Paragon Orthotics employees celebrate bargaining victory

The Report: September 1998 vol.19 num.2

HSA members at Paragon Orthotics in Victoria have ratified a newcollective agreement ending a bitter eight-day labour dispute that saw the employer, Dr.Glenn Cornwell, make several attempts to intimidate workers. Despite difficultnegotiations, HSA members achieved a deal that reflects the significant contribution theyhave made to the companys success.

In the end, Dr. Cornwells tactics backfired. Paragon employeesstood their ground and signed an agreement almost identical to the unions openingbargaining proposal. Highlights include: a pay increase of three per cent in 1998 plus twoper cent in both 1999 and 2000; a 1.6 per cent signing bonus in lieu of an increase in1997; improved dental benefits; restrictions on the managers ability to performbargaining unit work; and recognition of the -Lead Hand" position at thecompany.

Paragon Orthotics is a profitable company that manufactures footwearorthotics. HSA negotiator Julio Trujillo says production at Paragon is higher than everbefore, even though the company is operating with only 5.5 FTEs ... down from 8.0 FTEsfour years ago. HSA represents eight members at Paragon, two clerical support and sixorthotic fabricators.

-Our members were deeply offended by the disparaging remarks madeby the employer during this dispute," explains Trujillo. -At one point, themanager compared the skill level of our members to employees at McDonalds. Hesuggested the work could be done by any person off the street."

On June 24, HSA members at Paragon held a strike vote after it becameclear the employer was not prepared to move on any of the unions key bargainingproposals. The employer then applied to the Labour Relations Board for mediation. On July15, mediator Mark Atkinson met with HSA and the employer but booked out at noon. That day,HSA issued 72-hour strike notice.

Dr. Cornwell responded by sending a threatening letter to all employees... except those on the bargaining committee ... that claimed -with a strikenow, more than 60 per cent of our customers will choose to take their business elsewhereresulting in an immediate layoff of 60 per cent of our production staff. . . . Strikesjust dont work. Its like dropping an atomic bomb on yourselves." In aneffort to negotiate directly with employees, Dr. Cornwell also posted a sanitized versionof his offer ... one that included only certain parts of the offer he made to thebargaining committee.

Following the strike vote, some progress was made at the bargainingtable. But once again, negotiations took a turn for the worse when the employer reneged ontwo previously agreed-upon items: a restriction on the managers ability to performbargaining unit work, and recognition of a -Lead Hand" position. On July 17, Dr.Cornwell issued 72-hour lockout notice.

HSA negotiator Julio Trujillo says at that point, the union was forcedto take action. On July 21, HSA filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board allegingDr. Cornwell had negotiated in bad faith. HSA also alleged Dr. Cornwell had attempted tocircumvent the collective bargaining process by using intimidation to try to negotiatedirectly with employees.

Convinced he had successfully undermined the bargaining committee andweakened our members resolve, Dr. Cornwell then applied to the Labour RelationsBoard for a -last offer vote." But on July 27, Paragon employees rejected theemployers offer by a vote of 7-1.

Finally, on July 28, at an LRB meeting to discuss the investigation ofHSAs complaint, mediator Mark Atkinson was able to facilitate a collectiveagreement. The agreement was ratified July 29 by a vote of 7-0.

-This was an extremely difficult round of bargaining," saidTrujillo. -Throughout the negotiations the employer tried to discipline our chiefsteward and bargaining committee members over insignificant matters." Trujillo saysDr. Cornwell used every bad-faith bargaining ploy in his attempts to scare employees.

-When an employer targets a steward for harassment, an immediateresponse from HSA is guaranteed," Trujillo added. -We wont hesitate to useall the resources of the union to protect our stewards and their right to represent themembers at their worksite."

As far as the chief steward is concerned, shes just relieved tohave a fair contract even if it meant backing off a demand of personal significance forher ... the extension of benefits to same-sex couples. -The one demand thatdidnt end up in our contract was the extension of same-sex benefits," saidDoreen Dobbyn. -This was the one area where Dr. Cornwell absolutely refused to budge.In the end, I decided it was more important to reach an agreement that was good foreveryone and would allow us to get back to work." Dobbyn says she is consideringother avenues to pursue her case, including a complaint to the BC Human Rights Commission.

In the meantime, Dobbyn and her co-workers are enjoying the taste ofvictory. She says spirits and solidarity among HSA members at Paragon have never beenhigher and they are planning a barbecue to celebrate their success.