kitchener, and later turned the brand into one of Canada's largest producers of premium meat. That's not bad for a local business that began as a trio, rolling sausages by hand in a small kitchen. But as that inescapably pungent scent slowly dissipates from the plant and employees make their final exits in waves - the end really is near. For former employee Will Fitzgerald, who worked at the plant for 14 years, the closure served as a new opportunity to change careers. "When I first heard about the closure, it was a little hard to believe after working there for so long . I'm looking at it as a good thing, personally," Fitzgerald said. But being laid-off didn't mean instant unemployment for Fitzgerald and some other employees. He has found temporary employment working at the Action Centre - which serves as a sort-of hub for skills training, resume building and career development for former Schneiders workers at the Working Centre in downtown Kitchener. "I still feel like it's hard to believe, and I don't think it will really sink in until I'm no longer at the Action Centre," Fitzgerald said. "(But) it's the push I've needed to pursue other avenues of employment." Not everyone has been as optimistic about the end of an era, according to Mike Walsh, Action Centre co-ordinator. "The ones that are there now, probably, I'd say one to two months ago were happy, and as time draws near . they were starting to get a little depressed," he said. "With the extension of the plant (to the first quarter of 2015), they're starting to get excited again." Walsh said they've had 145 Maple Leaf workers come through to use the services. "There are a lot of individuals with a lot of skills and education that haven't been used working at Maple Leaf." With multiple plant closures in recent years, Walsh has seen his fair share of the ups and downs of the local unemployment cycle. The Action Centre team sits down with the job seeker, and goes over their skills, education and matches them with current opportunities. Much of the process involves updating resumes and bringing the worker up to date with the evolving job-market. Walsh said they are usually very successful, as long as they communicate their employment goals. "We've had a lot of people who have found new jobs," he said. "It's not all doom and gloom by any means. There were some on the verge of tears when they came in, but left happy." The announcement of the plant's closure came in October 2011 by Maple Leaf Foods, which acquired the company in 2003. The announcement included consolidating six production plants into four, including a new production facility in Hamilton replacing the Courtland Street plant, and merging four distribution plants into two across Canada. "The closure impacted about 1,000 employees - that's how many we had in 2012," Dave Bauer, Maple Leaf director of public affairs, said of the Kitchener plant. "Throughout 2014, it's been a series of production transitions, which gradually transitions production to other facilities. As lines closed, employees were laid off at that time." Bauer said the aging 755,000-sq.ft. facility still has about 300 workers left. He said with the plant closure, the main priority was to treat employees fairly and assist them as much as possible during that difficult time. Maple Leaf Foods joined forces with the city to create a task force, ensuring support for labourers navigating the rapidly-changing local job market. The company also tried to place several employees within existing operations at different locations. "There's a handful of employees going to Hamilton (on contracts) . we're not sure yet how many have found employment (otherwise)," Bauer said. When the doors finally close on 120 Courtland Ave. in the new year, the question of what next will be a major one for what happens with the site. Redeveloping those employment lands would be optimal, but so far there are no immediate plans for the facility, come 2015, said Brian Bennett manager of business development with the City of Kitchener. "It's Maple Leaf's facility so it will be contingent on what they'd like to do with it," he said. "Right now their focus is on employees, which is appreciated at this difficult time." The city task force is meeting this week to discuss further development plans for the plant and enhancing support systems for former employees. lsnell@kitchenerpost.ca