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Kicking the can across Ontario

David Bush and Gerard Di Trolio

December 19, 2014

This past Saturday, the USW organized a province wide day of action in support of the 124 striking workers at Crown Holdings’ factory in Toronto, who are represented by USW Local 9176. The workers, who have been on strike for 15 months, make beer cans for Crown Holdings, the dominant beer can manufacturer in Ontario.
Crown Holdings is a major multinational that has no reason to be demanding concessions. The company made $557 million in 2012 and its CEO John W. Conway makes $13 million per year. Bank of America recently rated Crown Holdings as a stock to buy as its value is near record highs.
Crown Holdings is looking to impose a two tier contract on the union. The company is demanding a 33 per cent pay cut from the current workers, a tiered contract that would see new hires paid up to 42 per cent less than current workers and the changing of their defined benefit pension plan into a defined contribution plan.
The workers have been told only 26 strikers will be able to return to work upon settlement. That is because Crown Holdings has hired scab labour and those scab will fill those jobs permanently.
To put pressure on the company to settle the strike with a fair deal the union has utilized a number of pressure tactics on both Crown Holdings and individuals on its  board of directors such as Carnival cruises CEO Arnold Donald. USW has called for a general boycott of canned beer as well as a Carnival cruises.
The December 13 day of action focused on taking the boycott of beers can out to customers of the Beer Store across the province. 56 stores in Ontario, from Thunder Bay to Ottawa, were targeted. Steelworkers, other labour activists and community supporters handed out leaflets to customers encouraging them to ‘buy bottles, not cans’.
In Toronto there was a strong turnout with 14 locations from Etobicoke all the way across to Scarborough seeing USW 9176 members and their allies handing out leaflets and talking to customers. The Beer Store in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood even had members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, on a break from their work in Columbia help get the message out.
Most Beer Store customers were unaware of either the strike or boycott but were sympathetic to the situation. The public is beginning to realize more that situations like the Crown Holdings strike are becoming far too common for workers. They understand that it could be their jobs that are restructured one day.
In Hamilton, about 30 people met at the Steelworkers Hall Saturday morning, divided into groups, and then went to 9 different beer stores around the city. Many customers in that city were already aware of the boycott, and were proud to show they had purchased bottles instead of cans as they left the store.
The cross-province action by all accounts was a success. The message was well received by customers and  the broad participation of activists from many different unions show the current turmoil engulfing the Ontario Federation of Labour means little to trade unionists on the ground. If the strike continues hopefully further actions are organized.
While the actions went well, it could have been more widely covered on social media. The USW, compared to most other unions in Canada, has a small social media footprint. The campaign hashtag #bottlesnotcans needs more promotion to connect with the broader public. Perhaps this shows the need for more social media training for local union activists.
The fight against Crown Holdings took a major step forward on Saturday and in the process showed what is possible when unions organize coordinated actions that take the message to the broader public. To win against any large multinational, especially for a small group of workers, means marshalling the collective forces of the labour movement and channelling it into boots-on-the-ground action. This is what solidarity is all about. In this regard the solidarity action in support of Crown Holdings workers will not only help them beat back a bully corporation but also re-energize a fractured Ontario labour movement from the bottom up.
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